Flying the White-and-Dudely Skies

My father is a pilot, flying in business aviation since before I was born. So is one of my uncles, though it was only ever a hobby for him. I took my first ride in an airplane when I was 2 months old, and Dad strapped my car seat into the copilot's seat and took me for a flight with him. I grew up shadowing him around the hangar when the bosses weren't around, sitting around in FBOs (Fixed Base Operation, customer care center for private and business aircraft and their crews, there's one at nearly every airport) waiting for him and watching various small planes take off and land for hours. I never got my pilot's license officially, but I took lessons in both glider (non-powered) and single-engine small aircraft.

So I grew up around pilots, on the edges of aviation culture, all my life. And yet it's only recently that I've suddenly realized the full force of sexism that permeates the Dudely Culture of the skies.

I'm taking some summer classes at the local community college this summer, and one of my classes is Intro to Public Speaking. Our first big project was an informative speech, topic of our choice. I picked corporate aviation, since it's something I grew up steeped in and something very few people would have foreknowledge of. Of course, my dad was my easiest and best resource for researching this speech; from him I got some "personal interview" type of information, and I also skimmed a few recent issues of his trade publications, notably Professional Pilot.

And as I wandered through the pages of their June 2009 issue, searching for relevant tidbits to pepper my speech with, something started to bother me. I pushed it aside and went about my research, but eventually I couldn't let it go any more. I started from the beginning of the magazine and went through it page by page, doing a Not White Man count. Wanna know what I found?

Let's start with the cover. June 2009's featured flight department was Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. Six people on the cover, backgrounded by their Citation jet. Four men, two women, all white. The men? CEO, two pilots, and the mechanic. The women? The CEO's wife and the dispatcher.

Within the magazine, the first PoC were to be found in an advertisement for an FBO in Mexico, about three women and a couple dozen men. The next Not White Man was a white woman beaming out from the page, laying out a welcome mat in another FBO ad - oh, THAT'S original, the woman's positioned to take Such. Good. Care. of you wonderful Dudely Dudes! Finally we come to an article with pictures of people instead of just airplanes. The verdict? 99% white men, spread out over four pages, with one white woman (the wife of an owner of one of the jets), and one Asian man (CEO of Honda's aircraft development subsidiary). Ooh, there are more women! An advertisement for an aircraft service center. Guess where the women (white, of course) are? Behind the counter, providing service for the Dudely Dude who's brought his airplane in for work. After that, I find the first PoC in something other than an advertisement: a Latino man in the feature on SEL's flight department, surrounded by more white men, both mechanics and pilots. A couple pages into the feature on SEL, there are two pictures side-by-side. One is a group of white men, all mechanics who work on the plane. The other is a group of white women, all dispatchers.

At last! On page seventy-fucking-two, I finally find a woman (white, of course) doing something OTHER than providing background support services for the Dudely Dude pilots and owners. She's a first officer photographed in the midst of performing preflight checks in the cockpit. Holy shit, there's a woman! In the Dude seats! Of course, the article is written by a white man, as have all the other articles so far.

So the count, for the June 2009 issue of Professional Pilot, stands thus: Outside of ads, a total of six women, all white, all but one support staff or wives, and two MoC, one business exec and one pilot. No WoC at all. In ads, a half-dozen women, half white and half WoC, all in service positions, positioned and framed to be the best possible assets to Dudely Dudes, and another dozen or so PoC, also in service positions. The rest of the article is filled with white men. The articles are all written by white men.

Tell me again how we live in a post-racial, post-feminist society?

And now I'm remembering the incidents I shrugged off when I was younger. The fact that I was routinely the ONLY woman at the gliderport on Saturdays when I was taking my lessons. The fact that the other pilots (men, all of them) often wouldn't want me to run the wing or hook their tow rope for them, preferring to get the other student, who was the same age as me but male, to do it for them. The "cockpit" jokes I heard so often, from my dad and his friends. "Of course we can't have woman pilots. They don't call it a cockpit for no reason! What would we call it then, a vaginapit?" And hearty guffaws would ensue, as if the idea of a woman in the cockpit was the most ridiculous thing they'd heard in years. The Hooters t-shirt, two sizes too small for me, that my dad's copilot bought for me on one of their trips and then gave to me as a "joke" (and which my dad thought was hilarious)...when I was 13. The fact that, in my 23 years of life, I cannot remember my dad ever working with a woman or a PoC (or gods forbid, a WoC!) pilot.

I decided a long time ago I didn't want to be a pilot. Shit like this, though...it's almost enough to make me reconsider, just to challenge the trend.


steven said...

Ah Korin - as a large percentage of corp pilots come from the military and it is not exactly diverse in it's flying membership...that is one cause of white mans syndrome. However I have several feamale pilot friends - one flying DC 10s for Fedex who will tell you it was to their advantage to be female (and be pretty hot) as it got them extra attention and flying hours. To be a pilot one must really want to be a pilot. Blame it on the educational system for the lack of women who really want to be pilots. Although if you think about it - there are few woman cab drivers - backhoe operators - train engineers and on and on......aint just flying. :)

WitchWords said...

It's good to see you, Uncle Steve - I'm assuming that's who you are, cause I know nobody else named "steven" or any variation thereof who would know my real name on this blog... ;-) - and I absolutely agree with you. There is a huge imbalance in a lot of professions, not only aviation; I just pointed out aviation because it's the one I'm closest to (and I happened to have research materials handy).

I think it's more than just the fault of the educational system, though. These are all male-saturated professions, and do you know how uncomfortable it can be to be the only woman in a male-dominated workplace? The potential for harassment that opens up? How everything you do wrong, for any reason, is immediately attributed to your gender? Those things are enough to daunt even the most avid aspiring woman pilot.

And your friend who flew Fedex and got extra hours for being female and hot...I applaud her for making a career in such a male-dominated field, but that isn't an example of not-sexism so much as it is an example of benevolent sexism. It was still her being treated differently based on her gender (and her appearance in particular; would an average-looking female pilot have been treated well?) rather than her skills. It worked out to her benefit (that's the whole benevolent part) but it was still sexism.

Anyway, it's good to see you. Hope you'll stick around and keep reading! :-)

CaitieCat said...

So good to see you writing more often! Keep it up, we need your voice. :)

WitchWords said...

*blush* Caitie, I cannot tell you how awesome it is that I can count you as a reader. Thank you for the encouraging words!

CaitieCat said...

A feminist linguist? You had me at hello. :D


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