Lighting up the Brain for Aviation

January 15th, 2014 by Jolie Lucas

Male/Female BrainRecently I was having a discussion with a pair of aviation magazine owners and editors. We were talking about how many female pilots have been featured on their magazine’s cover over the years. We reasoned that since the female pilot population is 6-7% of the overall pilot population, that 6-7% of aviation magazine covers should be of women pilots. Yet they certainly weren’t, so we talked about why it seems to be so hard to get girls and young women interested in aviation.

Last year at Oshkosh, I presented a seminar for Build-a-Plane Teacher’s Day on the differences in male and female brains, and how those differences could influence the way students learn about aviation. I thought it might be interesting to touch on some of the highlights of that seminar and perhaps illuminate what I see as some of the challenges of getting females involved in flying.

I will start off by saying that I am not a brain researcher, and this is a basic review of the current science, and is by no means exhaustive. Yet as a practicing psychotherapist for 25 years, I think that I do have some insight in this subject. You should also know that there are exceptions to the facts and we can train our brain to do less than innate activities.

Here is the short story: I versus We:  Competence versus Connection.  The male brain is organized and focused more on him as an individual, striving for mastery.  The female brain is wired for communication, connection and cooperation.

Men have slightly larger brains even when adjusted for their larger heads. They have larger parietal cortices (in charge of space perception), and amygdalas (which regulates sexual and social behavior). This might explain why visual-spatial tasks are easier for men. They tend to be able visually manipulate things in their brain, whereas women tend to need to see spaces and shapes on paper.

Men also have more gray matter in their brains, which is full of active neurons. This might explain why there are more men in physically or mentally active professions like airplane pilots, bush guides, racecar drivers, and mathematicians. Men also tend to be more systematic in their thinking.

Women’s brains are 8-10% smaller than the male brain, yet on average, are much more active. Women have larger volume in both the frontal cortex (the inner CEO) and the limbic cortex (involved in emotional responses). This, in conjunction with speedy connections facilitated by the white matter, is another reason why women’s brains work faster. Renowned brain researcher, Dr. Daniel Amen’s research shows that women have greater activity in the brain’s hippocampus. If you wonder why your wife or girlfriend never forgets anything, here’s your answer: The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps store memories.

In addition, the female brain has a larger corpus callosum, which is a bundle of nerves that connects emotion and cognition. As a result, women are better with language abilities and rely more heavily on oral or verbal communication. They also tend to have a better time controlling emotions, although they are more emotional. Women, on average use four words to every one word a man uses. The female brain secretes more serotonin and oxytocin, which connects them further to the emotional world.

These differences relate to aviation because when we know what lights up the brain for each gender we can tailor our sales pitch to the crowd. In sum, boys or men will be excited about the individual mastery, competition, or competence in aviation. Girls or women will be excited to be part of a collaborative group of women pilots. Boys or men might be better with conceptualizing basic principles of flight. Girls or women would learn better by hands-on demonstration.

When I display at airport events with the Mooney Ambassador group, we get lots of kids and grown ups in the airplane. I never fail to say to the girls, “have you thought about becoming a pilot? I am and I love it. We need more girl pilots.” You should see their eyes (brain) light up.

Brain Lit!

Brain Lit!

Future Aviatrix

Future Aviatrix


Jolie Lucas

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, private pilot, and Founder of two grass-roots general aviation service groups, Mooney Ambassadors and the Friends of Oceano Airport She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Jolie is the Contributing Editor for AOPA Airport Support Network newsletter. She the director and executive producer of the documentary: Boots on the Ground: the Men & Women who made Mooney. She created Mooney Girls Mooney Girls to inspire women to become pilots and females to become aircraft owners. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Mooney4Me


The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Mireille Goyer

    “We talked about why it seems to be so hard to get girls and young women interested in aviation.”

    Really? Since 2010, the Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week outreach initiative has demonstrated that all you have to do is specifically invite them to take a look.

    In fact, in 2013, we welcomed 18,000 girls and women in aviation facilities during the week. A survey among the participants found that 77% of the respondents said that they would consider aviation for pleasure or a career in aviation as a result of their experience. I would state with great confidence that girls are pretty interested.

