This One's For The Girls
Hundreds of school aged girls and teens came through the Birmingham Southern Museum of Flight for the annual Girls in Aviation Day 2023. Girls in Aviation Day is an annual event put on by various chapters of Women in Aviation International with the goal of inspiring young girls to expand their interest in aviation and explore the opportunities available in the industry. Approximately 500 girls attended the event which has gotten larger over the recent years, including the break due to the Corona Virus of 2020 through 2021. Attendees, ranging from elementary school aged to teens were able to meet successful women in the aviation profession and explore how science technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills change the way society lives, works and plays.
In the recent decade, there have been major efforts to bridge the gap in women aviators and aviation related fields. Women make up less than 20% of the workforce in most aviation occupations. Many views toward women in the 20th Century prohibited women from fully participating in manned flight. Aviation was seen as dangerous as it was glamorous during its early stages. Therefore, women were not considered to be prime candidates for becoming pilots. Furthermore, college was seen as a place where women came seeking wealthy male prospects for marriage rather than obtain degrees. Therefore, women were not encouraged to undertake high level math and science courses. However, there have been massive undertakings to close the gender gap in aviation as well as appeal to ethnic minority groups.
During the Corona Virus Pandemic, morale was at an all-time national low. The world had come to a standstill, gripped with panic and fear. In an attempt to boost morale, mainly that of the nation's first responders and medical personnel, the US Air Force launched a multi-city fly over tour of its F-16 demonstration team, the "Thunderbirds". Flying over the skies of Birmingham, Alabama as a part of the Thunderbirds was then Captain Remoshay Nelson. At the time, Captain Remoshay R. Nelson was the Public Affairs Officer for the Thunderbirds based out of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. As Thunderbird 12, she lead the team’s extensive marketing, publicity and community relations programs. In 2020, she was in her first season with the Thunderbirds and the African American woman on the team.
Up until recent motion pictures such as Red Tails, Devotion, Fly Boys, and HBO's "The Tuskegee Airmen", the role of African Americans in aerial combat has been largely overlooked and unknown by the general public. Such motion pictures have done remarkable jobs at telling the stories of the trials, often tragedies, but overall triumphs of African Americans in manned flight. Although African American women in flight goes back to Bessie Coleman and peaking with African American women as astronauts such as Dr. Mae Jemison, newer ambitions of African American women in aviation/aerospace are currently being formed. In an interview with US Veteran's Magazine, Nelson stated, “It is also a great privilege to share my personal story and those of countless other Air Force minorities with the public. By doing so, it is my hope that young boys and girls, especially Black girls are inspired and understand that there are many Air Force leadership opportunities available to them and they can become leaders in whatever field they desire.”
During the last two decades of flight, due to the determination and perseverance ofwomen, the number of women involved in the aviation industry has steadily increased and women can be found in nearly every aviation occupation today. Despite this quantitative increase and the amplified awareness of gender and race equality movements, today’s population of women in aviation is still underrepresented. By the 1960s, there were 12,400 licensed women pilots in the United States, accounting for 3.6% of all pilots. This number doubled by the end of the decade to nearly 30,000 women but was still only 4.3% of total pilots. Emily Howell Warner became America’s first female commercial airline captain, but that wasn’t until 1973. In fact, Warner was the first female pilot to be hired since Helen Richey — 39 years of female aviator underrepresentation.
There are several factors that in fact impede the closing of the STEM gaps such as gender stereotypes, male dominated culture, a lack of role models, and math anxiety. As minute and trivial as they may seem to some people, these factors are very real and cause many girls to shy away from what could be lucrative careers for them in the future. It is through countering these impediments that then will we see a greater increase in women in STEM fields and the bridging of the income gap as well.
Stereotypes do exist. As previously stated, aviation in its early pioneering days was an exclusive all white male club. During the Space Race of the 1960's we see a crew cut clad of white male astronauts and scientists. However, the motion picture Hidden Figures revealed the role that women, particularly African American women played in successfully launching men into outer space, landing on the moon, and successfully returning them back to earth.
Historically, women were seen as homebuilders and housewives. Therefore, their place was in the home nurturing the family. Women were not encouraged to seek scienced based careers and even STEM education as it was erroneously believed that women were void of a capacity to navigate high level science and mathematical curriculums. It is because of these stereotypes, women lagged behind and were even discouraged from STEM careers as STEM wasn't made to appeal to women.
