Disarming The Drone Gender Gap

The drone industry has largely taken off without women on board. Here’s how that’s starting to change.

Michelle Rial / BuzzFeed News

Three women pout provocatively, hands splayed above their tiny white shorts. “Come take a selfie with our beautiful DROPA girls,” reads the tagline on the photograph. But this isn’t an advertisement for a car show or a wrestling match — where scantily clad women are unfortunately considered part of the scenery — but a flyer for the 2015 Arizona Drone Expo, scheduled for October.

“They are young ladies who are beautiful and good pilots,” said Arizona Drone Expo marketing manager Chris Evans. “People can take photos with them. Everyone likes to see it — like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.” Evans couldn’t recall the any of the girls’ names however, as “they change based on location.”

The consumer drone industry is just starting out: It did $552 million in revenue last year and is projected to do $646 million in 2015. Yet within five years, some projections put its revenue at $5.59 billion. That could even be conservative. Drones will be used to survey houses, deliver pizza, and shoot Hollywood movies. It’s not unreasonable to expect that they will become commonplace. And yet as this industry takes off, it’s largely doing so the world behind. While no one is overtly excluding women, drone vendors tend to target men. There are a few people trying to change that before it becomes a permanent trend. But if drones aren’t to be just another boy toy, they’ll have some serious lifting to do.

The bikini babe trope is a rarity in the emerging drone industry, a field so nascent that blatant sexism is relatively absent; but this absence also translates into a space where women — while generally not objectified — are disconcertingly missing.

An interesting — and completely unscientific — way to quantify this is to look at stock photo sites. A quick search reveals a glaring disparity in gender. As of September 2015, out of 1,617 drone images on Thinkstock, only 3 included images of women and girls engaging with drones, compared to 18 for men and boys. On Shutterstock, I found 4 girls, 28 boys, 12 women, and over 100 men. (The search terms I used were “drone,” “drone man,” “drone woman,” “drone girl,” and “drone boy.” The numbers are taken from looking through the images — discounting unrelated pictures and aerial shots.) We can debate why and how but it’s pretty obvious that the image of a man as the traditional drone flyer is saturating the market.

And this is consistent at every level, from hobbyists racing drones in underground garages to leadership roles in the industry. In September I attended InterDrone, a Las Vegas drone convention billed as the “first global scale conference” for commercial drones, and — shocker — it was a bro fest; the majority of speakers, booth operators, and attendees were men.

There is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. Guys buy drones, so drone vendors try to sell drones to guys, which means more guys buy drones. “99.2% of the market is men,” Mike Thorpe, co-founder of DronesPlus, said during his InterDrone panel on the future of retail. DronesPlus is a Las Vegas–based chain of retail drone stores that opened in 2014. He currently has 14 stores open. Thorpe thinks the gender imbalance is “staggeringly off-kilter” and sees an opportunity to branch into an untapped market. “There are millions of women in North America who have no idea about drones, and we want to spark their interest,” he told me. Thorpe’s planning a series of Facebook campaigns targeted to women, to run later this year.

If Thorpe’s campaign works, it could represent serious money. But going after a market that doesn’t exist is a risky strategy, and many of his contemporaries are focusing on what they know to be effective: direct sales to men. Yet too often this is done in ways that discourage women from participating.

A recent example took place at the Stampede Global booth, one of the biggest drone resellers. At InterDrone their stand ran parallel to the back of the convention hall, as wide as four booths. It was decked out in a Wild West theme, with wooden tables perched on barrels alongside a backdrop of an old-style saloon complete with sexy cowgirls: a number of pretty promo models wearing short skirts, cowboy hats and boots, and cherry-red lipstick. Occasionally they’d break into an awkward shimmying dance.

“Would you like a poster?” one asked me, and scrawled her name over a 16 × 12 glossy group photo of seven “Mustang Girls” — cheekily tipping their hats and baring their legs in tiny denim shorts. Then she offered me a T-shirt. This was the only free swag on offer — not counting ballpoint pens and magnets — and I walked away with a 100% cotton black tee (size medium) emblazoned with the words “Chicks dig drone pilots” in a banana-yellow font, under a small drawing of a drone.

At the DJI stand across the hall, Stacy Garlington, DJI’s event and product experience specialist made a face when I asked her thoughts on the Mustang Girls. “I’m not offended,” she said, “But I think it’s an old-school line of thinking and I hope it goes away.”

DJI has been active in encouraging participation from female flyers through initiatives such as DJI’s female pilot awareness month in March. Members of Amelia Dronehart — a female pilots group — took over DJI’s social media streams and showcased female talent for a month. Garlington said that with so many respected female photographers using drones in their work, girls are realizing they’re “not an exclusive male arena anymore.” She couldn’t confirm if DJI will repeat their awareness month in 2016.

And other brands are trying their best to reach women as well — most noticeably, the smaller, younger, crowdfunded companies such as Nixie, a mini-drone that’s optimized for capturing dronies (the drone version of a selfie). Their promotional video is narrated by a woman and features a girl rock-climbing across a sheer cliff face— then cuts to two BFFs posing for selfies. “The strong women in our videos are no accident,” co-founder Jelena Jovanovic said via email. “The strategy for engaging women is simple: show women how we see ourselves — engaged in quite a lot of badassery while keeping it real.”

In South Korea, ByRobot’s Drone Fighter is heavily focused on engaging female flyers, and 22-year-old Jiwoo Lim is a regular in their YouTube videos – competently demonstrating her flying skills and proving that girls aren’t just for decoration. ByRobot even has two styles of packaging for their drone: a bright white box, for Asian and European boys and girls, and a darker, more “traditional” drone box designated for American men — “the kidults and kids,” CEO James Hong says. Hong estimates that 30% of all sales are to women, and hopes this will grow.

