Photo: Elizabeth L. Remba Gardner, Class 43-W-6 WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) at the controls of a Martin B-26 ‘Marauder’ medium bomber. Harlingen Army Air Field, Texas. 1943
In 2013, the United States Army published a study on the role of women in combat, which shows how, in the years 2002 to 2013 women were involved in fewer aviation accidents than male crews, only 3% of accidents. With women accounting for approximately 10% of flyers, the evidence could suggest, according to the study, that women can operate an aircraft more safely. Concerning only the AH64-APACHE, 100% of the accidents in the garrison and in the theater of operations, involved male crews, which would suggest, according to the author of the study, that female attack pilots could be even More secure in the performance of flight activities. (1)
Is this a generalized tendency or is it specific to the population studied?
In 1986 a study was published in which, when analyzing by gender the NTSB files of all general aviation accidents occurring between 1972 and 1981, a higher accident rate was found in men than in women and a higher rate proportion of deaths or serious injuries in the accidents of male pilots in those of female pilots. These differences were found in all variables analyzed: type of license, age, total flight time, flight time in aircraft type, operating phase, flight category, specific cause and causal factors. (2)
On the other hand, a study published in 1996 analyzed if there were differences in the accident rate between male and female airline pilots in the United States, based on the analysis of information obtained from the FAA on accidents between 1986 and 1992. Initially, it was found that in general women hired by major airlines had significantly higher accident rates than men. However, the study emphasizes that on average women were much younger and less experienced than male pilots, whereby male pilot accidents were adjusted for age, experience (total flight time), risk exposure (hours flown in the previous 6 months) and airline (major airline vs non-major airline), using logistic regression. After adjusting the variables it was found that there is no difference in the rate of accidents of female and men pilots, which suggests that neither women nor men are a safer group than the other. (3) (NOTE: Logistic regression is a special type of regression that is used to express and predict the probability between two groups that an event occurs, given a series of independent variables)
The same author published in 1997 a similar study analyzing this time the incident rate in a population of 70,164 airline pilots. The regression analysis again indicated that there are no significant differences in performance between female and male airline pilots. (4)
On the same track, in 1998 Caldwell & Le Duc found that in combat pilots, gender did not produce significant operational effects on flight or mood performance and the ability to cope with stressors associated with combat. (5)
However, for general aviation, the causes of air accidents do seem to be related to gender, as shown in a study published in 2001 in which the fatal and non-fatal per capita accident rate was higher in men than in women (3,20), which would confirm the findings of the 1986 study previously mentioned (6)
Finally, in 2002, a study was conducted at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University which found that there are no aspects of a captain’s competence that are related to gender. The author of the study even poses the possibility that this lack of difference in performance is due to the personality traits present in pilots, whether men or women. The above, based on a study that showed through psychological tests that the personality profile of female drivers has little resemblance to the profile of adult women in the US, followed by a high resemblance to the profile of adult men in the US and with the closest resemblance to the male pilot profile. This personality similarity, says the study’s author, may have eliminated differences in skills that have been apparent in other work groups that do not require, attract, and select such a specific personality type.
Photo: Capt Kerstin Felser
Based on the above we could conclude that although for some types of aviation it is true that pilots show better performance indices than their male counterparts, this difference does not occur in commercial aviation. Better yet, there is no reason to think that there is any difference in performance capability between airline pilots of both genders.
Therefore, there is no reason to prefer one over another in the selection processes to enter the airline aviation that is the one that occupies us, and that for obvious reasons, generates more attention in the public, the media and the Governments.
So why are not there more female pilots? I do not have the answer to that question, but I can tell you that for reasons of air safety, it is not.
Although there is still controversy about whether or not there are differences in gender-related cognitive skills, any variation that exists has very little relevance in air operations. (Caldwell & LeDuc, 1998).
- Peña-Collazo, Seneca. Women in Combat Arms: A Study of the Global War on Terror. A Monograph.S. Army, School of Advanced Military Studies. United States Army Command and General Staff College. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. January 2013. Page 47
- Vail GJ, Ekman LG, Pilot-error accidents: male vs female. Applied Ergonomics. 1986 Dec;17(4):297-303.
- L. McFadden, Comparing pilot-error accident rates of male and female airline pilots. Omega Volume 24, Issue 4, August 1996, Pages 443-450.
- Kathleen L. McFadden, Predicting pilot-error incidents of US airline pilots using logistic regression. Applied Ergonomics Volume 28, Issue 3, June 1997, Pages 209-212
- Caldwell JA Jr, LeDuc PA, Gender influences on performance, mood and recovery sleep in fatigued aviators. 1998 Dec;41(12):1757-70.
- Baker SP, Lamb MW, Grabowski JG, Rebok G, Li G, Characteristics of general aviation crashes involving mature male and female pilots. Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine. 2001 May;72(5):447-52
- Paulsen, Marianne, Perception of Competence in Male and Female Pilots: Between Group Differences. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Daytona Beach. Spring 2002
This is a translation of the article Mujeres y Seguridad Aérea, which was originally published on SEPLA-Sindicato Español de Pilotos de Linea Aérea (Spanish Airline Pilots Union) website.
By Laura Victoria Duque Arrubla, a medical doctor with postgraduate studies in Aviation Medicine, Human Factors and Aviation Safety. In the aviation field since 1988, Human Factors instructor since 1994. Follow me on facebook Living Safely with Human Error and twitter@dralaurita. Human Factors information almost every day