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What four decades of Canadian statistics reveal about women progress in aviation

By Mireille Goyer, Founder & President of the Institute for Women Of Aviation Worldwide

Canadian media routinely and erroneously cite U.S. statistics as Canadian statistics. The facts are that Canadian women lead the American continent (from the North Pole to the South Pole) in both numbers (adjusted for country population) and percentages.

See What five decades of FAA statistics reveals about women progress in aviation published in August 2011 for details about the situation in the United States between 1960 and 2010.

At the end of December 2020, despite the Covid crisis, the percentage of Canadian female pilots stood at 8.15% overall (8.75%, private, 6.59% commercial, 5.83% airline); the percentage of female air traffic controllers recently jumped to 19.27%; the percentage of female aircraft mechanic is slightly down to 2.88% from its 3.03% peak in 2016.

A late aviation start for Canadian women

The first woman to fly in Canada was American pilot, Alys McKey Bryant. She or her husband visited British Columbia in 1913 during their exhibition tour of the Pacific Northwest. Canada would have to wait another 15 years before a Canadian woman got a pilot licence.

On March 13, 1928, Eileen Vollick became Canada’s first female pilot. In 1973, Rosella Bjornson became the first Canadian female commercial pilot and, in 1990, the first Canadian female airline captain.

By 1980, the percentage of Canadian female commercial pilots was 3 times higher than in the United States (1.83% vs. 0.68%). In the private sector, the Canadian percentage was more than 2 times higher (5.73% vs. 2.44%).

The percentage of Canadian female private pilots reached 6% in 1990; the overall female pilot population reached 6% by 2010, a level that the American female pilot population has never reached.

Steady numbers in private aviation since 1980

The number of female private pilots in Canada has remained virtually unchanged since 1980 when Canada counted 2,536 female private pilots. Just prior to the Covid pandemic, they were 2,448. However, during that time, their percentage rose from 5.73% in 1980 t0 8.15% at the end of 2019 mostly due to the attrition of the male private pilot population.

The exponential growth of new aircraft prices since the 1990s has significantly challenged the private aviation sector as the used fleet became older and older. In 1960, a new Cessna 172 – a basic 4-seat aircraft – cost $9,450 about twice an average annual income. In 2000, the same aircraft sold for $139,000, three times an average annual income. By 2010, it cost $269,500, more than five times an average annual income.

Exponential female professional pilot growth until 2000 then steady growth

From 1980 to 2000, the number of female professional pilots doubled each decade. The numbers jumped from 256 in 1980 to 1,007 in 2000. Then, the female professional pilot population continued to expand at a slower rate to reach 1,494 in 2018. The expansion is challenged by the retirements of the women of the 70s and 80s.

Most Canadian flight schools observed a significant uptake in female student starts since 2010 but that will not necessarily convert into women flying in the Canadian skies.

“We are currently issuing commercial licences at roughly 50% to foreign pilots,” Craig Stewart, a Transport Canada Technical Officer, noted in 2019. “With half the necessary training to move up to an ATPL going to those with no intention of carrying on in the Canadian system, it is inevitable that our numbers would drop.”

No widespread outreach efforts until the first annual Women Of Aviation Week

While most industries have made significant efforts to attract female customers and employees in the last few decades, the air and space industry is still lagging. As an example, long gone are the cars that would require the smaller-framed female driver to bring cushions along; that’s not the case with most new aircraft. More revealing, there was no widespread female outreach efforts before the inception of Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week in 2010.

Surprisingly, Canada did not have any national women associations although they were a few scattered chapters of American associations. However, Canadian membership money travelled to U.S. headquarters more concerned with advancing American women than lobbying the Canadian government and the Canadian industry stakeholders on behalf of Canadian women.

Women Of Aviation Week Outreach Scope in Canada

67,500

Women & Girls

21,694

Fly It Forward® Flights

189

Local Events

11

Provinces & Territories

Since 2010, the Institute for Women Of Aviation Worldwide has not only exchanged with the Harper and Trudeau governments, engaged national industry associations like the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association who begun to encourage its members to introduce more girls of all ages to flying in 2012, it has also inspired the foundation of a multitude of homegrown women outreach initiatives.

Impact of Covid

Covid has affected all sectors of the aviation industry. However, the drop in active private pilots is minor – 15% for women and 21% for men – as compared to the drop in active professional pilots.

Despite the emergency extension of medical certificate validity, at the end of December 2020, there were only 494 female professional pilots (-65% compared to 2019) and 6,360 male professional pilots (-64% compared to 2019) still active. It takes women back to their 1990 numbers and men to their 2000 numbers.

The numbers reveal the harsh reality. However, a portion of the severe drop is likely linked to seasonal expatriate pilots returning home during the crisis and, staying there.

In the air traffic control sector, more men than women lost their jobs. The attribution rate was 37% for men versus 31% for women.

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