    We have found that our biggest hurdle is not interesting girls; our biggest hurdle is motivating actors in the industry to welcome them. We usually have more demand than we can accommodate at each location.

    As far as women’s representation in aviation media, I raised that issue in 2010 in an AVweb op ed. Having researched the facts prior to publication and tracked changes afterwards, I must say that I’m overall pleased with the industry’s response to my call for more female representation in aviation media. The effort is obvious. Could it be expanded? Certainly. However, balance is the key. If it were up to me, I would not aim for a ‘girl’ cover or a ‘boy’ cover; I would aim for an ‘inclusive’ cover.

    I’d love to know the source of your ‘brain’ data. Did you sneeze when you open the book? It sounds like the data dates from the time when women did not have the ‘brain’ to drive cars more than 100 years ago. Today, they constitute the majority of car drivers in the western world and are statistically the safest drivers.

    I guess a ‘small size’ brain can achieve great things after all. But then again, according to pathologist Thomas Harvey, Einstein’s brain was smaller than average so no surprise there.

    • Drew Shannon

      I believe the brain data is quite current, though of course it represents statistical averages and is not necessarily a predictor of any individual’s capabilities. However, as I have pointed out to others who were curious about what it means, MAC and PC computers are wired quite differently yet both function quite well each with its own version of certain common applications. It is true that any given computer architecture has certain tasks that it performs more or less quickly or easily as compared with other architectures, but the efficiency of its software is a separate matter from the raw efficiency of its hardware; and overall performance is determined by a combination of the two.

      A couple features of your report seem to me to reflect what the author noted about a female tendency toward preferring cooperative ventures. You mentioned that all that seemed needed was an invitation, and that a sense of welcome was also a factor. Young men seem more likely to pursue the aviation adventure even despite active discouragement. The author’s point seemed to me well taken that consideration of such tendencies, that may be based on brain architecture just as much as they are based on social structures, could contribute positively to redressing the gender imbalance within aviation.

      Regardless of gender considerations, it is desirable to encourage future pilots by all practical means.

      • Mireille Goyer

        Drew, I don’t see too many men taking up the activities that society tells them that are not ‘well-equipped’ to perform (such as home making, parenting, nursing, teaching…). Why would one expect many women to take up activities that society constantly tells them they are ‘well-equipped’ to perform?

        There is plenty of up-to-date science about the influence of perception on the human mind. It turns out that ‘small’ brains and ‘big’ brains don’t seek activities that they don’t believe they can’t succeed at. That ‘belief’ is heavily shaped by society’s constraints.

        The invitation I’m speaking of is about offsetting society’s negative messaging towards women (which, unfortunately, this article cultivates), not some 1900’s ‘science’ that pretends that women need to be prompted or invited to do anything.

        Going through college is hardly described as an environment absent of “active discouragement”, yet 60% of college graduate today are women. It is estimated that, by 2020, that percentage will rise to 70%. Since a college degree is required to get an airline pilot job, it is more than time for the industry to “wake up to the new reality and smell the roses”. This article is NOT a step towards that.

  • Daryl M. Williams

    Fascinating. I am a trial lawyer. Lots and lots of jury trials over the course of 37 years. All complex, commercial cases, and some aviation work because I am a commercial/instrument, MEL pilot. Thousands of hours. I study people because it is people in the box judging my cases. It is a mistake to think that personality typing, which dates to at Hippocrates, c. 400 BC and Galen, AD 131–200, is not essential to understanding how people approach resolution of issues, whether in the jury box or life in general. Likewise, long experience teaches that women and men just think differently. I tell my clients and witnesses and new lawyers that women have more capacity to think with their entire brain, everything connecting with everything else. Less gets by the woman, who is always processing more information than the man; the man tends to compartmentalize things, moving from one box in his brain, to use a metaphor, to another. Indeed, I understand that there are fewer neural synapses connecting the left and right hemispheres of the male brain, and my experience with hundreds and hundreds of jurors does nothing to disabuse me of that notion. I, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, tell clients and witnesses, both male and female, that testosterone is a poison that destroys some brain architecture, but leaves the man better able to focus on particular problems without distractions–tunnel vision from the perspective of the woman. The man has a box in his brain with nothing in it, so when his wife asks what he is think about and he says, “Nothing,” he really is at idle, which the woman cannot understand because she is never thinking about nothing. Moreover, the male brain does not fully mature (develop) until about age 30 while the female brain is fully functional by age 18 to 20. I know how to put all of this together in the courtroom, but I do not know how to apply it to flying. I know this, though: I’d rather have women doing ATC work than men because they can see and track more happening than the man and the higher pitch of their voice makes them easier to understand on the radio.

