A few weeks ago, my friend Milo Kinderbock and I decided we’d attend this new aircraft expo held at the Bedford Falls airport after receiving postcards advertising the event. Milo knows everything about airplanes, and I’m just interested in finally buying one that will take me and Mary Jo and the boys places.

Milo and I decided we’d fly in the morning since we’d already be at the airport, so I picked him up, went to the airport, and accompanied him while he worked on some touch-and-go’s. Afterward, we drove across to the other hangars, where the vendors were showing off their new planes and serving sandwiches to the potential airplane buyers. There were a couple of Cessnas (including their new composite airplane they bought from Columbia), one Mooney, two Pipers, one Beechcraft, one Diamond, and several Cirruses (SR-22’s mostly). Milo and I split up, strolling among the airplanes, reading information about their performance and costs, sitting in the cockpits to get a feel for them, and talking to the sales people.

It didn’t happen suddenly, but within 10 minutes or so, I became aware of a pattern in the way my interactions with sales people went, and the lightbulb finally went off when one of the sales people asked me, as I was sitting in the cockpit, what sort of flights my husband and I usually took, and that I’d find this particular model very comfortable while he did the job of flying. “Oh,” I realized, “Everyone thinks I’m Milo’s wife and he’s shopping for the planes.” And I wasn’t the only one to form this impression. Later, Milo confirmed that this was also his feeling and that he had nervously told one or more salesmen, “Oh, no, that’s not my wife — that’s my friend Joyce, who’s also a pilot.”

I must confess I felt a mixture of feelings when I realized that this was the impression. First, I had a deep sense of pleasure at being taken for being myself and not some guy in a dress masquerading as a pilot. In other words, even though she was on the receiving end of sexism, Joyce was warmly flattered at the overall impression.

Second, while I think I would have been horrified at the thought a year or so ago, I found the idea that Milo and I were seen as couple very cute, and part of me didn’t see what the big deal would be. Why wouldn’t we be husband and wife shopping for a plane? Milo and I were so surprised by the sales people’s attitudes, we discussed later, that we really had no chance to gather our wits and play these roles, but I wouldn’t have minded.

Third, my response to the sexist attitudes only came to me a bit later, when I reflected on the event and on the fact that I am far more likely than Milo to write a check for a plane today and that I am a more seasoned pilot than Milo (at least for now). Everyone told me that such things would happen, but I nevertheless found myself surprised at it. Why would everyone assume Milo is the pilot, the one with the money, and the responsible one, simultaneously assuming I’m his wife, his passenger, and not interested in the engines or airspeeds or avionics? You, dear readers, are smiling at my naivete, but those were my thoughts and feelings: I concluded that the only difference is that these sales people are predisposed to treat the men more seriously than women. Whether they’re deliberately sexist, or whether they’re channeling solid marketing and demographic data, or whether they’re reflecting the historic reality of airplane sales, I cannot say.

My women friends shake their heads and say, welcome to the club, honey — you won’t find it cute or interesting after the hundredth or five-hundredth instance, and I know they’re right. It’s one thing to have heard all my life that these attitudes are real, but quite another to be their recipient, and whatever flattery I feel at being validated as a woman is undercut by the the diminishment I feel at being treated as an incompetent, ignorant, or economically dependent.