Yet in the absence of more overt outreach from manufacturers and retailers, there is a nascent grassroots movement to make the drone club a bit more coed. Leslie Bates is a Kentucky-based energy consultant and drone enthusiast. She was an early adopter who began building and flying drones before it began to become mainstream, but she found herself largely without peers. “The women and girls engaged in drones pales in comparison to men in the industry, even at a DIY level,” Bates explained.

Bates initially got her daughters — ages 9 and 10 — involved, giving them mini-drones to encourage them to practice flying and understand the mechanics. And because she couldn’t find any local clubs, she founded the nonprofit SheDrones in early 2015. Its logo features a Barbie-like ponytailed head, inside an aqua circle encased by a multirotor. SheDrones’ mission is to educate girls and equip them with the skills needed to enter the industry.

“Drones will become ubiquitous in society,” Bates predicts — for pizza delivery, for agriculture, for dropping birth control pills in Poland. She didn’t want her daughters excluded from a hobby that could lead into an emerging career path.

Her nine-week training program has just started; it began with a coed class of seventh-graders at Eastside Middle School in Mt. Washington, Kentucky. She has a girls-only session scheduled for this month. Bates says it’s key to engage girls at a young age, to be able to inspire them.

And while it often runs amuck in toy stores, pink is a welcome relief in the drone world. A fleet of neon pink drones was pivotal in creating the Drone Team Pink club in Choctawhatchee High School school in Fort Walton, Florida. Aviation teacher Sean McSheehy runs Drone Team Pink (sometimes called UAV TeamPink) meetings every Wednesday, combining hands-on flying time with applicable STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills. His pink drones are custom-made, with the hot pink filaments 3D-printed in class. “The pink drones got the girl’s attention,” he said.

Sixteen-year-old Drone Team Pink captain Dharbi Jens was initially wary about signing up. “I’m not very good at math and I do creative things,” she said; drones seemed complicated to her. But as she watched the club practice — week after week — she became intrigued.

“I’d never used remote-controlled stuff in the air,” Jens nervously told me. “I had to be shown how to hold it, and what lever to pull.” She pressed on the throttle and watched it lift off. Once she realized it wasn’t going to break, she got a whole lot more excited. “It’s easier than driving a car,” she said, describing how she’s used it to take aerial pictures of the school for her TV production class. She doesn’t see a difference in aptitude between boy and girl flyers; for her it’s just about practice.

There are also a growing number of educators focused on teaching children about drones; in Boise, Idaho, after-school STEM program PCS Edventures is working on a drone curriculum and drone safety app to launch in October.

Their curriculum and content coordinator, Dahlton Grover, is keen to make sure that girls are engaged as well as boys. Grover, a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a former PCS Edventures student, doesn’t conform to the stereotype of a drone user: She has blonde, curly hair tumbling down her back and a sideline gig as a yoga teacher. And that’s exactly the point, she explains — she hopes that when young girls see her breaking down aeronautical concepts on YouTube they’ll be encouraged to get involved.

Jim Schmidt, the force behind the drone program, stresses that educators have to focus on “the parents’ perspective,” as they’re ultimately the ones laying down their credit cards. There’s a lot of negative media around drones, he said, and his course is designed for “parents who want their child to understand the full scope of drones — including the social impact.” His curriculum is gender neutral, but he said that the photography aspect might appeal to children that have more of a creative slant.

“The only difference between male and female drone pilots is that women read the manual first!” Rhianna Lakin, founder of the Amelia Droneharts, argued. The collective — named after Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo — is the most influential group in the girl drone world. Created as a safe space for women pilots to communicate with each other, they’ve grown into an international network that offers mentorship and guidance to women of all levels.

Lakin’s excited about the potential drones have for revolutionizing society — in agriculture, in disaster relief — and she thinks that having more female flyers will help “soften” the public image of drones as dangerous, killing machines. Plus, she wants women to have a real voice so we don’t see a repetition of the gender imbalance that happened with the first tech wave, à la Microsoft and IBM. “When you have a melting pot of gender and cultural backgrounds, the outcome is going to be more creative,” she said.

And things are changing. At New York Fashion Week this year a drone flew down Rebecca Minkoff’s runway, and last month aqua-haired Renée Lusano’s dronies went viral, sparking international female interest in drones.

At InterDrone, the inaugural Women in Drones luncheon took place inside a large banqueting hall in the Rio casino. Five women — all established players in the drone industry — took to the stage, watched by around 60 ladies, taking notes and munching on tortellini and cheesecake.

“I am used to being hashtag ‘outnumbered,’” said blonde, blue-eyed Karen DiMeo, an FAA senior research professional. “But there’s an opportunity for us [women] to reshape the industry.” The event basically involved constructive advice about working in the field, how important mentorship and STEM education is for girls, and a discussion about the sexism they’ve encountered — with the added proviso that the “men didn’t realize what they were doing.”

The session ended with everyone piling onto the stage for a group picture (the idea of a dronie was briefly raised, but discarded as it would violate casino rules). Everyone waved and hair-flipped, arms around each other’s waists and shoulders. It was a nice moment of lady-bonding — and also a striking example of how different men and women are; I couldn’t see this occurring at any other panel during the conference.

But that’s OK; there’s no need to mimic dudes to take part — there’s enough space for everyone to carve their own path. And while men were by far the majority at InterDrone, apart from a few aberrations, they couldn’t have been more welcoming.

For now, the future of the girl-droner is uncertain, but it’s comforting to know we have some great women campaigning to change that. And for some, the lack of women can even be turned into a positive. Drone Team Pink’s teen captain Jens thinks her interest in the field will help her stand out. “It will look good on your college application,” she says. It’s a nice, flyaway moment.

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