  • Tony

    I very much appreciate this article as well as the informative responses in the comments section. I want to encourage my young daughter to join the world of aviation, and any insight into how best to do so is helpful. Thank you!

    • Rick Vinas

      Take her flying! She will either love it or not. Some youngsters like it and some don’t.

  • Susan Wonderling

    Hey Jolie – I enjoyed reading your article. I too, always try to get kids of all ages interested in flying by giving airport tours, rides, letting the kids sit in many of the airplanes and gliders around the airport (with owner permission) and enthusiastically telling them how much fun it is to fly. I also invite organizations around our area to bring kids down for a short presentation and tour of the airport. Sometimes we invite kids who show some interest to help out with ground operations in the glider club, under strict supervision of course. I’ve even assisted them in finding donations to help fund their flying lessons.

    I just wanted to offer my two cents of what I’ve learned by asking many girls & ladies over the years “why they haven’t taken steps to get their wings, when they seem to enjoy flying so much”. The answer that I get most often is because they think the mechanical part will be too tough for them to understand. That’s why I always show them what I’m looking at and checking for during a preflight. I try to impress on them that the mechanical part really isn’t that difficult.

    I just feel like, if I can get ANY kid interested in becoming a pilot – I’m doing good. There are so many other things (like computer games) to compete with. Let’s keep trying though! I always say – you either love it or you hate it. You can generally tell if a kid is crazy about flying or mildly interested out of boredom. The ones who are crazy for flying are the ones I will go way out of my way for.


  • Michele

    I’ll add a girly perspective, with no scientific foundation other than personal observation.

    If stereotypes weren’t true most of the time, the jokes wouldn’t be funny.

    So I agree with most of the authors assumptions, I disagree that the low 6% female pilot ratio is just a matter of outreach. I believe the 6% is the exception to the rule.

    Women are a collaborative species, as a rule. However, speaking for myself, I’d rather go to the dentist than “go shopping”. If I need an item, it’s more of a “seek and destroy mission” than a shopping adventure.

    As much as I like the color pink, I’d much rather discuss politics than which celebrity just got a divorce, or which blonde socialite just got out of rehab.

    For 25 years, I was a computer programmer, so I see the solution to most problems as very black and white. True/False, On/Off, Zero/One.

    Flying an aircraft is an individual endeavor that we strive to master. Even when I fly with passengers, it is not a social gathering. Whether we land successfully or die in a fiery ball is solely due to my skill and decision-making. Communication with ATC is not a staff meeting to discuss ideas. ATC is a remarkable tool at my disposal.

    And then there’s the technical and mechanical knowledge required to be a pilot. One of the questions on my oral exam was “describe your plane’s electrical systems”

    These things are not beyond the ability of most women. I think it’s just not in the comfort zone of most women. Call me a hybrid… An exception to the rule

    • http:[email protected] Sharon Stewart

      I agree with you Michele. I am currently working on my Commerciial ticket and I noticed that the women pilots that I know are the exception to the rule. I enjoy the “hunt” as much as I do the “gathering”!

    • Jan Squillace

      Michele, you are right on target.

      Yes, the author’s assumptions may be correct about the average woman, they certainly don’t accommodate us individuals. I have gotten accustomed to being the only woman on the programming team, the only female in a room full of pilots. Being ignored at the FBO desk because they served pilots.

