My son sat quietly on the colorful circle-time rug, “criss-cross applesauce,” with the rest of his pre-school class. A parent volunteer in the classroom, I shrank into the miniature chair at the back of the room and listened as the teacher asked each child the same question.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she smiled.
One freckled little boy fervently announced, “a puppy.”
Another round-faced girl bubbled, “the Tooth Fairy!”
My stomach grew tight as I watched my son’s knee bounce more and more frantically as his turn grew closer. As a naturally shy child, I knew how anxious speaking out loud made him feel. When the teacher turned to him with her question, he froze, squeezing his eyes shut so she would skip over him. I blinked away tears, desperately wanting to jump in and rescue him after he opened his eyes only to shoot me a pleading look for help as the silence grew heavier.
“Do you want to be a pilot?” his teacher offered in her most sugary preschool teacher voice.
A look of indignation flashed across my son’s pink face, as exasperation quashed his shyness.
“Ewww,” he exclaimed in disgust. “That’s a girl’s job!”
As an airline pilot myself, I smiled with pride and almost giggled out loud at his unexpected answer. But a twinge of guilt poked at me, also. I was consciously raising my son to view girls as equals and to see a world with no gender boundaries. Yet, here he felt limited by his gender, much like I had growing up.
At four years old I would have had an equally strong response had my teacher asked me the same question. Except I would have exclaimed, “Ewww, that’s a boy’s job!”
Born in the 60’s into a first-generation Italian Catholic household with rigid gender role expectations, I was trained to cook, clean and do laundry as my mother repeated, “My duty is to teach you your duties.” These same feminine expectations weighed on me in school and at church. Paging through magazines or flipping television channels only showed me more examples of delicate ladies consumed by makeup tips and housewives dedicated to cleaning products. I wanted to play with my brother’s Erector Set and model airplanes, but I knew my place was with my dolls and beside my mother in the kitchen. I was blessed with a happy childhood in a loving home, and yet I still felt boxed in with little hope that I would ever be free to choose my own path in life. But the pain of feeling different, a sense that there was something wrong with me for not wanting the things that girls were supposed to dream of, felt far worse.
I spent many childhood afternoons gazing at airplanes passing over my house as my little girl heart imagined what those pilots must be doing up there in those magnificent silver machines streaking through the sky. Unlike my son, I had never met a pilot when I was a child. But I still had a firm image in my mind of what a pilot looked like, and it was always of a broad-shouldered man with a deep voice and masculine stride.
As I grew older, I began to question my beliefs that women weren’t capable of traditionally masculine jobs, though I still couldn’t imagine a world where someone like me would be allowed to take the controls of one of those jets. In the nature vs. nurture quandary, for sure nurture was winning the battle. But one impulsive teenage act of rebellion changed everything.
After earning my driver’s license, I found my way to a local airport and for just twenty dollars took an introductory flying lesson in a tiny propeller airplane with dual controls in cockpit. I surged up into the brilliant blue sky with a handsome young flight instructor beside me, awed as the world below me turned into a child’s playroom filled with Matchbox cars and doll houses.
“You give it a try,” the instructor grinned, raising his open palms as he released his yoke and nodded for me to grab mine. I took a breath and cautiously wrapped my fingers around the smooth control column. Feeling the plane’s movements flow through my hands was all that it took! I instantly caught the “flying bug,” as it’s called, and my dream to learn how to fly a plane took off.
Flying lessons were expensive though and I was just a broke teenager. Then, I had an idea.
“I’d really like a job here,” I tentatively approached the flight school owner, “but I’d like to work in exchange for flying lessons.”
“I think we can work something out,” he countered. Soon I was busy behind the front desk after school and on weekends, working hard to earn my time in the air. Flying airplanes, I felt alive in a way I never knew was possible. But away from the airport, I was so afraid of being mocked and laughed at, that I kept my flying lessons a secret. After all, everyone knew that girls couldn’t be pilots and it would be silly to even try.
I fell deeper in love with aviation with every breathtaking trip up into the blue sky, but that joy is not what finally allowed me to break free from both the cultural and self-imposed limits that I had long accepted. Something completely different freed me to believe I could do anything.
It was the way I was treated at the airport.
There, I was surrounded by people who understood and accepted me for who I genuinely was. They believed in me and my dream to be a pilot, and for the first time I was able to believe in myself, too. I grew proud of who I was and developed the confidence to be my true-self, honestly and without apologies.
One simple drive to the airport had triggered a long and unexpected journey to becoming one of the youngest female pilots to work for a major air carrier. It was the strong belief I developed in myself that kept me moving forward in the testosterone-charged airline industry. The support from those first pilots I met as a teenager, gave me the fortitude I needed when challenged later by other pilots who thought women should be standing in the cockpit serving food trays, not seated at the controls.
It took me years before I believed that my choices in life were actually up to me and that nothing was off-limits. Now, I had to be sure to give my son that same freedom. He would never have to pursue his dreams in secret, whatever they turned out to be.
“So, what do you want to be when you grown up?” I asked my son, enjoying our time alone together on the drive home from school.
“I wanna’ be an architect!” he announced without hesitation.
“You are going to make an amazing architect,” I smiled.
“I want to say something,” a teenage girl hedged, “but I don’t want to be rude, or insult you.”
I was speaking at an aviation expo, in hopes of encouraging young women to explore STEM fields for their futures. I faced this young woman, feeling her eagerness to hear how I had navigated a virtually all-male domain as a female airline pilot years ago. Then her smile turned quiet and she shuffled her feet in uneasy tension as she spoke up.
“Yes, please tell me what you’re thinking,” I nudged her on.
“I was just thinking… I’m happy I was born when I was,” she paused to assess my reaction, “and not into your generation.”
“Oh,” I sighed, and I grinned.
I wasn’t insulted at all. She got it. But I was surprised by the emotions her comment stirred in me. A sense of familiarity came over me and I realized that I had the exact same feeling of relief when I was her age.
When I finally upgraded to Captain at United Airlines, I flew with an all-female crew for the first time in my life. I proudly added this bit of trivia into my passenger address welcoming our passengers onboard. After I released the talk switch, it hit me – I had never flown with a female captain in all of my years as a first officer (co-pilot). I never had a female flight instructor. I never had a female boss at all. Not in my entire aviation career.
I had always been grateful to be in the pilot seat, any pilot seat, knowing my mother’s generation had no chance at this dream. It wasn’t until that moment, until I said it aloud to 147 passengers, that I realized how isolated I had felt on my journey to this seat.
Any lofty ambition will be a challenge to reach. If you haven’t failed, then you haven’t stretched your mind, and you haven’t grown and gotten better at something.
Young women today will face obstacles no matter what they choose to achieve. Gender role expectations and barriers, both culturally and self-imposed, are as present today as when I took my first flying lesson. Though, they may look different.
But not seeing anyone that looks like you on that journey, will not be one of those obstacles. Not if I can help it.