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Soaring through glass ceilings: OSU making strides for women entering aviation field

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Flying Aggies Fly-In-0357.jpg

A World War II-era plane on display during the Oklahoma State University Flying Aggies Fly-In at Stillwater Regional Airport in Stillwater on April 13, 2019.

“If I want to do something, and my heart’s set on a certain career, I’m not going to change my career option just because there’s more men in the field,” said professional pilot senior Karen McCloy.

McCloy was speaking on her place as a woman in the aviation field, which is predominantly men. McCloy is set to graduate in May 2021, has finished her required flight hours, and has been a flight instructor for 10 months. She is living proof that your gender has no impact on your ability to touch the sky.

However, McCloy is only one of a small group of women (in comparison to the number of men) enrolled in the professional pilot program at Oklahoma State University.

This issue is reflective of how few female pilots there are in the industry. According to Women in Aviation International, only approximately 8% of commercial pilots are women. 

McCloy said she believes that more women are enrolling each year, however. 

“Since I started in the program in 2018, I’ve noticed each year more and more women are enrolling,” McCloy said. 

Last year, OSU’s professional pilot program placed an enrollment limit of 75 students, as well as requiring second applications. The stricter enrollment requirements have made students more grateful for their admission, as well as more determined to keep their spot, which has led to a somewhat competitive environment. 

In many situations, this competitiveness could lead to a toxic and misogynistic environment. However, this is not the case for OSU according to Grace Cowherd, a professional pilot junior. She said that the competition among the students is mostly friendly, and doesn’t involve any sexism.

“I've never been in a situation where I was super uncomfortable or anything like that,” Cowherd said. “[The male students] want to help us as much as they can...We haven't really had any trouble.”

Cowherd said that many of her male friends in the program joined OSU’s Women in Aviation group to show their support.

Not every female student has only had positive experiences with male students, though. Tara Serocki, a professional pilot junior, once endured an awkward interaction with one of her male peers.

“I was very good friends with this one guy and he was in the pilot program as well,” Serocki said. “I came to him, you know, stressed out about student loans and financial aid and all that stuff...We were at the same level at the time too, and he said, ‘Oh, you know, you don't need to worry about that. Like once we get married I'll take over your student loans, you don't have to do anything and I'll be able to fly you wherever.’ And I [said], ‘Listen, dude, we're not married. I don't really like you that much.’ And also, at this point in time, he is still stuck in stage one. And I'm more than halfway done with the program.”

Other than interaction, though, Serocki said she hasn’t faced any other forms of misogyny in the program.

Beyond the student body, there are significantly fewer female faculty members in the space and aviation department than males. Though the male professors are always willing to help any student, female students lack an opportunity for a female mentor to guide them through this stressful field. 

There is only one female professor in the program, but there are multiple female flight instructors. Beyond that, the Women in Aviation group tries to connect its female members with mentors who are in the job field to provide a support system.

Serocki said that she believes the disproportionate amount of women in the program isn’t because they aren’t being admitted—it’s because they aren’t applying. 

This could be because the stigma that piloting is “a man’s job” turns some women away from the field. Serocki said that it was hard entering this field because of the lack of women pilots in the public eye.

“I didn't grow up around aviation,” Serocki said. “I never realized it until I came to school, but I didn't have any women role models to look up to or like reach out to. It was all guys. And like recently, like, I've been looking back on that. And it's kind of crazy because like, you know, you see someone and you're like, ‘Oh, I want to follow them.’But if all girls just see white guys in the airlines, they're not going to be as willing to do that because, you know, it's not, ‘socially acceptable’ or something like that.”

However, the amount of women becoming interested in aviation is constantly growing. The Women in Aviation group is reaching out to get more potential women interested in flight and provide those already enrolled with the resources they need to take off.