Filipina Pilot Soars through the Glass Ceiling: Jenny Alexis Caburian

by | Mar 21, 2019 | blog | 0 comments

Of all the sectors in the global travel industry, the gender gap is most notable in the aviation sector. Even at a time when efforts such as that of the Time’s Up movement and UN Women’s Planet 50-50 by 2030 shed light on gender inequality in the workplace, the gender gap is still glaring in aviation, both in the boardroom and the cockpit.

Quite a few women occupy c-suites. According to the International Air Transport Association, just 3% of airline chief executives are women.

The figures are just as unforgiving when it comes to pilots. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, merely 7% of the 609,000 pilots in the US were women. In the Philippines, records from the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) show that there were only 25 certified aviatrixes in the first quarter of 2015.

Jenny Alexis Caburian, an aspiring pilot, hopes to gain altitude and soar through the glass ceiling.

Defying Gravity

Alexis’ love for flying started when she was young. She recalls: “When I was about eight or nine, we had neighbors who built light planes. They assembled a Cessna 172 and took my family out on a city tour around Baguio. I remember being so amazed by the view from above. It was such an unnatural thing for man to be flying, but there we were, defying gravity. As soon as we alighted, I announced to my neighbors and family that I would be a pilot.”

Growing up, she discovered that she also had a knack for writing. As most airline companies require their pilots to have a college degree, she pursued BA Communication at the University of the Philippines Baguio – and became a Magna Cum Laude, nonetheless.

Soon after she graduated, Alexis enrolled at OMNI Aviation to pursue her childhood dream.

 

Breaking Gender Roles

For women who want to enter the cockpit, role models remain few and far between. Often, men are shown as pilots, and women as flight attendants.

Alexis was exposed to this reality at a young age. She recalls: “In my third grade English class, ‘pilot’ was classified as a masculine noun. Growing up, I was also often asked: ‘Oh, you want to be a pilot? Why not a stewardess?’” she shares. “Don’t get me wrong, being a stewardess is fine, but my brother, who is also a pilot, was never asked that question growing up!

“I’ve been obsessing on Captain Marvel lately. Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) was a female fighter pilot and in the film, someone had told her, ‘It’s called a cockpit for a reason!’ I think that very much portrays how many people think of women in the aviation industry – like they’re deviants.”

But the knowledge that aviation is a male-dominated industry – or the possibility of being seen a deviant — did nothing to dampen her spirits. Alexis remained steadfast in achieving her dreams of becoming a pilot, and if anything, she used these comments to her advantage. She shares: “I was even more determined. These naysayers fueled my drive to become a pilot all the more.”

The Real Challenge

Alexis admits that she felt pressure at the beginning of her training, especially because her brother has left such big shoes to fill at OMNI.  But later on, she realized that people’s expectations are beyond her control: “I learned that I cannot control what others might expect or think of me, but I can control how I respond. I don’t let their expectations get into my head. I only worry now about what I expect of myself.”

For Alexis, the real challenge isn’t in penetrating the male-dominated aviation industry: it was in staying in. She recalls: “I got high grades in ground school, but initially, I was bad at handling. I knew my touch and gos, I knew all of the procedures by heart, but I couldn’t perfect my handling. My body wouldn’t cooperate with my mind and as someone who is used to excelling and having control over things, this frustrated me.”

She remembers an article by James Fallows that appeared in the August 1996 issue of The Atlantic, with the title “Throwing Like a Girl.” Fallows wrote the piece thinking of the opening of the 1994 baseball season, when Hillary Clinton was pictured in the middle of an action that other people would describe as “throwing (a baseball) like a girl.”

Alexis explains Fallows’ article: Fallows dwells on the fact that women and men are brought up differently, according to what society deems as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ for their gender – men are taught to play sports, while women are usually made to play with dolls or play cook. He says men throw a baseball better than women because they are trained to do so, growing up. Imagine you train your right hand to write and then someone makes you write with your left hand. Your left-hand writing will not be good simply because you did not train it.

“I have a theory that’s the reason men have better hand-eye coordination and handling. I would later be told by one of my flight instructors that my handling is not as bad as I think and that he believes I could excel if I remove all distractions in my head. My other flight instructor also told me that he knows by experience that even though female students initially have a hard time, once they get it, they progress quicker than men.”

