Prudence Black has reviewed Australian Women Pilots: Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air, a new book by Kathy Mexted.

The aviation industry has one of the world’s poorest workplace gender balances; it also tends to be very traditional and risk adverse.  Up until COVID 19 air traffic across the world was growing at an estimated 4% a year but the number of female pilots was languishing at 5 percent with only 1.42 percent operating as captains.[1]

Women in aviation continue to be a rarity as Kathy Mexted outlines in her book Australian Women Pilots: Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air. Mexted has interviewed ten women and created a fascinating account of the way these women have found a place in a male-dominated world in the sky. There have been hundreds of women pilots in Australia since Florence Taylor flew a glider on Narrabeen Beach in 1907 and Millicent Bryant became the first woman to obtain a pilot’s licence in 1927— but how often do we hear a female voice over the public address system in a plane?

Historically, pilot positions were filled by men, nearly all of whom had been trained in the military. The stereotype of the dashing ‘ace’ pilot and the daredevil barnstormer held sway for many years. After their war service these men would settle into the cockpits with steady jobs in civil aviation. Even if women could fly – here we can think of Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, and Nancy Bird Walton – they were excluded from those positions.

In the post-war era, popular literature, films and the aviation industry continued to portray the airline pilot as male – elite, authoritative and fatherly – while women in the aviation industry were represented through the airline hostesses who were typically characterised as glamorous yet conversely also channelling an image of the girl-next-door.[2] This was despite the fact that in World War Two women were employed as pilots in Britain in the Air Transport Authority (ATA), and in the US as Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) undertaking non-combat duties ferrying aircraft and providing training. Russian women pilots flew in combat during WWII and remained in flying positions after the war. In Australia, 27,000 women were enlisted by the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)), and while they could not serve overseas or work in combat roles, they performed vital services such as aircraft maintenance, construction and repairs, and communications. Margaret ‘Mardi’ Gething, interviewed in the book became the only Australian pilot to work with the ATA, flying Spitfires and Hurricanes and through her work with ATA became one of the first recipients of ‘equal pay for equal work’ in the UK.   

Despite inroads over the past 100 years women have continually had to defend their right to fly.  This has been especially the case with the military forces. Research by the United States Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces (1992) found that there were no physical or physiological reasons why women could not fly combat aircraft.[3] This type of research was supported in Australia and by the mid-1990s none of the Australian military forces had restrictions on women serving as pilots. But the integration of women into the forces has not been without challenges. In 1996 Clare Burton wrote the Women in Australia’s Defence Force report imploring the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to introduce a range of measures to make a more inclusive culture for women. The report addressed the need for the ADF to acknowledge that ‘equal treatment’ was not always equitable especially for the ‘…special needs of the gender pioneers it introduces into its workforce’.[4] One of the issues here was that despite gender integration and the lifting of the inclusion of women, there was still a reluctance by women in the ADF  to compete for roles, or retain them if they did indeed apply and were successful.[5] Sixteen years later, an ingrained culture of  harassment and bullying of women (including female pilots) was addressed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force (2012). The ADF wrote a review to address some of the issues found in the commission’s report, including targeted gender equity programs trying to increase the number of women as well as implementing large-scale education reforms directly targeting sexual misconduct, bullying and systemic abuse.[6]

A key issue is the lack of visibility of women pilots in both civil and military aviation, creating the effect where women are seen as ‘tokens.’ In 2019 only 38 (5.05%) of the trained permanent Air Force were women, although 126 (25.3%) of the officer aviation cadets under training were women.[7] With few role models female pilots articulate issues around loneliness, harassment and bullying, and heightened anxiety around extreme performance measures.[8] Certain policies have assisted women in the Air Force including shortening the contractual obligation from 12 years to six years and allowing them to remain in a squadron in a different role while pregnant, thereby allowing another staff member to temporarily fill the position.

In Australia, it was not until 1980 that Deborah Lawrie (née Wardley) became the first female pilot for a major commercial airline. Here it should be noted that Christine Davy, the first Australian woman to hold a 1st Class Air Transport Pilots’ licence, had been flying since 1974 with Connair, a small regional airline in Alice Springs. Mexted’s chapter on Lawrie and her battle with Ansett Airlines is worthy of a book in its own right. Lawrie lodged a complaint against Ansett Airlines with the Equal Opportunity Board in 1978 in her bid to work as a pilot with the company. Ansett put their case simply, ‘We have a good record of employing females…. but we have adopted a policy of employing only men as pilots’.[9] Ansett’s claims against employing Wardley included the following arguments and assumptions: that pilots need strength to handle planes if the hydraulics failed; the pilots union would strike if women were employed; menstrual cycles made women unsuitable; pregnancy and childbirth would disrupt careers, as well as being costly for the organisation. The case went all the way to the High Court, ruling in Wardley’s favour and legitimising the new equal opportunity legislation and the Sex Discrimination Act.

