The 30,000-ft. Glass Ceiling

February 14, 2018

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The headline for this blog concerns the female airline pilots in India and the challenges they face as reported in Air & Space dated November 2017. This is a bimonthly magazine that is published by the Smithsonian.

Harpreet De Singh (center), pilots Kshamta Bajpal and Sunita Narula (with two flight attendants, left) are part of a growing contingent of women in high places at Air India. Photo: Courtesy of Air and Space, November 2017

But first, I’d like to explore a piece I read in the Marie Claire, Holiday 2017 issue titled, “The Gate-Keepers”. It describes the working lives of female US Border Patrol agents. I’ve watched shows on TV with male agents who work on the US/Mexico border – sans females. 

HOW BIG IS THE U.S. BORDER PATROL?

A total of 21,000 agents make up the US Border Patrol force (which also includes US/Canada and coastal offices). Down south, there are 70 stations along the 2,000-mile US/Mexico border with 17,000 agents manning these stations. The goal is very clear: secure the border from illegal entry of migrants from Mexico, Central and South America.

GUESS WHAT? A WOMAN LEADS THIS AGENCY

Carla Provost was appointed in April 2017. She is the first woman in its 93-year history to serve as chief. However, at the present time only 5% of the agents in the US Border Patrol are women. This is a problem because there has been a 173% increase in female migrants since 2011.

“A lot of female detainees don’t want to talk to male agents. It’s important to have a female who can relate to them, talk to them, get more information out of them if they’re willing,” says Chloe Beecher, a female US Border Patrol agent who works near Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas.

US Border Patrol agent, Chloe Beecher, stands watch on a mountain near Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. Photo: Courtesy of Marie Claire, Holiday 2017

THE NATURE OF THE JOB IS DAUNTING FOR BOTH SEXES

A 2014 recruitment program yielded 175 female hires – a far cry from the 1,600 it was aiming for. There are physical challenges: five months of rigorous training at the Border Patrol Academy PLUS environmental challenges: 8-to-10 hour shifts in above-100-degree heat from June to September PLUS mental ones: often hours of driving alone (with no backup two minutes away). Agents of either sex face risky, and possibly life-threatening situations in their jobs. Not an easy life.

NOW LET’S JUMP 8,400 MILES FROM AMERICA TO INDIA

The first Air India pilot to break the glass ceiling in the cockpit happened 30 years ago, when the airline was hiring only male ex-air force pilots. “Today, we want to encourage young girls who have dreams of getting into the skies – but feel it’s too technical or something,” says Harpreet De Singh, Air India’s Chief of Flight Safety.

India leads the world in the training of professional women pilots and produces female fliers at four times the global average, De Singh says. Air India’s pilot force of 1,990 includes 225 women. This number is ticking up. Women now account for more than 10% of all pilots in India.

From left: Pilots Gunjan Aggarwal, Kshamta Bajpal and Sunita Narula of Air India. Photo: Courtesy of Air and Space, November 2017

Kshmta Bajpai, a senior pilot for Air India, remembers when she first arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after piloting an Air India flight, the female Saudi security officers asked, “Are you real?” She had just flown a plane into a country where women cannot get driver’s licenses. Training to be an airline pilot is costly (today the 18-month tuition runs about $50.000).

NOW FEMALE PILOTS IN INDIA HAVE A SUPPORT STRUCTURE

Air India has adopted many family-friendly policies for its pilots, e.g., flexible work schedules, generous parental and sick leave – this allows female pilots to do their jobs without sacrificing their family life. Or, as one says, “You shut the cockpit door and you’re a pilot only.”

WHAT DO THESE AGENTS AND PILOTS HAVE IN COMMON?

 Both require rigorous training and special skills and both are becoming more accessible for women. The starting salary for agents is $52,000. For female airline pilots it was difficult to find hard figures – I’d estimate slightly below or above $100,000 per year at Air India. It’s known for paying well.

 

Shaun Nelson-Henrick


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