Sometimes we bury our prejudices so deeply that it comes as a surprise when some event exposes them in all their stark absurdity. If you had asked me, I would have said that I believed one’s gender was not a prerequisite for the professions. I am equally comfortable with male and female doctors, with men who are nurses and women who are mechanics. I am, I thought, a man of enlightened views.
And then I caught a flight from Chicago to Vermont.
I was sitting in the departure lounge waiting for the flight that would take me to Burlington. I stared around me taking in everything, as one does when away from what is familiar. My attention was caught by a tall woman, young, attractive and reading some sort of manual. She was dressed in what appeared to be a pilot’s uniform. Certainly the epaulettes suggested something more than a flight attendant. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe there’s a female pilot on this aircraft.”
Then I notice another woman approaching wearing the same uniform. The two are soon engaged in a quiet conversation and walking towards the departure gate. “Surely,” I ask myself with an edge of anxiety, “there are not TWO female pilots on ONE plane!”
And there it was – my imagination running riot with every possible stereotype of women. Would they stop talking long enough to check the flight path? Would they even understand the flight path, you know what women are like with maps? What if something mechanical broke down? Would they remember to put down those silly wheels (before we landed!)?
Then I did what we all do in moments of pending crisis. I pretended that it wasn’t happening. Who said they were pilots? Hadn’t I just leapt to that conclusion? Probably they were just administrative employees of the airline or trainees of some sort. I sat down in my seat and scanned the cabin for clues as to the pilots’ gender. None was forthcoming so I sat back to watch – with a little more attention than usual, it’s true – the safety demonstration.
Eventually the aircraft lifted into the sky and I took the time to thank God for small mercies. Now, all I had to do was focus on the menu and pretend that the people up front knew nothing about Ikea or how to clean skirting boards.
Then came the announcement from the cockpit. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am your Captain, Fiona Alford. Welcome aboard flight UA286 to Burlington.”
Damn! Still, maybe the co-pilot…
“With me today in the cockpit is your co-pilot, Jenny Martinez”
And then, as if she had read my thoughts, the Captain went on, “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you are on an unmanned flight to Vermont.”