SHANGHAI (Reuters) - When Han Siyuan first decided to apply for a job as a pilot cadet in 2008, she was up against 400 female classmates in China on tests measuring everything from their command of English to the length of their legs.
Eventually, she became the only woman from her university that Shanghai-based Spring Airlines (601021.SS) picked for training that year. She is now a captain for the Chinese budget carrier, but it has not become much easier for the women who have come after her.
Han is one of just 713 women in China who, at the end of 2017, held a license to fly civilian aircraft, compared with 55,052 men. Of Spring Airlines’ 800 pilots, only six are women.
“I’ve gotten used to living in a man’s world,” she said.
China’s proportion of female pilots – at 1.3 percent - is one of the world’s lowest, which analysts and pilots attribute to social perceptions and male-centric hiring practices by Chinese airlines.
But Chinese airlines are struggling with an acute pilot shortage amid surging travel demand, and female pilots are drawing attention to the gender imbalance.
Chinese carriers will need 128,000 new pilots over the next two decades, according to forecasts by planemaker Boeing Co (BA.N), and the shortfall has so far prompted airlines to aggressively hire foreign captains and Chinese regulators to relax physical entry requirements for cadets.
“The mission is to start cutting down the thorns that cover this road, to make it easier for those who come after us,” said Chen Jingxian, a Shanghai-based lawyer who learned to fly in the United States and is among those urging change.
Such issues are not confined to China; the proportion of female pilots in South Korea and Japan, where such jobs do not conform to widespread gender stereotypes, is also less than 3 percent.
But it is a sharp contrast to the situation in India, which, like China, has a fast-growing aviation market. But thanks to aggressive recruiting and support such as day care, India has the world’s highest proportion of female commercial pilots, at 12 percent.
China’s airlines only hire cadets directly from universities or the military. They often limit recruitment drives to male applicants and very rarely take in female cohorts.
In addition, unlike in other markets, such as the United States, China does not allow people to convert private flying licenses to commercial certificates for flying airliners.
Li Haipeng, deputy director of the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China’s general aviation department, said many airlines were also dissuaded to hire women by generous maternity leave policies. That has been further aggravated by Beijing’s move in 2015 to change the one-child policy, he added.
“Male pilots do not have the issue of not being able to fly for two years after giving birth, and after the introduction of the second-child policy, airlines are not willing to recruit and train a pilot only to have her not being able to fly for about five years,” he said.
He said Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines had all made some effort to recruit female pilots, adding “nearly all other companies do not.”
Pilots said that hiring decisions were usually left to individual airlines and did not appear to be driven by the country’s regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, whose recruitment requirements do not mention gender.
Xiamen Airlines, a China Southern subsidiary, told Reuters it offers up to 540 days of maternity leave. It started recruiting female pilots in 2008, and paused for a few years in between before resuming last year. Out of its 2,700 pilots, 18 are women while another 18 are in training.
“Allowing more women to become pilots is undoubtedly a good way to supplement (an airline’s) flying capability,” a spokesman for the carrier said.
The strongest calls for change are coming mostly from Chinese female pilots, thanks to a slew of returnees who learned how to fly while living abroad in countries like the United States.
In March, the China Airline Pilots Association (ChALPA) established a female branch at an event attended by pilots from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and local airlines, according to media reports.
Chen, the lawyer who also serves as a vice-president of the ChALPA’s women’s branch, said she and others have been trying to spread the word by speaking about the issue at air shows in China.
Eventually, she said, the organisation hopes to persuade Chinese airlines to adjust their recruitment and maternity policies.
Another key obstacle to tackle, she added, was the inability of general aviation pilots to shift to the commercial sector.
“It’s a systemic issue,” she said. “We hope that change can happen in three to five years, but this is not something that is up to us.”
Others like Han, who in recent months has appeared in Spring Airlines promotional videos, said she hoped the growing publicity would help to raise awareness.
“I can’t personally give people opportunities,” she said. “But I hope that (the publicity) can slowly help open the door for companies or for girls with dreams to fly.”
Reporting by Brenda Goh; Additional Reporting by Heekyong Yang in Seoul, Ritsuko Ando in Tokyo, Jamie Freed in Singapore and the SHANGHAI Newsroom; Editing by Gerry Doyle