      What is more insidious is the unconscious discouragement from family and friends toward flying. I was told for years that “girls can’t be good pilots, you don’t think logically”, “flying is dangerous, think of your small children who depend on you”, “aren’t you scared? You ought to be scared. I would be too frightened to be a pilot” and so on and so on.

      It takes personal courage to get beyond this and actually get in the cockpit and do it. Also, finding a group of friends who understand is extremely helpful. Having started flying after my younger child graduated from High School, I am enjoying my time in the air. My pilot friends at the flying club (mostly male, but not all) and my chapter of 99s has made all the difference.

  • Robert Dryden

    ‘Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps’ by Allan & Barbara Pease is a book that has given me much food for thought about the difference in brains of both genders and how much of that is determined by timely hormonal presence during critical times of gestation. It is an entertaining read of what the differences are and how to appreciate them backed by serious research.

  • Candice H. Brown Elliott

    I have a background in psychology and psychophysics… and have a keen interest in sexually dimorphic brain structures. Although there are differences between men and women, it is NOT in the areas that were discussed. Sadly, these are mostly reheated leftovers from sexual stereotypes.

    I am a CFI. I work at a flight school with more than 6% female participation. I can tell you that the love of flying is NOT sexually dimorphic… nor is women’s participation limited by social discouragement in the sense described above. It is ALL about money.

    Flying is an expensive hobby. One needs a fair amount of disposable income. Women earn less than men, period. The amount of money that is available for hobbies is not a fixed percentage of income, but that amount above one’s cost of living. So, young single women don’t have as much disposable income. The second issue is that women who are older, in the peak flying years, in two income families, will be earning less than their husband. Unless that husband also wants to fly, she will have a tough time convincing her husband that is OK to take the lion’s share of their disposable income for her hobbies, and ask him to curtail his. (Oh… but men have no problem asking the reverse!)

    Thus, it is all about money… and about social expectations for how money is allocated within one’s family. I often meet women who are recently divorced, who finally get the chance to learn to fly… now that their money is their own.

    • Arty Trost

      Candice, I think there are many reasons why women pilots are such a small % of the population – and I think a large reason is just what you said. We are socialized to try and minimize our “economic footprint” in the family income: it’s acceptable that men will buy expensive toys (motorboats, motorcycles, hunting and fishing trips,) even if their female partners don’t participate in those activities. Yet it’s not socially acceptable for women to spend the same type of money for their own pleasure…ESPECIALLY if their husbands don’t participate. And, as you mentioned, most women don’t earn at the same level as their husbands/partners, so they often feel even less “qualified” to spend family money on themselves. I’m really fortunate that my husband – while he doesn’t understand my flying obsession – encourages me to spend “our” money on my passion.

    • Rick Vinas

      You replaced one stereotype with another. I hang out with literally hundreds of men whose wives/daughters participate in equestrian events and who have curtailed their hobbies at the expense of their wives’ hobby. Almost all of us have subordinated our desires to the benefit of our wives. Equestrian events are the opposite of pilot events—almost all young women and a smattering of young men. Is it possible that society influences women to love horses more than men do or is it innate differences?

    • Tamara Griffith

      As an instructor and pilot, yes money is the universal problem, and we often see even male students who was respecting ‘mom’ or ‘wife’ wishes that aviation was too dangerous so they waited and waited. And flying is expensive, but many folks it becomes not about the money but doing what they love. How many of the same say flying is expensive yet are buying a boat for fishn, bass boats often expensive and don’t have value later like airplanes, or have high end cars yet a plane is expensive. Often it’s a myth, it’s a choice to spend the money elsewhere especially if one area is percieved safe and the others not.

