CNN Befuddled by Lack of Glass Ceiling in the US Air Force

In an era in which the media and some parts of society continue to specifically highlight the accomplishments of women — even if those accomplishments are not unique — CNN wrote an interesting article that coincided with the graduation of five women from the US Air Force Test Pilot School last month.

To be fair, it might seem interesting that in a class of 24 students — which included non-US and non-military members — more than 20% were women. Women make up about 20% of the US Air Force as a whole, but historically women have been underrepresented at Test Pilot School — and in aviation as a whole.

In the modern interpretation, the reason for fewer women in aviation or at TPS is external barriers holding them back or down, a point CNN seems to quote Dave Vanhoy, the USAFTPS Technical Director, making:

“It’s a challenge for ladies to break into that field,” he said. “I’m glad to see a change…”

At various points the article seems to strain to point out that being a woman is somehow limiting. For example, the article says [emphasis added]:

They’re part of a community of female aviators who are considered barrier breakers

Yet it never says who considers them “barrier breakers,” and it eventually has to admit the five women themselves don’t consider themselves to be so. Even the article notes women have long attended TPS — as both pilots and engineers — with these five only being the latest of 80 female TPS graduates. One of those 80, Col Sebrina “Poco” Pabon, even serves as the Commandant of the Test Pilot School. Women at USAF TPS even predate Vanhoy’s tenure that began in 1988.

In that regard, there may be a generational bias. Vanhoy may simply be assuming that it’s harder for women to “break into” aviation and TPS. His own students, however, disagreed:

“There was never anything I was told I couldn’t or shouldn’t do,” Horgan said. “I grew up with great examples of female aviators, my mom included, and all of her friends and there was no barrier there.”

“We don’t get it,” Williams said. “Because I personally haven’t experienced any barriers to getting here because of being a woman. It was something I wanted to do — so I did it.”

The “advantages” the women noted were not gender, race, economic class, or any other social strata. In fact, the only notable difference was in the two pilots of the group, both of whom came from Air Force families. They had “access and visibility” wholly unrelated to any other demographic.

The only “barrier” truly cited was universal, not gender-based: knowledge that the Test Pilot School even existed. The statistics seem to bear that out. Vanhoy said that, on average, one to two women are in each class. He also pointed out, however, that less than 10% of the applicants to Test Pilot School are women. Statistically, then, women are entering TPS at about the same acceptance rate as men — there are just fewer applying.

To CNN’s credit, the article is fairly well-written even if it sometimes tries too hard to find an angle. To be fair, it is likely the only reason CNN even found out about the graduating class was an enterprising Public Affairs officer at Edwards Air Force Base wanted to highlight “diversity” in the Air Force.

That said, it’s worth remembering that there are underlying narratives about race, gender, religion, ideology, etc., in society. In fact, that narrative might be why Vanhoy assumes it’s “challenging” for women to enter aviation and TPS, despite evidence to the contrary. Despite frequent and loud media headlines on those narratives, they are rarely — if ever — true. In this day and age, it is refreshing to hear a woman undercut the continuing narrative that men must be creating barriers to women in areas where women are underrepresented.

Instead, she wanted to do something, so she did it.

It’s great that five women graduated from USAF TPS last month, but they did not enter or graduate TPS because they were women. They now wear the patch of the USAF Test Pilot School because they met the standards required of them — as did the 19 unnamed men who graduated with them. That is something worthy of congratulations.

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