Aerospace education/Gender differences

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Gender Differences In Learning To Fly

by Ruth Lowe Sitler

  • Women may tend to be slower to gain confidence.
  • Women tend to be slower to solo.
  • Women may be more fearful of stalls, spins, and other unusual attitudes.
  • Women may be slower to grasp aerodynamics.
  • Women may be quicker to grasp instrument flight.
  • Once women learn a procedure, they tend to be more consistent and rarely vary from that procedure.
  • Women tend to have a more gentle and smooth touch on the controls of the airplane.
  • Women rarely fly into dangerous weather.
  • Women pilots rarely show off for people on the ground.
  • Women rarely if ever fly while intoxicated.
  • Women pilots have far fewer fatal aircraft accidents.
  • Women's accidents usually involve landing or taxiing.

Women in Aviation

5th Annual International Conference

Disneys Contemporary Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida

Sponsored by Parks College of Saint Louis University \

March 10-12, 1994


Ruth Lowe Sitler

Description Of The Study

Developing excellence in women pilots necessitates studying gender differences in learning to fly. Once flight instructors become aware of these differences, they are better able to minimize women's weaknesses and build their strengths.

This field study was completed over a period of twenty-two years as a Certified Flight Instructor in the Akron/Kent area of Ohio. Five years of it was completed while teaching at a family-owned flight school operating under Federal Air Regulation 61 and transitioning into an FAR 141 operation. Ten years of it took place at an FAR 141 flight school which was adding an FAR 135 operation. The last seven years took place while teaching at Kent State University under an FAR 141 certificate where I was chief Flight Instructor administering phase checks. These hours of dual instruction given add up to about 8500 hours of my total flight time.

It begins with a research review of gender differences in learning with regard to dramatic changes in educational and career choices, environmental and behavioral differences, spatial ability, influences from play, hormonal developmental changes, brain organization and psychosocial sex differences including confidence, anxiety, conformity Of dependency, empathy, aggression, and self esteem.

Listed are twelve findings that may be factors in building women role models and corresponding possible reasons. These include: 1. Women may tend to be slower to gain confidence. 2. Women tend to be slower to solo. 3. Women may be more fearful of stall; spins, and other unusual attitudes. 4. Women may be slower to grasp aerodynamics. 5. Women may be quicker to grasp instrument flight. 6. Once women learn a procedure, they tend to be more consistent and rarely vary from procedures. 7. Women tend to have a more gentle and smooth touch of the controls of the airplane. 8. Women rarely fly into dangerous weather. 9. Women pilots rarely show-off for people. 10. Women rarely fly while intoxicated. 11. Women pilots have far fewer fatal aircraft accidents. 12. Women's accidents usually involve landing or taxiing. This paper was written with the hope that once these differences are identified, flight instructors can better build women role models in aviation by strengthening their weaknesses and improving their strengths.

Similar Studies In The Field Of Education

One of the most valuable studies available to me in this area is Susan S. Klein's Handbook for achieving get equity through education. According to Klein (1985), the evidence from the past decade of dramatic changes in educational and career choices of males and females clearly demonstrates the powerful impact of environmental factors on behavioral differences between males and females. The tendency to assume that all differences between males and females are genetically determined and resistant to change is well illustrated by the controversial reporting of Benbow and Stanley's (1980) research on mathematics achievement, Benbow and Stanley's study of mathematically gifted volunteer subjects was erroneously interpreted as suggesting that gender differences in mathematics performance were genetically determined. Media reports overstated the research findings and suggested unproven casual relationships (for example, "Do males have a math gene?").

Misunderstandings such as those demonstrated in the media treatment of Benbow and Stanley's findings can have serious consequences. Vocational counselors who believe that females have less ability in math and science may discourage females from entering those careers. Parents, believing that their daughters' difficulties in mathematics reflect an innate predisposition, may not help or encourage them as much as they do their sons.

The construct of spatial ability lacks a uniform definition among researchers. Spatial ability is measured by tests such as mental rotation (Shephard & Melzler, 1871), perception of horizontally (Piagetian Water Level), Hidden Figures (French, Ekstrom, and Price, 1963), and Paper Folding (French, Ekstrom & Price, 1963).

