Growing up in Amsterdam, Rachna Sharma Reiter felt like the exception. At age 7, she knew she wanted to be an airline pilot but never met any girls her age who shared that ambition. At flight school in the U.S., she was one of three women in a class of 150. After 16 years in the cockpit, she still finds herself being viewed as an anomaly. “It seems like things haven’t really changed,” says Reiter, who works for U.K. discount airline EasyJet Plc. “Whenever I go somewhere, they always tend to think I’m a flight attendant, even when I’m in my pilot’s uniform.”
The path to the flight deck has never been easy for women. Beyond the gender assumptions, there are the structural forces impeding progress. Male-dominated militaries have long fed pilots into airline cockpits, though vets have taken a smaller share of the openings in recent years. Once women do make it in, everything from a male-centered training environment to work rules concerning maternity can slow their advancement.