  • W1DNA

    I definitely agree with you that it’s about social expectations around resource allocation, and it’s not just money. I am a married woman in my late 30’s, and I just got my Sport ticket a couple months ago. My husband does not fly. I work full time as an academic researcher (which means that yes, I am the underpaid partner), so flying lessons at an airport an hour and a half drive away (it’s hard to find a place to take lessons in an LSA) means that I wake up Saturday mornings and am out the door right away and am back in the late afternoon. People have expressed shock that my husband “puts up” with this level of “neglect.” Basically, women are expected to be always available for just in case their family needs them – disappearing for the substantial chunk of time it takes to take flying lessons is seen as very poor form. Given the social context, women are going to feel guilty enough about taking the time and money for flying lessons in the first place that even the slightest whiff of disapproval from their family is going to be an enormous barrier to overcome.

    It would be interesting to collect some demographics on which women are the ones that *do* learn to fly – how many of them come from families that fly? How many of them are the only pilot in their family? How many of them were the *first* person in their family to learn to fly?

    • Arty Trost

      W1DNA – I responded to Candice’s post before scrolling down and seeing yours. The issue of time is a very big factor. I do extreme long distance ultralight/LSA flying – for the past 14 years I’ve taken an annual 3-4 week flight, as well as at least two other week-long flights. my longest flight was from Sandy, Oregon to Sun ‘n Fun and back. Seven absolutely marvelous weeks of flying and camping under my wing. I can’t tell you the number of people who are appalled that my husband “lets” me be gone for so long…and that he holds down the family fort in my absence. Norm gets teased – sometimes unmercifully – about his lack of spunk since he can’t “keep me under control”!!

  • Jolie Lucas
  • Jill Oakes

    Hi Jolie
    You have done an exceptional job of focusing on the key differences. At the University of Manitoba we are testing the benefit of women pilots and pilots in training or friends being part of a collaborative group and learning via hands on demonstration. So far the results have been extraordinary for the women; male aviators and the aviation industry has been most supportive. Several experienced flight instructors have consciously shifted their instructing to insure gender differences in learning styles are supported. In addition established aviators have provided $1000s of dollars to provide women entering aviation with financial support. As Jim Oke said, including the other 50% of the population in the aviation industry simply makes good economic sense, our industry can’t afford to do otherwise.

    It would be awesome if you’d like to participate in the U of MB study on gender barriers in the aviation industry…funny that engineering, law, medicine, and other disciplines have effectively become more gender balanced over the last 20 years.

    Thank you so much for sharing your research, I look forward to meeting you one of these days.

  • Heather

    I for one question the methodology and validity of any scientific inquiry that begins by seeking difference – as we usually find that which we aim to seek. In this case, the “differences” discovered between male and female brains become the scientific basis for the justification and perpetuation of gender based stereotypes and discrimination. Furthermore, when biology is the only factor being considered, other viable explanations such as upbringing, economic status, education, societal roles and expectations, etc. get overlooked.

    As a female pilot I overcome a certain amount of discrimination on a daily basis in pursuit of my passion for flying. For example, when I called the FSDO office to update my private pilot certificate, the man on the phone questioned me to ask if I meant private pilot or if really meant flight attendant. On another occasion, I arrived at my local airport to go fly and was asked by two pilots if I was the passenger they were expecting for their charter flight that day. Finally, I am constantly referred to as the “guy” in other plane by pilots who assume all other pilots are male until the sound of a voice reveals that not to be the case. It could be that the reality of facing a lifetime of experiences like these may be the underlying reason why women don’t pursue aviation. Perhaps if the folks in aviation spent time looking critically at their own practices and assumptions, they will see that the issue is much bigger than biological difference. In other words – investigate mindsets as well as minds.

  • Peg

    This ties right in to Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax. Too often our “one size fits all” approach overlooks individual differences as well as GENDER differences. This is part of why I chose to be a CFI. Too many instructors want the programed approach, not an individual one.

  • Gene

    What a great pilot we would have if we could combine the best of the M and F brains. Wonder if M/F cockpit crew would outperform a M/M and F/F?

