Gender Differences in an Aviation Physiology Environment

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Men still dominate flying by better than ten to one ratio,but there is no question tha tfemale participation in all aspects of aviation has increased dramatically in the past decade, and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. Although women have been flying airplanes since 1910, little attention was paid to them in terms of suitability and adaptability to flight, as compared to their male counterparts, until recently. It wasn't until the 1980's, after Congress modified existing law to allow women into the flight programs of the military in large numbers, that studies to ascertain what accommodations, if any, would have to be made to cockpits, training, health care, flight clothing, and a multitude of other situations hitherto largely unconsidered. Further emphasis was added as U.S. air carriers, in response to the booming expansion of the airlines in the 199O's, began hiring women pilots in unprecedented numbers.

There are real differences between male and female aviators, with advantages and disadvantages affecting both. The extent to which these characteristics can be resolved by technology advances is relatively limited: 

  • Non-genetic color blindness, i.e., acquired due to lead, drug or alcohol poisoning, multiple sclerosis or brain injury, afflict men and women equally.  
  • Hearing loss due to noise affects women and men equally
  • Several studies have documented that females are much more susceptible to decompression sickness, in the order of about four times more likely than men to be stricken with symptoms following low-pressure exposure.
  • As many women as men die of heart attacks in the U.S., however men are h r more likely to be stricken at earlier ages, often in their forties and fifties.  
  • Seventy-seven percent ofthe female population fills below the male 5'" percentile in sitting height, and 27% fall below in buttocks to knee length.  In ejection seats, light weight people where women predominate, run an increased risk of spinal compression and fracture, due to the more rapid onset of acceleration
  • Women are at a substantial disadvantage versus men regarding cockpit control movements (see chart) with women typically possessing about 60% of average male strength overall
  • In refractive eye surgery women pilots experience significantly greater lack of acuity, corneal haze, glare tendencies, and myopic instability. These diffkxenceswere associated with contraceptive use, pregnancy, and menopause.
  • Whether due to hormones, genetic disposition, cultural factors or a simple lack of aversion to risk, flight discipline violations seem to be an exclusive domain of males. 
  • It has long been known that females have a small but measurable reaction time advantage over males. This is a useful trait in the aeronautical environment, especially when one is forced with an emergency situation where even a split second can be critical.
  • At some point in a pregnancy, a woman must quit flying. To a large extent, this is dictated by the type of flying environment in which the woman participates. For example, a high-stress, high "g" environment, such as aerobatic routines requires a conservativeapproach, as does any flying where the use of  an ejection seat or a parachute is a possibility 



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