For many years female pilots faced many disadvantages ranging from having to wear the same uniforms as the men to undertaking psychology tests aimed at men.[10] One of the questions Debbie Slade, a Qantas pilot of 30 years, was asked at her entrance exam was if she preferred tall women.[11] In a recent survey of 2400 Qantas mainline pilots and onshore cabin crew it was revealed that female pilots experienced the highest rates of sexual harassment and bullying, including enduring a backlash over campaigns to improve gender imbalance.[12]

Although there have been substantial changes made by affirmative action, equal employment opportunities and more flexible work arrangements, aviation is still seen by many young women considering a profession as too ‘masculine’, too technical and too scientific.[13] Recently airlines have started to set recruitment targets partly due to the fact that a number of airline routes were closing due to a shortage of pilots and there was a necessity to build numbers.[14] Encouraging women to fly has been one way to meet the target numbers. In 2015, easyJet in the UK launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative (at the time 6% of their pilots were female) and set the target that 20% of the new entry pilots in 2020 would be female. Qantas commenced the Nancy Bird Walton initiative late in 2017 with the aim of increasing the intake of women into the Future Pilot Scheme by 20% and doubling that figure over the next decade.[15] The Qantas Group is working with industry organisations and education bodies to promote flying as a career for women and encouraging the uptake of STEM courses in schools.[16]

Australian Women Pilots covers a wide range of women pilots who flew professionally and for enjoyment: all of them recounting the challenges of being a woman pilot. It is no coincidence that the first chapter is an account of Australia’s most famous female aviator, Nancy Bird Walton who in 1934 at the age of 19 became the youngest woman in the British Empire to gain a pilot’s licence. The visibility of women pilots will increase immeasurably when her name appears on the front of the new Western Sydney International Airport due to open in 2026. While the achievements of all the women in the book soar, Mexted provides a sobering account of how difficult it has been for women to change policy and practice in what remains a male dominated industry.

[1] International Society of Women Airline Pilots. (2019). Worldwide Female Airline Pilots Statistics, August 2019.

[2] Prudence Black, (2017). Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess. UWA Press. 

[3] Tracy Smart. (2014 [2016]).  ‘Fast Women in the Twenty First Century’. In Donna Bridges, Jane Neal-Smith and Albert J. Mills (eds.) Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation, London & New York: Routledge, pp. 73- 96 p. 86

[4] Deanne Gibbon. (2014 [2016]). ‘Unexpected Turbulence: The Cultural, Gender-based Challenges Facing Female Pilots in the Defence Force’.  In Donna Bridges, Jane Neal-Smith and Albert J. Mills (eds.) Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation, London & New York: Routledge, pp. 115-146. p. 141

[5] Gibbon, 148

[6] Gibbon, 131

[7] Air Force. (2020). ‘Female Pilots’.

[8] Gibbon, 140

[9] Kathy Mexted. (2020). Australian Women Pilots: Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air, New South Books.

[10] Up until 2016 Qantas female pilots wore the same uniform as men.

[11] AAP, 2019. ‘More Women Set to Soar Under Qantas Plan’.,voice%20coming%20from%20the%20cockpit.

[12] Robyn Ironside. (2019). Qantas Vows to do Better for Cabin Crew After Harassment results.

[13] Donna Bridges, (2014 [2016]). ‘Difficult Dangerous, Not a Job for the Girls’. In Donna Bridges, Jane Neal-Smith and Albert J. Mills (eds.) Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation, London & New York: Routledge, pp. 43-72. p. 63

[14] Anne-Christine Champion. (2019). ‘Progress toward achieving gender equality in the aviation sector’, Natixis Newsletter.

[15] These initiatives do not take into account the impact of COVID 19 on the aviation industry.

[16] Qantas. (2018). ‘Qantas Group Announces Pilot Academy’. Qantas News Room, 22 February.

Prudence Black
Prudence Black

Dr Prudence Black is a Research Fellow in the School of Humanities at the University of Adelaide and a Research Associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.

Her current academic research includes an interview-based project with incarcerated women and their preparation for court appearances, and a study of intergenerational knowledge and the Australian wool industry. She is a Primary Investigator on the ARC Linkage project, Heritage of the Air: How Aviation Transformed Australia. Her research relating to aviation cultures has resulted in two books, The Flight Attendant’s Shoe, a design history of the flight attendants’ uniforms and her most recent book Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess which outlines the development and the history of the flight attendant profession in Australia.

As well as her academic roles, she has worked at the Powerhouse Museum and the Australian Museum undertaking curatorial work and research for exhibitions about fashion, design and Indigenous culture. Prudence also undertakes research consultancies for corporate histories.