Readers younger than maybe 45 may be surprised to learn that this phrase was once considered a polite if not indeed gallant way for men to describe women. Women even used it themselves, not always ironically. In those days, a lot less was known about things like pain tolerance, task-management styles, and stamina in ultra-distance endurance competitions.
We’ve also learned a good deal about how widely variation between individuals overlaps any systematic differences between genders. Now that we’ve seen the first female soldiers graduate from Army Ranger School—a feat beyond the capacity of perhaps 99 percent of their male colleagues—it’s time to acknowledge that whatever differences do exist are tendencies with numerous exceptions, not hard-and-fast rules.
Still, some of those tendencies are real, and one of those most relevant to our business involves attitudes toward risk. It’s said that 80 percent of women who are bitten by poisonous snakes are struck on the feet or ankles, while 80 percent of male victims are bitten on the hands, arms, or face. While that’s been difficult to verify, a roster of snakebite fatalities in the United States in the past 20 years shows that 85 percent were men—at least half of whom were handling or deliberately provoking the reptiles. Just one woman was holding the snake that bit her.
Something similar comes out of aviation accident statistics. We’ve all heard that only about 6 percent of all U.S. pilots are women. Actually, the proportion varies by certificate level—but at every one, women are involved in far fewer crashes than their share of that population would lead you to expect. Among student and private pilots, those crashes are also significantly less likely to be fatal.
Recent figures from the FAA show that 12.2 percent of student pilots are women, but they only account for 7.2 percent of the accidents on student solos. That’s a 40-percent reduction—and less than 3 percent are fatal compared to more than 6 percent of the solo accidents of male students. Among private pilots, women make up 6.6 percent but are at the controls of just 2 percent of accident flights, and their accidents are 24 percent less likely to end in death.
Six and one-half percent of both commercial pilots and flight instructors are female. They’re involved in 1.25 and 3.4 percent, respectively, of crashes involving those certificate levels. Only among ATPs is there a significantly higher fatality rate with women as pilot in command—but even there, they account for only 1.4 percent of accidents, some 65 percent fewer than their 4 percent share of the population.
Of course, this doesn’t automatically prove that women are better risk managers. Since there’s no reliable source of flight activity broken down by either sex or certificate level, we can’t exclude the possibility that we’re chiefly seeing a difference in exposure. Are female students twice as likely to drop out before their first solos? You probably know better than we do, but it’s hard to see any obvious reason why they should. Do men with private pilot certificates really log more than three times as many hours as women? It’s not impossible, but that doesn’t make it likely.
Specific accident causes don’t provide as much illumination as one might wish. Landings—always the bane of student pilots—account for 56 percent of male students’ solo accidents and 57 percent for females. Among private pilots, the lower fatality rate for women isn’t because they were involved in fewer maneuvering and weather-related accidents, consistently the most common fatal-accident causes. Those make up about 10 percent for both genders. Rather, women suffer fewer fatalities in cruise flight, descent and approach, and midair collisions. They also seem to do a better job of fuel management and are less likely to be either impaired by substance use or physically incapacitated during flight.
One way to get an indirect fix on possible differences in flight activity is to look at accidents precipitated by mechanical breakdowns or unexplained engine stoppages. The argument here is that exposure to causes beyond the pilot’s control should primarily be a function of flight time. Restricting our attention to private pilots (since they only fly GA), we see 69 times as many of these accidents among male pilots as females—although only 14 times as many private pilots are male. Relative to the number of certificate holders, these accidents involved one of every 740 women compared to one of every 143 men.
So maybe male pilots really do fly a lot more, at least at the private level. Or maybe women are more successful at managing those emergencies well enough to avoid the level of damage or injuries that would require an NTSB report. Your experience might suggest an answer. The available data only offers hints.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.