Sex and Gender in Drone Pilot Interviews

For a recent Social Research Methods assignment I undertook a (brief) discourse analysis of drone pilots’ accounts of their experiences as published in the media. The question I wanted to try to answer was:

In what ways are drone pilots’ accounts of their experiences gendered?

The media is saturated with pieces on drone pilots (Chow, 2013; Axe, 2012; Abe, 2012; Dao, 2013; Gibbons-Neff, 2013). However, very few pieces come from drone pilots themselves, therefore making it difficult to assess the experiences of drone pilots beyond the hysteria surrounding descriptions of ‘PlayStation warriors’, physically and morally disconnected from the individuals that they are involved in saving and killing (Royakkers and van Est, 2010; Cole et al., 2010). I was able to find 6 pieces which provided significant chunks of interviews with, or were written entirely by, drone pilots themselves.

For the discourse analysis, I utilised Carol Cohn’s method of looking for ways in which the accounts given in the sample include gendered structures, assumptions, and references (Cohn, 2000, 1999, 1987). The main gendered themes which emerge from these accounts are: Active/Passive, Emotional/Unemotional, and Gendered voices.

The snapshot here will be brief, but I will try to convey the general sense I gained from the analysis.

Active/Passive: There is a strong dichotomy between the various accounts of being a drone pilot. One account refers to feeling like ‘just a babysitter’, indicating that s/he feels that the task is dull, feminine and, as indicated by the use of the term ‘just’, something beneath her/his capabilities. Similarly, another refers to having a ‘supporting role’ in ‘sleepy locations’, implying that the ‘main’ active task of fighting the ‘bad guys’ is being done elsewhere and that the role of the drone pilot has little to do with the war (Day in the life of a UAV Operator, 2013)

In contrast, references in the BBC transcript to ‘hearing the bullets whizzing’ and being ‘pitch in the middle of this battle’ serve to provide a completely contradictory image (A rare insight into a day at work for a pilot of a drone, 2013). The pilot refers to ‘saving somebody, or somebody dying’ distinguishing his active role in ‘saving’ but remaining passive in the negative ‘somebody dying’ (rather than the active ‘killing somebody’). This perhaps emphasises the pilot’s awareness of the negative public perceptions of the use of drones. Because women give birth the ‘power’ of ‘giving life’ is usually construed as feminine, in gendered dichotomies, this is placed in opposition to the masculine capacity to kill, which is associated with the warrior/soldier. In this piece, therefore, the drone pilot is seeking to move away from the masculine conception of killing associated with drones towards a more feminine ‘saving’ of fellow soldiers.

Emotional/Unemotional: There is a strong commentary in some of the pieces about the inability to show emotion in the context of being a drone pilot. Being emotional is coded as feminine (and associated with instability), which is considered a negative trait for soldiers. One drone pilot states ‘No one talked about it. No one talked about how they felt after anything. It was like an unspoken agreement that you wouldn’t talk about your experiences,’ the repetition of the not talking acting as emphasis (Power, 2013). Another pilot notes the incongruity of trying to maintain an unemotional frame of mind in a piece which highlights, repeatedly, the ‘awful’ ‘horrifying’ ‘haunting memories’ (Linebaugh, 2013).

In contrast, one interviewee decries any ‘emotional connection’ but refers to ‘seriousness’ in undertaking any lethal action (Wood, 2013). The tone of the interviewee is staunchly masculine, relying heavily on the rational (there is no emotional calls for revenge against targets or tenderness in reflecting on the target’s children), referring to the rules of engagement and laws of armed conflict as a means of justifying killing (masculine both on the basis of being active and acting as a warrior/soldier in killing).

Gendered Voices: The gendering of the voices of the drone pilots is also interesting, particularly where those voices are explicitly labelled as being from a man or a woman. For example, in the two pieces written about female drone pilots there is clear gendering in the material provided. For example, one female drone pilot makes reference to the potential for drones to make excellent ambulances, and uses the idea of automation making drones ‘safer’ than manned aircraft. As one of a few female fighter pilots (before becoming a drone pilot) she states that ‘It was tough to be the only woman in a male-dominated warrior culture’, and is the only interviewee/writer to refer specifically to her gender (Davis, 2014).

