High ambition: where are all the female pilots?
It's about education and prejudice, says one of UK's few female commercial captains
Marnie Munns is one of the few female flight captains in the world. “Until a few years ago you could fit all the female captains into a 450-seater A380,” she says. But change is afoot.
Over the past three years she has been helping to cultivate a female empowerment programme called the Amy Johnson Initiative with easyJet, during which time the airline has increased recruitment of female cadet pilots from 5% to 13%. The aim is to reach 20% by 2020, “and we won’t stop there”, insists Munns.
With a long family history of air travel – and a daughter, aged six, who is toying with the career – Munns seems genetically predispositioned to being airborne. However, women are still suspected to comprise only 3% of the pilot community globally, suggesting that while aviation technology has progressed, society’s definition of a flight captain hasn’t.
“I did have one gentleman who asked me if he could speak to the pilot,” she recalls. And another time: “I had one lady who said she wasn’t sure it was right to have two women pilots.”
Such rare encounters are unfamiliar to Munns whose family never quashed or questioned her ambitions of flying. “Quite the opposite,” she says. Her grandfather was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and her father, subsequently, hopped about Europe for work, often bringing young Marnie with him on business trips.
Recently, she also found a female wing of the Munns flying troupe. “It turns out my grandad’s sister was also a pilot, which was unusual at the time. She would save up her dress-making money to fund her flying lessons. Famous aviators like Amy Johnson were doing amazing things then,” she says, referencing the first female pilot to fly from Britain to Australia (a personal icon for Munns) “but it was still quite rare to see women in the cockpit”.
When Munns told her school careers adviser of her sky-high ambitions, she was asked “and what else?”
Keen that no young person is dissuaded from following her flight path, Munns and her fellow female easyJet pilots have travelled to more than 100 schools in the past year trying to embolden young women from all backgrounds to consider a career in aviation with easJet – a lucrative alternative to university fees, says Munns.
“To become a pilot you might spend £110,000 on flying lessons but you’d be guaranteed a job after 18 months and you’d start your job with £40,000 a year and going upwards,” she says.
Clip the wings of prejudice
Why then are so few women choosing to work in aviation?
Munns believes the problem lies in primary education. “It’s been quite an eye opener, seeing my children go through the [education] system,” she says. Surveys have shown that only 56% of girls enjoy taking part in sports lessons compared with 71% of boys. “Sport education is especially important in establishing an equal playing field,” according to Munns. “Actually, that’s where it all [gender bias] begins.”
But even before they send their kids off to school, parents should keep their wits about them to avoid imparting subconscious prejudices.
People are surprised, says Munns, by the flexible nature of the job, which makes it an appealing prospect for those eager to build a family as well as a career. “My husband and I are both part-time pilots. I work the days when he’s not working so we can manage the childcare between us.
“If more people knew about it [flexible hours], perhaps parents wouldn’t be so worried about their daughters going into the career and telling them ‘you can’t have a family’, because actually, aren’t we all striving for that work-life balance?”
With the world at their fingertips, one might expect the Munns family to have jet-set holiday plans in abundance. But when they aren’t floating in Earth’s stratosphere, Munns and her husband like to take their two daughters on staycations: camping in the Cairngorms for the last and campervanning planned for the next. “It’s nice to do something a bit different,” she says.
Ultimately, Munns and her husband aren’t pushing their daughters to work in aviation, but, beyond the quantifiable successes of the Amy Johnson Initiative, working on the project brings its own personal reward as a parent.
“I just want my children to be happy and the best that they can be and to not have anything stand in their way,” she explains, “that’s the most you can ask for”.
– © The Daily Telegraph