The first time Sally French flew a quadcopter, her novice pilot jitters were amplified by the audience at her back. Fresh out of college, she’d met up with a group of local drone hobbyists — all of them men — and she was keenly aware of the “unconscious bias that women don’t fly drones,” a preconceived notion in no way mitigated by the demographics of the get-together. She worried that if her virgin flight went poorly, her new friends, “lovely” as she says they were, would see it as evidence of her sex’s shortcomings rather than her own.
“There’s an unconscious bias that guys like robots, guys are mechanical, and guys like things that fly,” French, who now goes by “the Drone Girl” (when appropriate) tells Inverse.
But French didn’t crash, let alone burn. What she did was become one of the few female faces in the overwhelmingly male world of UAVs. In July, Fortune listed French, along with two CEOs and an attorney, as one of the four women helping UAVs “break into the big time.” If four seems like a small number, that’s because it is. But that isn’t Fortune’s fault. The fact is that most civilian drone enthusiasts and most civilian drone professionals are men. Whether or not women have been intentionally or systematically left out, the fact is that drones are a boy’s club.
To look at retail drone sales is to see the purchasing habits of thirtyish men. “Only about 1 percent of our sales are to women, and that could be because they might be buying a gift for their husbands,” says Mike Thorpe, founder of drone retailer Drones Plus. “I will say that the majority — 97, 98 percent — of our customers are all male. That’s shocking. You never see such one-sided sales figures as you do with the drone industry.” To put that in perspective: At nine men for every woman, even traditionally-male dominated Magic: The Gathering tournaments, not traditionally regarded as mixers, show less gender disparity.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a drone fan who claims we’re living in anything but the dawn of the drone age. As it breaks open, ranks will swell and the gender gap will shrink, says Kendall Mark, a producer and news anchor at AirVuz, a platform for sharing drone videos. “There’s still not a ton of women on the technology side of things,” she says, adding that early drones, particularly the DIY kits, were sold as something for men to tinker with. She believes a cultural shift away from the garage mentality is coming quickly. “Drones are going to be the new iPhone,” she says. Once that happens, “this conversation” — the gender conversation — will “seem kind of irrelevant.”
The barriers to flying a drone are already falling as autonomous control improves. “You don’t need any sort of physical strength — you don’t need to bench-press a drone,” French points out, “and you don’t need a huge amount of technical skill.” Pointing this out seems almost unnecessary, but it’s worthy of note that there really is nothing remotely gendered about drones themselves, just what surrounds them.
The problem — and serious people in the industry see it as a problem — is cultural. There’s no easy engineering fix.
Brian Pitre, who runs the drone education company SkyOp, acknowledges that, at the college level, his courses are dominated by men. (Though not the course-end flight contest. “We’ve had women win it and just blow everybody away.”) He’s quick to add, however, that classes for younger students aren’t so lopsided. The closer he gets to infants, the more parity he sees. “I think STEM is working,” he says. “I think it’s pretty cool.”
Still, the drone industry doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for STEM to make broader cultural progress and for that progress to trickle down. “We’ve had meetings where our whole corporate team is trying to figure out, ‘Should we make a drone pink?’ I know that’s a little…. but do we do more colors and things like that?” wonders Thorpe. The marketing polls he sees show minimal female interest so he’s willing to be reductive if that’s what it takes. He sells drones and he wants women to buy them. He has the capitalist’s lack of bias, which makes him like a lot of other men in his industry.
“I’ve been treated respectfully in professional environments,” French says. “The hobbyist industry is really where women feel alienated.”
She sees this alienation in adverts that completely lack women, or simply treat them as bystanders and wives. This alienation is in her open letter to Arizona Drone Expo decrying “booth babes.” It’s justified by the trolls that responded to that letter. “Booth babes are a fact of life, booth babe jobs keep people who otherwise have no marketable skills, employed,” wrote one commenter. “I have the feeling that if this place offered booth hunks you would be screaming praise from the mountain tops.”
In a sense, French’s letter made two points:
1) No good comes from alienating women.
2) Female consumers will be good for the industry.
That second point resonates. Gender equality, whether it’s in a workplace or hobby, is good for men, too. It has historically meant better products. Before women started buying cars, to use a classic example of this, cars were insanely dangerous. In order to sell cars to mothers, the auto industry had to shape up and ended up saving a lot of men’s lives. Though the “women and children” mentality behind that dynamic isn’t particularly modern or enlightened, the results were good for everyone on the road.
There is also the old-school capitalist sense in which increased competition leads to more choices and better products. According to a representative for the New York City Drone Film Festival, “out of the 330 submissions received for last year’s event, 11 films were submitted by women.” Though some female filmmakers did win awards, the bulk of the hardware went to men, which was a near inevitability. The scaling up and professionalization of the event was, in short, hampered by the lack of women.
Still, diagnosing the problem and proposing a realistic solution are two different things. The drone industry is aware of the issue, but — as of now — there is no clear solution. The person who finds it stands to make a great deal of money and earn the admiration of some confused men.