Of the three aspects of spatial ability identified above, (spatial orientation, horizontality/verticality, and visualization), sex differences favoring males are most pronounced and consistent for mental rotations and horizontality/verticality and least consistent for spatial visualization.

One possible method of investigating the role of cognitive factors in gender differences is to examine the effect of training and experience related to these factors.

In general, training can influence performance on the tests for which it is designed, but might not influence school or career performance. The influences of experience stem from play and other leisure activities. For example, play preferences for spatial-type activities such as building with blocks differ for young males and females and appear to be associated with performance on measures of disembedding. Books, television programs, and toys for young children reflect sex stereotyping. When successful, training in spatial ability sometimes favors females more than males (Newcombe,1982), suggesting the ability of experience to alter cognitive sex differences.

Developmental Changes In Hormones

According to Klein (1985), the endocrine system that controls reproduction is established prenatally. There appear to be few sex differences in the development of this System except that the levels, or ratios, of gonadal hormones are different for adult males and females. I believe that there is a major need for additional research in this area!

Organization Of The Brain

Klein (1985) further reveals a popular hypothesis is that cognitive functions such as verbal or spatial processing may be more lateralized in one hemisphere for males and the other for females. McGlone (1980), however, in her recent review of sex differences in laterality, concluded that males are more likely than females to show left hemisphere dominance in processing verbal material, and at the same time seem to exhibit greater right hemisphere dominance for nonverbal material.

Females are thought to be less lateralized for either function. There is some evidence that extent of laterality is dynamic rather than fixed, raising the possibility that laterality can be influenced by experiences, can change developmentally, and perhaps can change in response to intervention. Thus, differences in laterality may reflect experiential or biological differences or both.

Psychosocial Sex Differences

Klein (1935) explains, "Five categories of psychosocial behavior have revealed gender difference; (1) confidence or anxiety, (2) conformity or dependency, (3) empathy, (4) aggression, and (5) self-esteem. Lack of self-confidence may be one explanation for women's under-representation in many careers. In addition, the presence of social comparisons appears to contribute to lowered confidence in women but not in men (Lenny & Gold, 1982). Petersen, Tobin-Richards, & Crockett (1982) summarized recent literature and found that 60% of recent studies revealed consistent differences in expectancies of success, with males more confident than females.

Women may experience a greater degree of anxiety than men. Block (1981), reviewing recent literature, concluded that females, are more fearful, manifest greater anxiety, and have less confidence in themselves and their performance on specific tasks than males.

Regarding conformity and dependency, Klein (19852 states, "Literature on sex differences in conformity was reviewed recently by Eagly 1978), who concluded that females demonstrate more conformity only in group situations characterized by uncertainty" Dependency, an aspect of conformity defined as the tendency to seek close contact with attachment objects or their surrogates, does not vary consistently by Sex (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). Block (1976) came to the same conclusion by reviewing Maccoby and Jacklin's tabled studies. A different finding emerged, however, when she tabled other studies found in Maccoby and Jacklin's annotated bibliography. All of these 13 studies reported females to be more dependent.

Sociability, an aspect of empathy, appears to produce mixed results with regard to sex differences, although research on proximity to friends favor girls. Hoffman (1977), in a major review of the research, concluded that females do indeed appear to be more empathic than males.

In 55% of the 94 studies review by Maccoby and Jacklin (1974), males were found to egress more than females. The prevalence of aggressive behavior found in males seems to occur across the life span, beginning as early as two years of age, and has been measured in a variety of ways including observation, ratings, questionnaires, and the projective measures (Brissett & Nowicki, 1973).

In summary, Klein (1985) concludes that “psychosocial differences between males and females have been documented. Differences in aggression are most pronounced; differences in confidence/anxiety, conformity, empathy, and self-esteem are less strong. All observed psychosocial differences reflect a strong contextual component. Thus, females exhibit more anxiety and less self-confidence in situations regarding mathematics than in those requiring verbal skill. Taken together, these findings suggest that females are more sensitive to social cues than are males. Females are more able to put themselves in the place of others and also more likely to respond to the opinions of others--including opinions about their lack of ability in subjects such as mathematics or science. There has been a general tendency to assume that cognitive differences are more often attributed to socialization (Peterson, 1980). In both cases, there has been only minimal attention to the processes by which biological or socialization factors might operate. Whatever processes operate at the individual level; however, they cannot explain the large sex differences observed in educational and occupational attainment in many areas. Situational factors (for example, other roles selected by women) as well as discrimination are clearly important as well.

