India leads the world when it comes to women pilots. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

India leads the world when it comes to women pilots – by a significant margin.

In all, 12.4% of pilots working for the southeast Asian nation’s airlines are women. (For comparison, just 5.5% of pilots in the United States are women.) But it’s a hard-won victory. “There are huge stereotypes in the roles that men and women still play,” pilot Michele Halleran said in a new BBC Business report. And she’s experienced those herself. “I was literally told … that women don’t belong in aviation.”

So what makes the difference for Indian women?

An increase in representation for starters. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Kara Hatzai, vice president at the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, told BBC Business. Without the Indian women who paved the way, you end up “with not a lot of women pilots out there.” And in countries where women pilots still lag behind, future generations may still think, “‘Well, it’s not a career for me because it’s mostly male-dominated.’”

But also, as Captain Hana Mohsin Khan pointed out to BBC Business, “compared to the rest of the world, in India the pilots are paid very well.” There, the average captain’s annual salary hovers around $168,000. (To continue the comparison, in the United States, the average is closer to $122,000.) That pay difference, combined with a culture of multigenerational homes, makes reliable childcare far more accessible for women looking to take to the skies, for starters.

Captain Zoya Agarwal, who became the youngest woman pilot ever to fly a Boeing 777 in 2013, is another pilot who, like Khan, has found opportunity in this field still sorely lacking in women. But despite some of the help on offer, it wasn’t smooth sailing. She says she had to rise up in a society, and a family, where she was “supposed to grow up and get married … and have children.”

“I did not know how to break out of that societal stigma,” Agarwal added. She laughed while continuing, “I was never one of those traditional girls who kind of followed that path. So I think I started disappointing my parents from the very beginning.”

Sexist perceptions of women pilots as less competent also come into play, added the pilots who spoke with BBC Business. And there’s another hurdle, for women in particular: the price of training programs. “I had no idea how I was going to go about gathering the finances, because I came from very humble beginnings,” Agarwal recalled. Tuitions can cost $60,000.

Pilot Halleran, who is also a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, says tuition is a problem “from a global standpoint.” And the misogyny, as well as struggles to achieve work/life balance, hold back women pilots the world over, too.

In India, though, corporations will sometimes foot that bill for would-be women pilots, Halleran adds – via programs other countries simply don’t have in place. Indian women pilots told BBC Business that comparatively better pay, as well as gender-neutral policies, on-the-job sensitivity training and assistance with rides home at late hours, also help them feel more supported.

Once they’ve earned their place at the helm, these pilots say they often hear from young girls who look up to them – a nod to the importance of representation. But while they comprehend that responsibility, it still comes second to the work itself. As Captain Agarwal put it: “I just plan on giving my best every single day at my workplace – and I never settle for anything less.”