Our new podcast partner, Karlene Petitt, wrote a blog yesterday entitled “Male vs. Female Brains“. This blog is a response to her, and I’m doing so, in part, just so I can post a picture of a scantily clad female pilot since she got to do the same with a male. You should read Karlene’s excellent post before continuing.
A persons’ effectiveness at communication depends on a broad range of influencing factors; personal history, personality type, ethnicity or nationality, race, locale of acculturation, era (age) or generation, and of course… gender. I do wonder how much of an influence gender has in the aviation environment due to the subtle influences compared against other more significant social factors that are more often referred to in aviation crash comics, but… here we go.
First… men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus. Deal with it. The question I’m asking is: how does the interactivity between male and female pilots impact upon effective crew resource management on the flight deck. Does the intersexual relationship in any way compromise effective communication or does it enhance it… and does it in any way impact upon effectual CRM?
I’m in no way going to provide answers since I’m the first to admit I know next to nothing about females. I’m not somebody that’s socially equipped to offer any kind of advice on the relationship between the two sexes because my own personal track record proves me somewhat ineffectual. My rambling is very general and doesn’t have a great deal of scientific merit.
Karlene’s post was essentially about the male versus female brain. Mine is orientated more around the affectivity of male and female pilots as a team on the flight deck. Despite how it may seem at times, I’m trying to be as politically correct as I can while at the same time making an attempt to identify some of the harsh realities in our industry.
The Human Brain
It is interesting to note that studies have divided communication styles into masculine and feminine. Gay men, for example, often fit the general profile associated with feminine communication and the opposite applies to more masculine females. Knowing this, it may be more appropriate to disassociate the term masculinity or femininity with males and females since either sex can fall into either category… knowing of course that the referenced sex is represented highly in their respective broad category. For that purpose, read male as masculine and females as feminine. Although cultures themselves are often referred to as masculine or feminine against a comparison matrix, I’ll be referring specifically to masculine and feminine attitudes on the flight deck.
In the Airline Interview
Airlines have long identified issues associated with employing pilots who fail to communicate effectively (among other factors); and for that reason generally subject pilot applicants to a grueling psychometric analysis that assesses aptitude, mental agility and intelligence in a ‘color-blind’ manner. It’s a non-biased personality test that seeks to isolate the ideal applicant given known criteria for the job which they are applying. The employment process is further supplemented by a behavioral interview that seeks to predict future decision-making and behaviour based on past experience. They’re trying to find potential captains. Any adverse personality characteristic (from either gender) that would preclude suitability would soon be identified and addressed.
The point of this? Airlines don’t generally employ on the basis of gender. We have to assume that the stereotypical (and scientific) difference between masculine and feminine applicants is so marginal that a serious issue that may impact upon synergy on the flight deck doesn’t exist. Further to this, pilots are trained – not born. The social (acculturation) factors during training and exposure to the industry soon ensures that any potential pilot is well aware of the personality requirements for a long career and trains themselves to act or think appropriately.
Some crusty male pilots will cite affirmative action policy (called ‘positive discrimination’ in some parts of the world) to justify the disproportionally higher number of females pilots recruited measured against suitably licenced candidates. Some argue that the only way we’ll have ‘equal opportunity’ will be to take perceived advantages away from females. Opponents to affirmation policies will often call it reverse discrimination, citing safety as a reason to do away with the principle, claiming that all pilots should be employed (using a ‘colour-blind’ approach) solely on grounds of suitability.
I’ve known some men to refrain from hiring females on the basis that they’ll “get pregnant and leave”. I’ve had to endure others that will cite certain ‘female issues’ and associated behavioural concerns when they don’t agree with decisions a woman has made. Men do like to have control, and they’ll often find excuses anywhere (however irrational) to retain it.
On the Flight Deck
I’ve suggested before that pilots are often assimilated into a Borg-type collective – meaning that we share a quasi-collective conscious heavily influenced by our airline culture; and our behaviour is often constrained by policy, aircraft automation and training. There’s often little flexibility outside of rigid SOP’s… reducing (or is it elevating?) the role of pilot to a systems and aircraft manager.
Knowing that the gradient in the cockpit may be unduly influenced (or threatened) by personality and/or gender, airlines provide a solution by implementing SOP’s, standard calls and policy that closely dictates the manner in which routine tasks are completed. Knowing that people don’t always get along, training and education is provided in the area of ‘Crew Resource Management‘ to ensure pilots are more acutely aware of their own behaviour and that of others which may threaten a harmonious and safe cockpit environment.
When it comes to making decisions, pilots are trained in using specific decision making models that ensures appropriate consideration is given to facts void of feminine emotion or masculine impulsivity; yet these gender specific traits do impact on the quality of discussions and decisions made. Even a task as simple as lowering flaps may trigger a cause-and effectual type reasoning in the male and female brain, yet the result is the same – the flaps are lowered. If research is correct, it’s likely that females will likely give (admirable) consideration to the effect of lowering the flaps while males are focused on the outcome.
