Aviation has yet to depart from many long-standing stereotypes. Pilots are male. Flight attendants, female. Backed by statistics and over seventy-five years of gender bias, the aviation industry remains entrenched in workforce customs formed in the mid-1900s.

According to Women In Aviation, only 7.9 percent of pilots are female, and that’s in total! Only 7.0 percent hold a commercial license, meaning they can fly for hire, and less than 4.6 percent of female aviators hold an ATP, or Airline Transport Pilot rating, a requirement to work in 121, or airline industry operations. This is in contrast to 79.2 percent of flight attendants being female! These statistics are crazy! In the past, female pilots accounted for a mere 3 percent of aviators, and although there are more women becoming pilots in 2021 than ever before, aviation is a far cry from an equal workforce. I believe in equal rights and equal opportunities. I believe men and women bring different talents and skills to the workforce. I also STRONGLY believe we have not taught enough young women that ‘pilot,’ not just ‘flight attendant,’ is something that they can do in aviation. 

Flight attendants are predominantly female, a trend that started at the dawn of commercial air travel as airlines attempted to entice male international passengers by not-so-subtly sexualizing the onboard safety professional. Sometimes I wonder if flight attendants are so adamant about being on airplanes “for your safety” because they (myself included) don’t want to admit that we are the image of the aviation brand and that image has a ‘look.’ That look happens to be female, thin, pretty, young, smiley, etc etc. That look is based on stereotypes and gender discrimination (And it goes both ways! Do you know how many men in corporate aviation are discriminated against, as flight attendants, because they are men?!?). We are objectified; continuing a stereotype and perpetuating a weird sort of inequality built upon archaic systems. The sad truth is beauty matters. To billionaires, to budget travelers. We are vain and have a hard time breaking stereotypes, but after going through 2020, it’s about time we make changes. 

If you talk to the great aviators, male or female, they will say gender has little to do with job success and being a good pilot. The secure-in-themselves male pilots will often comment on how women usually make really exceptional flight deck crew. So, why do very few women even think of becoming pilots, and instead, opt to be in the cabin? I believe it’s because we don’t teach young women what’s possible for them and unintentionally encourage gender roles by offering boys cars and airplanes and gifting girls’ makeup and dolls. We often only dream as big and far and deep as we can see. I’m not saying this is the only reason why more women do not become pilots, but human psychology suggests we are creatures of modeling, and women are especially influenced by strong charismatic female role models. According to an experiment at Southern Methodist University and an article published in Science Daily, female undergraduates were 100 percent more likely to choose an economics course of study, when shown role models of successful female graduates, than a lower-paying, more predominately female career. We want and need to see females reach for roles that are predominately male. We need women to negotiate for higher salaries, better positions, and choose a path that may not be the majority choice. Women, RISE UP. You not only give yourself a gift by being an outlier. You give your female counterparts inspiration and hope!

Another reason why many choose flight attendant over pilot is that there are more barriers to entry in the path to becoming a pilot. It will cost a lot of time and money, and honestly, may not always be worth it for some. On the other hand, the payout for becoming a successful corporate flight attendant, although not without pain or struggle, can be quick. As pilots weather economic downturns and funding years of flight training, you drop an application in for an airline, as a flight attendant hopeful and get hired, or set aside $5k for corporate flight attendant training. You are now on your way to free flight benefits or a six-figure salary. That can happen in less than six weeks to two years! In two years, it’s possible to make as much as pilots who have been flying for twenty years. But, the truth is the way you look has more to do with it than you may want to admit. That’s the game a flight attendant plays. 

I grew up around aviation but never understood that being a pilot would be something I could enjoy and excel at doing. This wasn’t because my family didn’t encourage me to learn to fly or only gave the opportunity to my brother, but it’s because I never “got it” then. Piloting, to me, was my brother’s “thing.” It wasn’t until two months ago, when I got my private pilot’s certificate, did I realize that we were never in competition. He told his friends after I passed my check ride, “I’m so proud of my little sister.” I called him the day before my check ride, concerned because I flew the worst I ever had, and instead of diminishing me, he consoled,  “You always fly the worst before a check ride. Slow down. No one is rushing you.” And to think, I spent eighteen years not becoming a pilot because I didn’t believe I would like it or could be better than someone else. Ironically, I never needed to be better than anyone else. I only needed to be myself. It was my mindset that put in the cabin versus the flight deck. It’s your mindset that diminishes your potential. 

