India – the ‘unlikely’ poster girl of gender equality in aviation

It’s not very often one hears about India trailblazing on issues of gender equality. On the contrary, the country regularly makes headlines for all the wrong reasons when it comes to women: high rape statistics, dowry deaths, and pervasive discrimination.

So when data collated by the International Society of Women Airline Pilots showed that India had the highest proportion of female commercial pilots in the world at 12 percent – twice as high as in most Western countries and way above the global average of 5 percent – many were left astonished.

International media ran stories calling India a ‘surprise’ leader on the list. Some even called on their readers to guess which country hired most female pilots, as if they anticipated the readers’ incredulity.

For Indians, while the news was a welcome break from incessant incidents of violence against women, it wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Kshamta Bajpai, a veteran female Air India pilot, told DW.

“The urban India has stopped differentiating between what a girl should pursue as a career and what a boy should do,” said Bajpai, who holds the world record for leading the longest flight with an all-female crew.
India is the world’s fastest-growing aviation market as the airlines tap into rising demand from the country’s ever-growing middle class. With domestic air traffic growing in double digits there is an increasing demand for pilots.

Filling the gap are hundreds of women, who are increasingly taking a liking to the male-dominated profession, which promises them a safer workplace, maternity benefits and indeed, a high — and equal — wage.

“Awareness has risen about this being an alternate occupation,” Priti Kohal, a captain with Indian carrier Jet Airways, told DW. “Women typically don’t want to test boundaries and in this profession you are given an SOP (standard operating procedure) and you have to adhere to it.”

Women are filling nearly a quarter of seats in some of the country’s prestigious flying schools — a sign that the number of female pilots is only headed north from here.
Indian airlines are introducing policies not only to attract more and more women to the cockpit but also to retain them.

Indigo, the country’s largest carrier by market share, has the highest proportion of female pilots among the world’s major airlines at 13 percent. The airline has seen the number of female pilots rise to 330 — some of them managers — from 80 in the last five years.

“This statistic is a testament to the Indian aviation industry being welcoming and creating a level playing field for women,” Sakshi Batra, Indigo’s spokeswoman, told DW.

The airline runs crèches for its employees and offers pregnant pilots on break from flying duties office roles and an allowance to compensate them for any loss in income.

“This enables women pilots to constructively stay engaged with the profession in spite of having to take a break from their flying duties,” Batra said.

At Jet Airways, around 13 percent of the pilots are women — a figure that the company expects to “only continue to grow over the coming years.”

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