  • Suzy

    Hello, I’m a female who’s working on my Private Pilot’s License right now. After reading the article, and most of the comments, I feel there were truths and falsehoods on each point made. My personal feelings are that I have always wanted to fly, but I did not have the support from my family or my friends. Maybe they were afraid for me or that flying was something that feared themselves, so they didn’t want me to do it either. I do not know. The other problem was I never had the finical ability to pay for lessons, until now. Would I have preferred earned my pilot’s license in my teens or twenties? Sure. But I’m 40, and I think I will completely enjoy having my license. I may not be able to make it a career, but I’m sure I will have fun. I do agree that the media drives our youth into believing what is “cool”; unfortunately, I think it’s pushing our youth in the wrong direction. Flying is cool! Having that kind of freedom is cool! The smell of exhaust and fuel on your hands is COOL!! Thanks and keep flying!!

  • Kathryn

    When I asked my Vietnam helicopter pilot flight instructor if I learned any differently from any of his other (male) students, he said “no, you make the same predictable mistakes they do.” At 66, I’m still on the way to my goal of 1000 hours PIC.

  • Tamara Griffith

    I am an instructor, coprorate pilot, airframe and powerplant licensed with an IA. Society is biggest shaper nowdays of what girls and boys do. Think back to your toys or your kids toys, often was segregated as boys and girls, even Legos is marketed bright colors and dark colors for boys and pastels and light colors for girls. Tools and such marketed for boys, dolls and homemaking for girls. I was raised with the Barbies, the townhouse, stuffed toys, toy cars, train sets, tools, motorcycle, dresses and overalls. Very few things were off limit for being a girl. My own kids too, my son played with his sisters toys as much as his own stuff including house which he carried the baby dolls, patting them etc, and my reaction to him was what a good daddy he was being, the girls often played the games of leaving for work or the mommy role.
    This is where it has to start.
    Our own experiences in helping women not only start in aviation but especially continue to the finish and beyond has shown us multiple reasons why women are less than 6% in aviation. From fears, made to feel stupid (even the ones in advanced knowledge careers), discrimination, harassment and just feeling alone (being the only female at the airport etc). It’s my job as an instructor to inspire learning, which means sometimes I have to tailor my methods for each student. Our Gift week often provides the social networking, communication etc. marketing to women isn’t about throwing some girls color on a headset or tool handle, it’s about marketing to their unique way of seeing the same world. Yes having more women on the covers of magazine, more women in leading roles of advertisements. Not just showing hey look wow a female pilot, but more of say an female in a leading role of a flight school or business, just like would do for a male in the same position.
    Now go think carefully about what you buy your kids, are buying with discrimination in mind or expanding their horizons.

  • Lynda Meeks

    I read this article when it first came out and was really excited about the conclusions that it drew. Now with revisiting it, I see the wide range of comments that it has evoked. Without going too far off the topic of the article, Jolie’s topic validated many of the conclusions I have drawn while promoting more girls’ interest in aviation for over ten years with my nonprofit organization, Girls With Wings. I learned through trial and error that what most excited the girls was the hands on presentations I made, especially learning the phonetic alphabet, making radio calls, and figuring out the aeronautical charts! I learned early on that speaking about my career in aviation to both boys and girls meant that the girls were often left out. The boys were more assertive and asked more questions, mostly about what weapons were installed on the military aircraft I had flown! Even while making presentations to only girls, especially to ones that had hit the teen years, they could be very shy and hesitant to put themselves out there. They needed encouragement and the support of the other members of their “flight crew.” This is the stuff that matters, and if it works, we should pursue it. When these girls get more involved in aviation, it also helps to be part of a group doing the same thing. Comments on the GWW organization always talk about the value of getting to know others in their same situation. Role models and mentors matter. Thank you for doing so with your Mooney Ambassador’s Group and thank you for this post.

    • Jolie Lucas

      Thank you Lynda. I believe we all need to do our part. As I mentioned in the beginning of the blog, I am not a brain researcher and we can build exceptions to every brain “rule”.
      As a long-time volunteer and advocate for GA I thought it might be helpful for folks to do some experimenting on their own. Ask a boy if he would like to be a member of an all-male flying association [though I can’t think of one] and ask a girl to visualize a bearing off a compass rose. She if there are any brain flickers. Change the gender and see what happens.
      Food for thought!

      Let’s keep inspiring the love of flight in males and females.

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