In its early days, aviation appeared to be a male-dominated industry, where female employees were considered to be dedicated to attracting customers and often used to lure them on board aircraft. Women have been objectified for a long time and, even today, more than 79% of flight attendants are women. Around 51% of the nearly 2,400 people surveyed said they did not trust a female pilot, while just 14% said they would feel safer with a woman. While 25% the people said the gender of the pilot did not matter, nine per cent said they were "unsure". Much of this is due to stereotypes concerning women that still persist despite the tremendous gains women have made in traditional male dominated fields such as law enforcement and the military. Much of this will change as more women in the STEM fields and workplace begins to change. significantly.
Until the recent two decades, there were virtually no television shows that showcased female lead characters as scientists or employed in a STEM field. This began to change with shows such as CSI and NCIS, which portrayed several prominent women in roles as forensic scientists and entomologists, lead investigators, biologists, criminal psychologists, a hematology experts. A study from the Associated Press shows more than 75 percent of forensic science students are women. Professors believe it’s a result of the “CSI effect,” in which women are watching true crime documentaries and shows and gaining interest in the field. As of July of this year, 56.9% of forensic scientists are women and 43.1% of forensic scientists are men.
Television characters such as Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and NCIS’s Abby Sciuto serve as role models for aspiring female scientists. Their success in this field, although fictional, depicts forensic science as welcoming of women. In fact, many women scientists claim to owe their decision to pursue a career in STEM due such shows that they watched to while growing up. Many female television viewers are more exposed than men to the “CSI effect,” as women have been shown to view more true crime stories than men, particularly when the shows deal with women issues and women victims.
One area of aviation that has traditionally been female dominated is that of flight attendant. However, this was not always the case. Commercial and passenger air travel began in the 1920's. The first flight attendants typically were the sons of wealthy men who invested in the aviation industry. Initially they were called couriers. The Great Depression saw a reduction in air travel. Therefore, most flight attendants lost their jobs, and their responsibilities were shifted to the co-pilot. Although air travel was for the affluent, air travel was very primitive by today's standards and also very unsafe. Space was cramped and engines were very loud and overall accommodations were somewhat uncomfortable due to the types of aircrafts of that period. Alcohol was served to calm the nerves of passenger anxieties. All of these factors deemed flight attendant duties to extreme for women.
In the 1930's, United Airlines was the first commercial airlines to utilize women as flight attendants, or stewardesses at the time. Initially flight attendants were registered nurses. This was due in part to passengers frequently becoming air sick. Registered Nurse Ellen Church was the first female flight attendant. It was her ultimate goal to become a commercial. However, the social norms regarding women at the time prevented her from becoming a pilot. She did manage to convince Boeing Transport (the predecessor to United Airlines) that using trained medical professionals would improve safety of passengers. This included carrying luggage, serving drinks and medicine. Her efforts led to the successful hiring of seven female cabin crew members. After a 3-month probation period it was proven that female crew members were capable of handling tasks on par with that of men. With the arrival of WWII, these nurses were called to active duty. From that point, flight attendants were sought after for their good looks and shapes.
The role of flight attendant since becoming female dominated has been the main
introduction to flight for women. Although often taken for granted, the role of flight attendant is very critical. The flight attendant is the ultimate ambassador for the airline. They are the ones that the passengers will engage with the most. As ambassadors, they wear many hats and have to be perfect customer service representatives, such as Ms. Lawanda Miller of Birmingham, Alabama.
Growing up in the Gate City/Brown Springs/East Lake areas of Birmingham, Lawanda Miller frequently saw airplanes just a few hundred feet above en route to the BHM Airport which was just two miles away. However, what was not imparted on her as a girl was that she too one day could be onboard one, as a passenger and as an employee. It was while travelling that she had an epiphany. "When I would travel, I would see Flight Attendants on my flights and think this would be a cool job to have", Miller said. She went on to say that, "Then on a long flight to the West Coast, I talked with a Flight Attendant that had been flying for 20 years tell me about her career and all the places she'd been. She let me put on her flight attendant hat and pose with her diamond ring for a photo". From there, she was completely sold on becoming a flight attendant.
According to Ms. Miller, one of the she primary aspects that she enjoyed was the diversity of people that she encountered. "I've had the honor of meeting people from different walks of life and from countries that I'd never heard of. I've gotten a great joy from meeting new people and being trained to overcome cultural and language barriers in order to meet a need for a passenger's comfort", she further stated. What Ms. Miller also enjoyed was the extensive travel to parts of the world. "My favorite work trip is to New Orleans. My favorite destination trip was to Phuket, Thailand"
Phuket is among the world’s finest beach destinations, with fine white sands, nodding palm trees, glittering seas and lively towns. Surrounded by the Andaman Sea and about an hour by plane from Bangkok, this island is a little piece of paradise, which comes with a relatively low price tag for everything from its accommodations to spa treatment and boat tours. It has something for a wide array of tastes and budgets, with hundreds of hotels to choose from, an eclectic choice of dining and plenty of partying options. Aside from visiting the fantastic attractions of Thailand’s biggest island, you can take an exhilarating speedboat trip to the many nearby tropical islands, including the famous Koh Phi Phi, or enjoy a serene cruise around the mystical Phang Nga Bay.
