I have flown in a lot of airplanes in my life. As a toddler, I shuttled back and forth between Denver and Salt Lake as an unaccompanied minor. My folks have a photo of a tiny version of me sitting on the pilot’s lap in the cockpit. At the children’s museum, my favorite exhibit was the decommissioned cockpit where I could flip all the switches, pull on the control wheel.
I never really thought about flying a plane, though. It didn’t even cross my mind.
I still fly quite a bit. With visits to family and friends plus work travel, I spend more than my fair share on the tarmac or in the clouds. And I’ve never really gotten over my childhood habit of peeking into the cockpit while boarding, to see what the guys up there are doing in preparation for takeoff.
Last week, one of those guys wasn’t a guy. The copilot was a woman.
It doesn’t seem like it should have mattered to me as much as it did. I don’t feel cheated about not being an airline pilot. But seeing a woman in the flight deck changed me.
I never noticed a glass ceiling until I saw one broken. I didn’t know I was suffocating until I breathed that fresh, free air.
A week later, my team needed to work on the website for a conference we are hosting. As the person with the most web development experience, the task fell to me. I needed to get administrator permissions from the conference webmaster, so I emailed to ask. When she wrote back to let me know the permissions had been granted, the webmaster added some other details I needed to know about the site.
Reading that technical information typed by the hands of a woman actually formed a lump in my throat. Why should that be? Why was I so struck by these emotions I didn’t know I had? The short version is this: achievement isn’t everything. It would have been nice, all these years, not to feel so alone. From bosses to role models to textbooks, most of the pronouns in my working life have been he.
There is a stoicism that comes with being a pioneer. Being the first to something. Being a rarity. There is an isolation, a loneliness, a sense that nobody really understands you — nobody where you came from, and nobody where you are going. At the origin, they don’t get why you’re trying to go somewhere or do something that no one else in your group has seen or done. And the people at the destination? They view you as a foreigner, an interloper. You don’t speak the language or know the customs. You don’t fit in to the normal way of doing things.
For me, this experience stems most often from my gender. In my line of work, women can be rare. But this feeling of isolation is common to anyone who has been first to something: First in the family to college, first minority to be hired in an organization, first convert baptism in a community, first woman mayor. We pioneers share this common experience.
Seeing a fellow traveler who understands where you came from can be a welcome respite.
Now I wonder: if a woman pilot had shown me the switches and the blinking lights and the yoke when I was a child, would I have wanted to take to the sky? The thing about glass ceilings is that you can’t see them. Maybe — just maybe — there was one between me and my wings.