Her First Solo

The number 13 is seen as a bad omen for many – Alexis included. She remembers bad things happening to her on the 13th day of the month that she started dreading it – so much that she even asked her flight instructor not to schedule any flights for her on that date.

“Trying to stay away from the 13th, I said I would solo on the 12th instead.” But come the 12th, there was a thick haze that wouldn’t budge, she had to stay on standby the entire day.

The next day, the weather condition remained unchanged. “I had been waiting at OMNI the whole day and the weather looked hopeless.” But just as she was about to tell her family that they should just try again the next week, she heard on the radio that the VFR opened – which means that the skies are clear enough to allow her to fly and see things.

Later in the day, she was onboard a plane to do her first solo. She describes her experience: “When my instructor alighted the plane, I felt anxious. My life was in my own hands now. One mistake and things could go awry. There would be no one to tell me what I’m doing wrong or what I should do. I had to trust my own judgment. I got out alive, though. My solo finally happened, and on the 13th!”

Championing Feminism in the Industry

On a regular day, Alexis gets ready at least two hours before her flight schedule. When people ask her why she wakes up too early, she proudly says she takes her time doing her skincare routine and her makeup. “I like to embrace my femininity because I think there’s strength in that. Some days, I feel too lazy to put on make-up and fix my hair and that’s alright, too.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the aviation industry isn’t discriminatory to women. But while the industry is never blatantly sexist, Alexis says she still encounters gender issues that may take time to be weeded out. “I still notice remnants of micro-sexism in the language and actions of some people. (When that happens), I wrap my head around the fact that the machismo brought about by the longstanding male domination in the industry cannot be easily uprooted.”

But the industry is not without progress. Alexis says that most people are respectful, and she can tell that more men in the industry are becoming allies of feminism.

With efforts coming from both government and non-government organizations to make the workforce more inclusive for women, more opportunities are starting to open up for female aviatrixes. While Alexis thinks it’s nice to have an advantage, grit is still essential: “Let it be luck that gets us into the door. But let our perseverance and determination make us stay; this way, no one can say we do not deserve what we have.”

“I never considered my sex as a disadvantage or the opposite sex as an intimidation. I was very idealistic about entering this industry. I had a hopeful attitude that things have changed and time has brought progress. I was thrilled that to some extent, I would represent women and I hope I represent them well.”

Of all the sectors in the global travel industry, the gender gap is most notable in the aviation sector. Even at a time when efforts such as that of the Time’s Up movement and UN Women’s Planet 50-50 by 2030 shed light on gender inequality in the workplace, the gender gap is still glaring in aviation, both in the boardroom and the cockpit.

Quite a few women occupy c-suites. According to the International Air Transport Association, just 3% of airline chief executives are women.

The figures are just as unforgiving when it comes to pilots. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, merely 7% of the 609,000 pilots in the US were women. In the Philippines, records from the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) show that there were only 25 certified aviatrixes in the first quarter of 2015.

Jenny Alexis Caburian, an aspiring pilot, hopes to gain altitude and soar through the glass ceiling.

Defying Gravity

Alexis’ love for flying started when she was young. She recalls: “When I was about eight or nine, we had neighbors who built light planes. They assembled a Cessna 172 and took my family out on a city tour around Baguio. I remember being so amazed by the view from above. It was such an unnatural thing for man to be flying, but there we were, defying gravity. As soon as we alighted, I announced to my neighbors and family that I would be a pilot.”

Growing up, she discovered that she also had a knack for writing. As most airline companies require their pilots to have a college degree, she pursued BA Communication at the University of the Philippines Baguio – and became a Magna Cum Laude, nonetheless.

Soon after she graduated, Alexis enrolled at OMNI Aviation to pursue her childhood dream.

 

Breaking Gender Roles

For women who want to enter the cockpit, role models remain few and far between. Often, men are shown as pilots, and women as flight attendants.

Alexis was exposed to this reality at a young age. She recalls: “In my third grade English class, ‘pilot’ was classified as a masculine noun. Growing up, I was also often asked: ‘Oh, you want to be a pilot? Why not a stewardess?’” she shares. “Don’t get me wrong, being a stewardess is fine, but my brother, who is also a pilot, was never asked that question growing up!

“I’ve been obsessing on Captain Marvel lately. Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) was a female fighter pilot and in the film, someone had told her, ‘It’s called a cockpit for a reason!’ I think that very much portrays how many people think of women in the aviation industry – like they’re deviants.”