"I am a product of Birmingham and the Birmingham City School System and I know the full value of a quality education. It begins with exposure. Many of the things that I've seen and places that I've travelled to were off limits to some people and women and girls many decades ago. We have to show those who are in some of these underserved and low-income areas that they too have options", Miller proudly claims. During her coming of age in the eastern section of Birmingham, she was surrounded by several modes of travel such as I-20/I-65, The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the Highway 79/ Vanderbilt Rd/Tallapoosa Street exchange which is a major corridor for trucking and shipping, and major railroad lines. These male dominated industries are rarely promoted to women.
Ms. Miller went on to conclude that, "Since being employed in the commercial aviation industry, my eyes have been opened up to so many more opportunities that await those who dare to dream. Opportunities if not for me, those coming behind me. With the right exposure and introduction and the right education, our girls will be able to literally take things to the next level." Ms. Miller further concluded that she is a strong proponent for events like Girls In Aviation Day and World Aviation Day because such events serve as a type of advocacy. "For us women in aviation, we stand on the shoulders, or wings of giants. The road was paved by women who just wouldn't take no for an answer. Now we have women as pilots, CEO's of aerospace companies, women on executive boards, women serving as engineers, and astronauts. We owe it to our current generation of young girls to empower them with the education and resources to move this industry forward", she concluded.
Currently following in the footsteps of Ms. Miller is Jaila Guin of American Airlines. Just as with Lawanda Miller, she too was curious about life beyond her immediate area. After graduating from Hoover High School in 2016, she then attended Jefferson State Community College. Like so many at that point in life, she was uncertain, but optimistic about her career path. "I truly never knew what I had a passion for. But what I did know was that I had a love for travel. I loved meeting new people. I desperately needed something in my life that would force me out of my comfort zone", Guin said. It was then that she decided that being a flight attendant would be the perfect choice.
The challenges that face the aviation industry will require brave men and women that are willing to emerge from their comfort zones. It has been said that a comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there. “The hardest thing to do is leaving your comfort zone. But you have to let go of the life you’re familiar with and take the risk to live the life you dream about.” according to T. Arigo. The September 11th attacks brought about the biggest changes in aviation in our lifetime. The gas and oil crisis of 2008 also saw major changes in aviation. The Pandemic also forced the aviation industry to undergo radical changes. The challenges are vast and ever changing but the needs of the passenger remains the same.
"Air travel can be very stressful, even before you get onboard the plane. What people ultimately want is comfort. What I enjoy most about my job is meeting people from so many walks of life. Also being able to make someone smile daily, even with just a simple hello how are you.", Guin says. The post-pandemic aviation industry has increasingly become defined by delays, lost luggage, staffing issues and disruptive passengers. Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests an “increasing frequency and severity” of disruptive passenger incidents: a June 2023 IATA report states there was one unruly incident reported for every 568 flights in 2022, up from one per 835 flights in 2021.Then there is the added layer of stress of working 12-15 hour shifts. To meet these challenges will require vision, work culture changes, and passion.
The passion that she speaks with stems from her solid and well grounded upbringing as a girl. Her sentiments ech those of many others that desire to see more women involved in the aviation industry. She feels that exposure and enthusiasm will be the driving forces. "I believe that the way we could get more black girls in the industry is the ability to get them the exposure that they need. Those of us that are already in the aviation industry can help with the exposure by participating at career fairs. For those still in school we can be mentors and also possibly even sponsor internships", she explained.
She fully knows the power of exposure. That exposure has opened up doors of opportunities to further one's career and simple enjoyment of life's many gifts. "Some of the many places I've been just to name a few are Los Angeles/San Francisco, California, Phoenix, Seattle, Washington, and also one of my most memorable places that I visited was London, England. I was there this past summer the same day King Charles' coronation took place ", she stated. Travelling, especially abroad, represents a sense of empowerment and indepedence, as well as boost confidence all the while contributing to personal growth and development. For women and young girls this is very critical. "Unlike previous generations, the options and opportunities are there. The resources are there. Now we just have to create the desire and personal drive", she concluded.