Important Relevant Data From Other Sources

According to Carol Nagy Jacklin (1989), the conclusions of the larger, primary study were that math anxiety, gender-stereotyped beliefs of parents, and the perceived value of math to the student account for the major portion of sex differences in achievement. Using mate-analysis, Rosenthal and Ruben (1982) concluded that they could not pinpoint a cause for this change. They stated, "We can say that, whatever the reason, in these studies, females appear to be gaining in cognitive skill relative to males faster than the gene can travel."

According to Pearson and Ferguson (1989), boys are encouraged to excel in math and spatial skills, but not in reading or verbal skills. Although girls are expected to perform well academically across all subjects, they have not been encouraged to excel in math or in experiences thought to enhance spatial abilities (e.g., sports activities). The fact that the women in this sample obtained comparable ACT math and English scores and that their spatial ability performance was highly related to achievement, suggests that they may have acquired their spatial ability skills through an academic rather than experiential process.

When Donald Symons was interviewed by Sam Keen (1982), he said that he would expect parts of male and female brains to be as different as the genitals are.

Findings And Possible Corresponding Reasons

1. Women may tend to be slower to gain confidence.

Lack of confidence appears to be one of the five categories of psychosocial behavior which reveal gender differences according to Klein (1985). According to Block (1981), this may be because females are more fearful and manifest greater anxiety. If flight instructors relax women students sufficiently and encourage them in their efforts, their confidence will increase.

2. Women may tend to be slower to solo.

I believe there are two major reasons for women being slower to solo airplanes; (1) Women and older men seem to need more time to gain confidence. They are fully aware that this is the part of flying that could hurt them if they do it incorrectly; therefore, they are extremely cautious. They seem to believe they would rather take a little more time to solo than take any chances. Young men seem to think that nothing can possibly happen to them; and this attitude helps considerably to produce an early solo. (2) I think dependency has a great deal to do with this. Learned helplessness has been the hidden agenda for many girls for most of their lives. This may well be one of the first times they have had to act independently. I don't believe the learned helplessness is deliberately taught to hinder women. I believe that mothers perpetrate it to protect their children and that men perpetrate it to be kind to women. Both confidence and dependency are included in the five categories of psychosocial behavior revealed by Klein (1985).

3. Women may be more fearful of stalls, spins, and other unusual attitudes

I believe women are more fearful of stalls, spins, and unusual attitudes because of lack of practiced aggression. All of these are aggressive maneuvers. Little boys grew up shooting play guns and planning pretend battles. Aggression was on their minds much of their growing-up years. They faced the possibility of having to go to war to protect our country. Is it any wonder that most of them enjoy these maneuvers? This may be a woman's first chance at deliberate aggression; therefore, they are understandably timid. After they do 30 or 40 of them, they do not hesitate. Some even learn to enjoy them as well. Introducing these maneuvers gently after thorough explanations will help to overcome this problem.

4. Women appear to be slower in grasping aerodynamics.

In my opinion, women are slower to grasp aerodynamics, largely because they have not built model airplanes, sailed paper airplanes, nor even looked closely at airplanes while growing up. They were busy pursuing feminine interests. Once they begin paying attention to the details of aerodynamics, their skills increase to match male standards.

5. Women may be quicker to grasp instrument flight.

The reason many women are quicker to grasp instrument flight may be because it is methodical and contains much detail. Women seem to naturally enjoy detail and the methodical success it brings. Flight instructors may capitalize on this advantage.

6. Once women learn a procedure well, they appear to be more consistent and rarely vary from procedure.

Most women work so hard at learning the details of each task that, once achieved, they will consistently repeat the task in exactly the same manner in order to be 100% correct. This method is extremely good in normal flight training; however, in the case of an emergency, it could be a problem. In emergencies, there is a need for a "cool" head and for initiative and possibly innovation. Women must be trained to be spontaneous enough to make the necessary deviations.