It’s fair to assume that airlines void of CRM training – or airlines that employ pilots from cultural opposites (Asia versus Western culture); or airlines that fail to adopt stringent SOP’s – will pose a significantly more prominent threat than merely having males and females share a cockpit. Throw in some cultural variations and that risk may increase. For example, female pilots in Japan flying with a male subordinate is far more likely to create a skewed crew gradient with dissonant communication than the equivalent scenario in a western country (where it’s quite normal). The same could easily apply to two pilots that have a large generational gap (I could provide plenty of examples).
Are males safer than females?
A US Air Force investigation into the aptitude and performance of male and female applicants found little difference in their ability or suitability for candidacy. The issues identified were associated with safety considerations once they became operational pilots (and even then generally influenced by factors unrelated to performance or skill).
In one study, “Predicting pilot-error incidents of US airline pilots using logistic regression“, it was determined that “female airline pilots employed by major airlines had a significantly greater likelihood of pilot-error incidents than their male colleagues”. The results also provide further support to the literature that “actual pilot performance [skill] does not differ significantly between male and female airline pilots”.
Another study, “Characteristics of General Aviation Crashes Involving Mature Male and Female Pilots“, focused on general aviation accident records and determined that males had a higher rate of accidents than females, and a higher portion of the male accidents resulted in fatalities or serious injuries than for females. In essence, they determined that males have accidents because they’re not paying attention; and females’ crash when they make a mistake. The study determined that pilot error caused 95% of accidents for females, and 88% for females. The author states that gender defined the kind of accident. Mishandling the aircraft – including incorrect use of the rudder, poor response to a bounce, inability to recover from a stall – was identified as the most common error for both groups, but it was a more prevalent error for female pilots – 81 percent of the crashes compared to only 48 percent for males. Lesson? Males need to work on their decision making skills. Women, like driving, need to practice more :)
In essence, I find the research proves very little; and there’s little research that has been conducted recently in the aftermath of more advanced human factors training. The industry has evolved enormously in the last few years, and given heightened awareness of CRM training and threat and error management strategies designed to make flight crew more self aware, it’s likely that any prior research would be somewhat redundant. It’s probably unfair to diagnose error in males and females when systemic cultural issues, modern CRM strategies and management concerns are far-reaching and have such a large impact on individual performance.
Do females enhance CRM?
To quote Karlene, “Could these communication skills be an asset when it comes to crew resource management with the need to communicate? Oh yeah”
I’m likely to agree that a female perspective enhances communication (as opposed to CRM), but not simply because they’re female. We could argue that a multicultural cockpit enhances lateral communication in the same way… and a crew spanning a few generations will arguably yield a new dynamic. The question is: is it better… or just different? The opinion of anybody, female of otherwise, is only as valuable as the Captain’s willingness to consider the information – and therein lays the problem.
Question: Does an opposite-sex pilot compromise the likelihood of a captain considering an opinion, therefore reducing the effectiveness of CRM?
There are ingrained male (and female!) prejudices that will invariably make their way onto the flight deck from time-to-time. Anybody that grew up within the ranks of Australian general aviation has no doubt heard of the “hairy cheque book” (I need not say more) – often making it very difficult for able females to establish early credibility among their peers. I flew with one pilot that would mutter “another empty kitchen” every time he heard a female voice on the radio; and at other times he would wonder why the captain was letting the flight attendant use the radio. Who hasn’t heard the joke, “If God wanted women to fly he would have painted the sky pink?”, or perhaps, “if Boeing wanted women to fly aircraft they would have called the cockpit a box-office.”?
Do passengers prefer a male or female pilot? Does an unprofessional attitude towards females still prevail in some airlines? I don’t know.
It’s suggested that Katherine Wright, sister of the Wright brothers, had as much to do with the first flight at Kittyhawk as did her brothers, yet she was often overlooked by the media by virtue of archaic male-dominated reporters of the time. Instead, we remember the Wright brothers. Times have changed.
Personally, I’ve always preferred the company of females on the flight deck. I simply find them more interesting, and they’re far less likely to talk about boring sports that I don’t watch.
Women often have to overcome archaic attitudes even before they enter the industry. Perhaps it’s a female strength and sense of determination that motivates and cultivates them into more effective captains? Females will encounter discrimination at some point in their careers – I think that’s inevitable (I’ll get Karlene to comment when we start our little podcast). How they deal with it, though, is an opportunity to empower themselves with more strength and character.
After communicating with Karlene back and forth, it’s easy to appreciate her utmost professionalism. She radiates character by virtue of an intelligence most pilots I’ve flown with will never have. If pilots don’t question themselves, it’s unlikely that their offsider will. Karlene epitomises this philosophy. Any young female looking to get involved in the industry can’t go wrong by reading Karlene’s blog and considering her as a role model. Having said that, there are countless other female aviation blogs that offer all sorts of good content.
Personally, I’m a big advocate for ongoing CRM training that addresses any measure of conflict on the flight deck… and perhaps a female/male crew is the least of our concerns – there are far more pressing issues.
We’ve planned to have some brilliant female pilots on our new podcast that should heighten awareness of females in aviation and the massive contribution that they’ve made.
More on this subject later. I’ll try and make more sense next time.
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