Instead of being a pilot, I meandered after college, depressed and uncertain of who I would become. By complete accident and only out of desperation, as I had said I would NEVER become a flight attendant, I became one. It was a way out of darkness. It turned into a way of life. I am so thankful for this career. It truly has been incredible. I am grateful for the story, and will continually be so, but it isn’t always kind. Even now, twelve years into my Flight Attendant Life, years beyond HASHTAG METOO, I get jobs based on photos. I am interviewed by people who blatantly disregard human resource policies and say things like, “We need someone young and pretty and thin and American.” Whenever faced with this I think, “Did we go back to the 1900s? What rights do I really have? This is private aviation. There are rules, but it doesn’t matter if they’re right, or at times, followed. I don’t know if we will ever get past the stereotypes of hundreds of years ago. If we ever can reach for equality and acceptance for all. If what we look like won’t have to matter so much. 

To be fair, I don’t think being a pilot automatically grants immunity for external judgments based on gender or look. I’ve heard of some very chauvinistic assholes in aviation that female aviators have to deal with. I think professional female pilots have to deal with a lot more than I, or many others, realize. From passengers and their remarks to pilots and clients, you wonder why image must matter so much sometimes. I admire female pilots, and I’m thankful for them. I also have quite a bit of admiration for the male pilots who are kind, professional, and treat all with respect. There are a lot of those out there. Thank you for being who you are in aviation. 

Sometimes, I think about models and doctors and how each is given a gift or honed a skill. I don’t have the intellect of a doctor or the beauty of a model, but somewhere between, I have the face of a flight attendant. And as I smile behind a mask and serve food, I’m sad because this job that gave me the world left me wondering if I sold my soul short.

If I could do it all over again, I would have kept on piloting airplanes at sixteen years old. It feels like I made a mistake becoming a flight attendant over becoming a pilot. A mistake that gave me the world and left me feeling empty. Left me feeling like only what I looked like or how perfect I was mattered. I guess somehow, at thirty-five, I can do it all over again. More wisely and more gratefully. It’s never too late to create a new adventure.

The 16 year old and 35 year old versions:)

I’m telling you this because if you are a female and you want to travel or be in aviation or become a flight attendant, please let me ask you, “Why?” Is it because that’s what women do, become flight attendants? Is it because people tell you, “You’re so pretty?” Is it because you have the perfect personality and all the bubbles to boot? Is it because of your look? Is it because no one takes you seriously enough to fly the plane? Is it because you never took yourself seriously enough to believe you could fly the plane? Is it because you never truly realized that you could determine a destiny bigger than gender, race, culture, color, or sexuality? Is it that you need to dream bigger? What is your ‘why?’

Don’t let your gender determine your role or level of achievement in life. That’s it. That’s the point of this blog. Oh, and don’t limit yourself based on what you think you can achieve, and do NOT, my God, do not do what I did and stupidly think you are in competition. The reality is that this life is about community, and you may find yourself looking back and realizing you lost a lot of years not doing something that you liked because you thought you had to compete. Just be you. Stop the stereotypes. Choose to do what you love, and if that is ‘flight attendant’— male, female, straight, gay, black, white, pink, or purple — be the absolute fucking best at it and know, you are not the stereotype. You are enough. 

About the Author

Hello, I’m K. J. Watts, but my friends call me Kara. I fell into the sky and have worked as International cabin crew, on private jets as a corporate flight attendant, and earned an FAA Private Pilot Certificate. Over a decade ago, I started this blog, which developed into a love for writing and a debut memoir based on Flight Attendant Life. A California native, I now live in Sydney, Australia, where I enjoy spending time with my husband, writing, and surfing.

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