7. Women tend to have a more gentle and smooth touch on the controls of the airplane

Since many women have been conditioned to be sweet and gentle as children they take naturally to treating the airplane in the same manner. They don't "man-handle" the plane. (Even that term "man-handle differentiates between gender handling.) This gentle touch on the controls provides smooth, comfortable flights for all aboard.

8. Women rarely fly into dangerous weather.

Since society doesn't expect women to be "macho", they have little trouble canceling a planned flight when the weather is bad. They have no image to uphold, and naturally opt for safety.

9. Women pilots rarely show off in airplanes.

Very few women pilots appear to have a need or desire to "show-off"; therefore, they do little barnstorming or other low level maneuvers. It's not that they couldn't. Most of them simple wouldn't want to.

10. Women rarely fly while intoxicated.

Women do not fly while intoxicated. In fact, the vast majority would not ever be seen at an airport in that condition. Their pride would not allow it.

11. Women pilots have far fewer fatal aircraft accidents.

Woman pilots have far fewer fatal accidents according to statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board which compiles these facts. Statistics show the three largest causes of general aviation accident fatalities are: 1. flying into had weather, 2. barnstorming, and 3. intoxication which are the three previous listed items on my list that women usually don't do. This is what makes their record so good in this area.

12. Women's accidents usually involve landing or taxiing.

The fact that women pilots' accidents are usually related to landing or taxiing seems to relate closely to automobile statistics. Women are notoriously ridiculed in jokes for poor parking and "fender benders". (Notice how closely this compares to landings and "wing dings"--taxi accidents). The answer to this may also be a direct relation to the same three causal factors tn aircraft fatalities; 1. driving in bad weather, 2. showing-off, and 3. intoxication (although this seems to be increasing in women drivers). This comparison would be an interesting further study.

Further Findings

An additional item seems to be emerging. That is the tendency of many women to take their hands off the throttle and flare with both hands on landing - This is especially true in transitioning to twins. It is not clear whether it is because of lesser arm strength or an attempt to have more control of the aircraft. Since taking one's hand off the throttle during landing means the loss of an invaluable landing tool, helping women to learn to use the trim tab for all landings is essential. With proper trimming procedures, even smaller women are able to keep one hand on the throttle during landing flares.

Although I did not mention empathy and self-esteem, the two remaining categories in Klein's (1985) five categories of psychosocial behavior, they play a major part in the possible reasons for all twelve differences. Empathy and self esteem form the overall attitude of all pilots, especially women pilots. If their self esteem is already low, and they can "feel" low expectations from the people around them, they will most certainly perform poorly. If flight instructors can empathize with what women pilots are feeling, they can better meet their needs. According to Byrne (1978), prejudice of male workers must share the responsibility with the prejudice of employers for the fact that the training of women is deficient. Technical dexterity is certainly attained by women to a degree not inferior to men. The Crowther Committee (1959), which recommended that the tendency to regard physics and math as masculine empires, and biology and literature as feminine. should be corrected, not accepted. Indeed, it should not be accentuated by the tendency for certain subject areas to be taught by men or women only and thus become sex-linked. Second only to this, in my view, is the need to educate both sexes for the best job or career of which he or she is capable-which 86 percent of the boys and 88 percent of the girls and 89 percent of their parents rated as a major school objective in the Schools Councils survey of nearly 5,000 pupils in 1968.

In addition, according to Byrne (1978), teachers will be convinced that they treat girls and boys alike. A shrewd observer will see differences in our attitudes towards girls which are translated into the way we plan what we do, the way girls are handled, the way they are stretched or discouraged in their work. Any school that makes a great play of "interest-based"activities and lacks a program of educational objectives based on needs and not pre-conditioned interests, will also be planning a "hidden curriculum" which is subtly and pervasively different for girls. This is because of how different interests that parents, nursery school teachers, and relatives have encouraged them; to regard as "feminine", acceptable, and praiseworthy. Social behavior spills over into classroom activity.


In conclusion, the reason for this paper is to give insight into the differences in gender with regard to learning to fly. Once these differences are recognized, we can begin helping women where they are deficient as well as strengthening their skills. In this manner, we can proceed to develop excellence in women pilots, thereby providing the finest possible women pilots for our nation's airlines.


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