But the knowledge that aviation is a male-dominated industry – or the possibility of being seen a deviant — did nothing to dampen her spirits. Alexis remained steadfast in achieving her dreams of becoming a pilot, and if anything, she used these comments to her advantage. She shares: “I was even more determined. These naysayers fueled my drive to become a pilot all the more.”

The Real Challenge

Alexis admits that she felt pressure at the beginning of her training, especially because her brother has left such big shoes to fill at OMNI.  But later on, she realized that people’s expectations are beyond her control: “I learned that I cannot control what others might expect or think of me, but I can control how I respond. I don’t let their expectations get into my head. I only worry now about what I expect of myself.”

For Alexis, the real challenge isn’t in penetrating the male-dominated aviation industry: it was in staying in. She recalls: “I got high grades in ground school, but initially, I was bad at handling. I knew my touch and gos, I knew all of the procedures by heart, but I couldn’t perfect my handling. My body wouldn’t cooperate with my mind and as someone who is used to excelling and having control over things, this frustrated me.”

She remembers an article by James Fallows that appeared in the August 1996 issue of The Atlantic, with the title “Throwing Like a Girl.” Fallows wrote the piece thinking of the opening of the 1994 baseball season, when Hillary Clinton was pictured in the middle of an action that other people would describe as “throwing (a baseball) like a girl.”

Alexis explains Fallows’ article: Fallows dwells on the fact that women and men are brought up differently, according to what society deems as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ for their gender – men are taught to play sports, while women are usually made to play with dolls or play cook. He says men throw a baseball better than women because they are trained to do so, growing up. Imagine you train your right hand to write and then someone makes you write with your left hand. Your left-hand writing will not be good simply because you did not train it.

“I have a theory that’s the reason men have better hand-eye coordination and handling. I would later be told by one of my flight instructors that my handling is not as bad as I think and that he believes I could excel if I remove all distractions in my head. My other flight instructor also told me that he knows by experience that even though female students initially have a hard time, once they get it, they progress quicker than men.”

Her First Solo

The number 13 is seen as a bad omen for many – Alexis included. She remembers bad things happening to her on the 13th day of the month that she started dreading it – so much that she even asked her flight instructor not to schedule any flights for her on that date.

“Trying to stay away from the 13th, I said I would solo on the 12th instead.” But come the 12th, there was a thick haze that wouldn’t budge, she had to stay on standby the entire day.

The next day, the weather condition remained unchanged. “I had been waiting at OMNI the whole day and the weather looked hopeless.” But just as she was about to tell her family that they should just try again the next week, she heard on the radio that the VFR opened – which means that the skies are clear enough to allow her to fly and see things.

Later in the day, she was onboard a plane to do her first solo. She describes her experience: “When my instructor alighted the plane, I felt anxious. My life was in my own hands now. One mistake and things could go awry. There would be no one to tell me what I’m doing wrong or what I should do. I had to trust my own judgment. I got out alive, though. My solo finally happened, and on the 13th!”

Championing Feminism in the Industry

On a regular day, Alexis gets ready at least two hours before her flight schedule. When people ask her why she wakes up too early, she proudly says she takes her time doing her skincare routine and her makeup. “I like to embrace my femininity because I think there’s strength in that. Some days, I feel too lazy to put on make-up and fix my hair and that’s alright, too.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the aviation industry isn’t discriminatory to women. But while the industry is never blatantly sexist, Alexis says she still encounters gender issues that may take time to be weeded out. “I still notice remnants of micro-sexism in the language and actions of some people. (When that happens), I wrap my head around the fact that the machismo brought about by the longstanding male domination in the industry cannot be easily uprooted.”

But the industry is not without progress. Alexis says that most people are respectful, and she can tell that more men in the industry are becoming allies of feminism.

With efforts coming from both government and non-government organizations to make the workforce more inclusive for women, more opportunities are starting to open up for female aviatrixes. While Alexis thinks it’s nice to have an advantage, grit is still essential: “Let it be luck that gets us into the door. But let our perseverance and determination make us stay; this way, no one can say we do not deserve what we have.”

“I never considered my sex as a disadvantage or the opposite sex as an intimidation. I was very idealistic about entering this industry. I had a hopeful attitude that things have changed and time has brought progress. I was thrilled that to some extent, I would represent women and I hope I represent them well.”