Turning to popular culture, the world needs to see alpha female oriented characters in recent motion pictures such as the Marvels, and the character, "Shuri", in Marvel Comics' the Black Panther. Shuri is the princess of the fictional African nation Wakanda. She is most importantly a technological genius and master engineer and lead scientist for Wakanda. This was perhaps the first time that the world had seen an African American character in such a critical role as a STEM genius. This resonated even greater for African American youth, especially girls. This showed that a black girl could be a technological master mind, cool, and attractive at the same time.
The paved road that women such as Lawanda Millier and Jaila Guin have sojourned upon was made possible by the pioneering efforts of women such as Ellen Church, Edith Lauterbach, and numerous others. These women were willing to challenge the norms of their day regarding women and not just employment in the aviation field, but women's employment altogether. The path for African American women and other ethnic minorities given certain periods in this nation's history would be a much more challenging one.
Patricia Banks-Edmiston. A graduate of Grace Downs Air Career School, Banks-Edmiston applied to numerous airline companies for employment such as Mohawk Airlines, Trans World Airlines, and Capital Airlines, but similar to other Black women in her predicament, faced rejection from them all. Patricia Banks-Edmiston was the first black woman to sue the commercial flight industry for discrimination. While Ruth Carol Taylor was the first black attendant hired in 1958 in response to the discrimination suit Banks started, Banks had opened the doors of the courtroom to make it possible. She combated discriminatory practices in the United States by initiating a legal action against Capital Airlines via the New York State Commission Against Discrimination.
Journalist and nurse Ruth Carol Taylor became the first African American airline flight attendant in the United States when she joined Mohawk Airlines in 1958. in early 1957, Taylor applied for a job with US major, Trans World Airlines (TWA). Her application was immediately rejected, simply because of her skin color. She subsequently filed a complaint against the company with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. Meanwhile, Mohawk Airlines, a regional passenger airline operating in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US, expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants and Taylor took a chance to apply for a position. Taylor was selected from 800 black applicants. On February 11, 1958, history was made as Taylor became the first-ever African American flight attendant, operating her flight from Ithaca Tompkins, Regional Airport to New York, JFK. Six months after she was selected, it was discovered that she had been engaged to be married. Due to a marriage ban on flight attendants, she was forced to resign.
Her background in journalism allowed her to cover the 1963 March on Washington and became an activist for consumer affairs and women’s rights. She also wrote The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America (1985), in view of the endemic racism in the United States towards African Americans. In 1977, Taylor returned to work as a nurse and became a co-founder of the Institute for Inter-Racial Harmony, which developed a test to measure racist attitudes known as the Racism Quotient. At the time, Taylor attended several demonstrations to end police brutality against the Black community. In 2008, 50 years after she joined the airline industry, Taylor’s efforts to fight for equality were memorialized by the New York State Assembly.
Flight attendants were initially expected to look desirable to the affluent men who traveled, hence to attract repeat customers. Air carriers had strict rules regarding an attendant's physical appearance such as weight and age. A 1936 New York Times article described the ideal flight attendant as follows: “These girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year. The age cap was later raised to 32 after which she was forced to quit. Marriage and pregnancy resulted in termination as well. Despite the aviation and aerospace profession being male dominated, it has been women that have provoked the most radical change through the challenging of outdated and discriminatory norms through the courts. Women such as Ruth Ann Taylor fought to open doors for not just African American women such as Lawanda Miller and Jaila Guin but for all women.
In 1944, Edith Lauterbach was hired by United Airlines and immediately noticed the blatant discrimination. She then united with another three female crew members, Frances Hall, Sally Thometz, and Sally Watt, and they set up the first trade union dedicated to the in-flight aviation workers. By 1945, they founded the Air Line Stewardesses Association, representing the rights of aircraft cabin service personnel, now known as the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. During the decades that followed, many air carries began to drop employment restrictions based on age, weight and marital status.
This event hosted at the Birmingham Southern Museum of Flight serves as a means to showcase the numerous opportunities available to women in aviation. Furthermore, it provides ways to counter the obstacles that often stand in the way in the pursuit of flight. In the age of information, people need to be informed. Air Force Lieutenant was present to showcase the many Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) in the USAF. Also, the Civil Air Patrol, Brown Aero Technologies, Kratos, and The Commemorative Air Force were present to illustrate the numerous aspects of aviation available to young women. Local pilot and television meteorologist JP Dice was on hand to give a brief course on weather and its relationship to flight.