Power: Discourse analysis requires the analyst to consider not just what the content and structure refer to, but also how this empowers/disempowers individuals and groups. In this sample, the acceptance of the interviewee/writer’s claims by the readership may depend on the way in which that individual constructs their identity. For example, the acceptance of one woman’s status as a drone pilot (an exception in a male dominated Air Force environment), may depend on her defending her femininity through references to drones making some people ‘safer’ and to the use of drones for caring occupations (ambulances) (Davis, 2014).

One drone pilot’s claims to emotional disturbance (which runs counter to the expected narrative for him as a man operating in a military capacity) may depend upon his descriptions of operating a drone as unethical and something which would disturb any (rational) individual. Additionally, he uses his ‘rational’ (traditionally construed as a masculine attribute) mind to decide that he needs to ‘get out’ of the role, when his ‘emotional’ (traditionally construed as a feminine attribute) mind is asking him ‘What motherfucker’s gonna die today?’ (Power, 2013). This is then reinforced by his claims that he just wanted to be a ‘hero’ (a masculine role) and that the role of drone pilot was not enabling him to reach this goal, and therefore may be construed as ‘feminizing’ him.

Reflections on the usefulness of the Discourse Analysis method for this project:

Discourse analysis is useful because it is able to look beyond the simple frequency with which terms and themes occur and consider the structure of the pieces and the way in which voices are presented. As a result I have been able to draw out interesting ideas regarding the gendering of drone pilot accounts. In discourse analysis it is possible to highlight unexpected themes, meanings and silences in the data that become apparent during the analysis. In this instance, the themes of Active/Passive, Emotional/Unemotional, Gendered Voices and Power emerged from a close reading of these various interview; demonstrating that sexed/gendered discourses as playing a role in how drone pilots experience their lives and how they express themselves to others.

Lindsay Murch is a doctoral researcher in the ICCS and POLSIS and a research assistant in the developing field of drone warfare.

United States Airforce Photo. Senior Airman Travis and Capt. Ben fly an MQ-1 Predator during the wings 2 million flying hour milestone Oct. 22, 2013


Abe, N. (2012) Dreams in Infrared: The Woes of an American Drone Operator. Spiegel Online [online], 14 December. Available from: A rare insight into a day at work for a pilot of a drone (2013). [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 January 2015]

Axe, D. (2012) How to Prevent Drone Pilot PTSD: Blame the ’Bot. Wired [online], 7 June. Available from:

Chow, D. (2013) Drone Wars: Pilots reveal debilitating stress beyond virtual battlefield. LiveScience [online], 5 November. Available from:

Cohn, C. (1987) Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals. Signs, 12 (4): 687–718

Cohn, C. (1999) Missions, Men and Masculinities. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1 (3): 460–475

Cohn, C. (2000) “How Can She Claim Equal Rights When She Doesn”t Have to Do as Many Push-Ups as I Do?’ The Framing of Men’s Opposition to Women’s Equality in the Military. Men and Masculinities, 3 (2): 131–151

Cole, C., Dobbing, M. and Hailwood, A. (2010) Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the “Playstation” Mentality. [online]. Available from:

Dao, J. (2013) Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorder Much as Those in Combat Do. New York Times [online], 22 February. Available from:

Davis, A. (2014) Missy Cummings: Drone Advocate. The Institute [online], 21 February. Available from:

Day in the life of a UAV Operator (2013). JetCareers [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 January 2015]

Gibbons-Neff, T. (2013) Killing and Drone Warrior. War on The Rocks [online], 6 November. Available from:

Linebaugh, H. (2013) I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on. The Guardian [online], 20 December. Available from: [Accessed 27 January 2015]

Power, M. (2013) Confessions of a Drone Pilot. GQ [online], 23 October. Available from: [Accessed 18 September 2014]

Royakkers, L. and van Est, R. (2010) The cubicle warrior: the marionette of digitalized warfare. Ethics and Information Technology, 12 (3): 289–296

Wood, D. (2013) Drone Strikes: A Candid, Conversation with Top US Drone Pilot. Huffington Post [online], 15 May. Available from: [Accessed 27 January 2015]

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