MINNEAPOLIS — Like a lot of women, Lynn OJala remembers being told to stick to traditional gender roles when she was a child.
In school, the Eden Prairie, Minn., resident recalled, she and the other girls were encouraged to take home economics classes. Boys were encouraged to take shop.
"Nobody ever really encouraged me to do things outside of the norm for women or young girls," she said recently.
It came as something of a shock to her friends and family, then, when she told them as an adult that she planned to obtain a private aircraft pilot’s license. In the nearly 40 year since she earned hers, the retired flight attendant has logged hundreds of flight hours, most of which were spent in a plane that she built with her late husband.
Heartened as she is by the growing number of female pilots entering the field, she acknowledged recently that gender parity in the field of aviation is still a ways off.
Airmen, women by numbers
In the U.S. and in Minnesota, women make up only a tiny fraction of active, licensed aircraft pilots. According to the most recent statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration, approximately 633,000 Americans held pilot’s licenses of one kind or another in 2018.
Only about 46,000 of them were women.
The disparity can be even more stark at the state level. Minnesota, according to the FAA, accounted for a total of 12,890 licenses in 2018. Of that sum, women held only a mere 938.
Women appear to be similarly outnumbered in commercial aviation, holding only about 6.5% of the approximately 99,800 commercial licenses active in 2018. Earlham College associate professor Ryan Murphy attributes that lack of representation partly to institutional sexism.
Murphy, who holds a doctorate from the University of Minnesota and has written about labor and flight attendant activism, said that women have historically been kept out of high-paying jobs to and steered toward more ancillary roles in nearly every industry. In commercial aviation, he said, such pressure likely kept women out of the pilot’s seat.
"Those are cultural ideas that are deeply interwoven in our society," he said.
Inequality persists, he said, because male-oriented workplace politics have changed little since women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers.
What many young women don't realize, OJala, the pilot from Eden Prairie, said, is there are more career opportunities in commercial aviation than working as an airline pilot. Aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers, flight navigators and others all perform necessary functions in the industry, she said.
One doesn't even need to aim for a job in commercial flight to pursue an interest in aviation. OJala described her private pilot's license, which by law does not allow her to fly for hire, as making a life of adventure possible. Seated in a conference room at the Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, she fondly recalled how she and her first husband managed to fly to all 50 states in the U.S. prior to his death.
"I can't imagine my life without airplanes," she said.
Nationally and regionally, some groups work almost exclusively to further the cause of female aviators. Both the Ninety-Nines and Women in Aviation International, for example, have active chapters throughout Minnesota.
Such civic organizations seek not only to help current female pilot's license holders form a network but to expose young women to the field of aviation through Career Day-style presentations, and other events like airplane ridealongs. The Experimental Aircraft Association created the Young Eagle program in 1992 to focus on the latter.
"Our chapter has flown over 4,000 kids while that program has been in effect," Bill Steier, of the group's St. Paul chapter, said recently.
Some organizations even offers scholarships that OJala said can help to offset another barrier that keeps newcomers out of aviation: the cost.
Flying lessons can cost hundreds of dollars an hour in order to cover plane rental, instructor and fuel fees. In addition to money, learning to fly also takes time: to earn a private pilot's license, one must log a minimum 40 flight hours and pass a series of written exams.
In many cases, OJala said that aspiring pilots earn their flight hours through their training for military service. That opportunity is increasingly available to women, she said, now that their presence in the U.S. armed forces is growing.
Even some airlines, OJala said, are exploring new recruitment efforts that could benefit women. Delta, for example, in 2018 launched a competitive program that promises its employees the chance to retrain for piloting jobs.
"People find a way if it's something they really want to do," she said. "Whether it's flying or something else."