School girls have a new heroine this week. Tammie Jo Shults was the pilot onboard Tuesday’s ill-fated flight from New York to Dallas. She safely negotiated an emergency landing after one of the aeroplane’s engines broke up, throwing debris into the fuselage. One passenger died after being partially sucked through a broken window.
This could so easily have been a much bigger tragedy. That no one else on board that plane died is thanks to the skill and bravery of Shults. The audio of her calmly informing air traffic controllers, ‘We are single engine. Descending,’ followed by: ‘There is a hole and someone went out,’ is astonishing to hear. Her name should be echoing around assembly halls and her image adorning classroom posters.
Women pilots - or the lack of them - made headlines earlier this month when gender pay gap campaigners dissected statistics from companies like Ryanair and Easyjet and decreed that although male and female pilots generally earn the same, there are simply too few women in the captain’s seat. Mysterious ‘structural barriers’, a blanket term encompassing everything from pink prams for girls to toy trains for boys, were blamed for the paucity of female pilots.
So, how do we overcome these barriers and encourage more women to take up well-paid careers in aviation, science or engineering? The provost of Britain’s first specialist engineering university, due to open in Hereford in 2020, thinks she has the answer. Elena Rodriguez-Falcon plans to increase the number of women studying engineering by ditching the requirement that students have A levels in maths and physics. There will be no lectures, studying or traditional exams and no specialisation in mechanical or electrical engineering.
I’m not an engineer. But even I know that if you’re designing a bridge or an aeroplane then knowledge of maths and physics is pretty fundamental to the whole process. Perhaps, for exceptional individuals, an A level is not necessary, but making up this lost ground would require serious studying - apparently something not expected from Rodriguez-Falcon’s students-to-be.
Just like quotas for MPs or places on boards of directors, lowering entry requirements sends out the patronising message that women need extra help in order to succeed. Don’t enjoy maths and find physics a bit too hard? No problem! We’ll just scrap that requirement. Studying is boring? Don’t do it then! The suggestion that women are just not up to meeting traditional standards or can’t compete against men as equals in business and politics is sexist and insulting.
Tammie Jo Shults was a fighter pilot before flying passenger jets. This week, her family have recalled how, in the late 1970s, Shults fought against an ‘almost blanket refusal’ in order to win a place in the military. Her efforts paid off and following her graduation in 1983 she became one of the first female fighter pilots for the US navy. This military training no doubt contributed to Shults’s extraordinary capacity to stay calm under pressure that proved so necessary this week.
Thanks to the spirit and determination of pioneering women like Shults, today few western women encounter ‘blanket refusals’ barring them from any career they choose. As a result we have more women in parliament and more women company directors than ever before. Women today are free to become pilots, engineers, scientists - any career that takes their fancy.
What’s holding young women back nowadays is not mythical structural barriers but the continual reiteration of woeful tales of disadvantage. We need to stop telling young women that there is a patriarchal cabal colluding against them and that the only way they can succeed is with lower standards and reserved places.
Instead of telling girls they are destined for a life of everyday sexism we should inspire them with the heroism of women like Tammie Jo Shults. After safely landing the damaged aeroplane, Shults had a last message for the air traffic controllers: ‘Thanks, guys, for the help.’ She then walked through the cabin and thanked all the passengers, asking them if they were all right. What a woman.
Joanna Williams is the author of Women vs Feminism, Why we all need liberating from the gender wars.