SHANGHAI: When Han Siyuan first decided to apply for a job as a pilot cadet in 2008, she was up against 400 female classmates in China on tests measuring everything from their command of English to the length of their legs.
Eventually, she became the only woman from her university that Shanghai-based Spring Airlines picked for training that year. She is now a captain for the Chinese budget carrier, but it has not become much easier for the women who have come after her.
Han is one of just 713 women in China who, at the end of 2017, held a licence to fly civilian aircraft, compared with 55,052 men. Of Spring Airlines’ 800 pilots, only six are women.
“I’ve gotten used to living in a man’s world,” she said.
China’s proportion of female pilots – at 1.3% – is one of the world’s lowest, which analysts and pilots attribute to social perceptions and male-centric hiring practices by Chinese airlines.
But Chinese airlines are struggling with an acute pilot shortage amid surging travel demand, and female pilots are drawing attention to the gender imbalance.
Chinese carriers will need 128,000 new pilots over the next two decades, according to forecasts by planemaker Boeing Co, and the shortfall has so far prompted airlines to aggressively hire foreign captains and Chinese regulators to relax physical entry requirements for cadets.
“The mission is to start cutting down the thorns that cover this road, to make it easier for those who come after us,” said Chen Jingxian, a Shanghai-based lawyer who learned to fly in the United States and is among those urging change.
China’s airlines only hire cadets directly from universities or the military.
They often limit recruitment drives to male applicants and very rarely take in female cohorts.
Li Haipeng, deputy director of the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China’s general aviation department, said many airlines were also dissuaded to hire women by generous maternity leave policies.
That has been further aggravated by Beijing’s move in 2015 to change the one-child policy, he added.
The strongest calls for change are coming mostly from Chinese female pilots, thanks to a slew of returnees who learned how to fly while living abroad in countries like the United States.
In March, the China Airline Pilots Association (ChALPA) established a female branch at an event attended by pilots from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and local airlines, according to media reports.
Chen, the lawyer who also serves as a vice-president of the ChALPA’s women’s branch, said she and others have been trying to spread the word by speaking about the issue at air shows in China.
Eventually, she said, the organisation hopes to persuade Chinese airlines to adjust their recruitment and maternity policies. — Reuters