Over the last couple of days there has been great outrage over a United Airlines gate agent not permitting two girls on a plane because of their leggings. In the primary outrage it was completely forgotten to mention that those were pass travelers, hence traveling at an extremely low rate for airline staffers and their friends/family. The general perception of this incident was that United was suddenly policing women’s dress and that this was obviously sexist. However, the situation is a little more complicated (or simple, depending on how you look at it) since the dress-code applies to all genders and while leggings are mostly worn by females, their equivalent – sweat pants – would be an absolute no-go for pass travelers too. The dress-code is simply „business dress“ and it is an industrywide standard for pass travelers. If this rule is justified or not is a different question but it is unjustified to say that it is inherently sexist.
That being said, this has led me to some thoughts about sexism in the airline-industry (I used to be an airliner back in 2014) and I figured, while we’re talking about it anyways lets tackle some situations that are actually sexist and relevant in an industry that largely depends on female staff, who typically enter the job at a very young age.
So I am taking you on a little trip to explore the in’s and out’s of sexism in the world of air-travel. It is 3:45 am, your alarm rings and you have to get ready for work. Time to get your make-up game on – only if you’re female of course. The first and most interesting issue to me, since it is something that can be observed at most airlines, is the different standards that are produced in the context of the uniform regulation to show up nicely groomed. Because nicely groomed does not mean clean and fresh, at least not when it comes to how women are expected to show up at work. It means, if your aiming for good reviews by your superiors, with a complicated hairdo and a full face of make-up. Supposedly, that roots from a larger societal issue where women are expected to wear make-up if they want to appear „well-groomed“. While the practice of hiring only skinny beautiful women as flight attendants has been abandoned by the western world in modern days, the expectation to alter your appearance by covering your face in complicated paintings still stands. It begins at „styling day“ during training, where someone from the company comes in and teaches you how to style yourself for work. For the men that mostly means a day off. There really just isn’t much to talk about for male staff – „Don’t put on more than foundation“ (a double-standard in itself), „shave and style your maximum-shoulder-length hair a bit before you come to work“. So styling-day is a day for ladies to learn how much they have to do to themselves before they can be considered to look appropriate for customers to put their eyes on. And they teach you to put on a lot of make-up. The lesson here is that you don’t look like you take care of yourself unless you manipulate every single part of your face to look „better“.
At this point, let us take a moment to not forget that flight attendants are safety staff. The largest part of the training is an emergency-bootcamp where you are intentionally put under stress and have to study hard to pass. That is good because the real reasons those pretty ladies and gentlemen are on board is because they have to perform a larger number of safety duties in order to ensure everyone having a very safe journey. But doesn’t it feel disrespectful then to apply a large number of grooming regulations to well-trained workers who risk their lives and sacrifice various parts of their thoroughly tested health for the customers safety? The answer is yes and not only for logistic reasons, which are simply time and money spend on a full face of make-up that doesn’t melt in a 13-hour shift of physical work and doesn’t have to be retouched all the time. It also teaches young women that their natural look is somehow offensive to paying customers and that it is disrespectful not to do lots of things in order to hide it. And even if a company itself is not enforcing the make-up rules harshly it creates an atmosphere between employees to call each other out on their appearance, at times mock a fellow safety worker for their choice of lipstick color or a senior staffer actually lecturing a junior on their grooming standards. In fact, I believe that many of my former peers might feel alienated by this post since within the industry you often encounter a mindset of „This is the way it is, look at all the shiny things we get, if you don’t like it get out“. But, what can I say? I already got out and I don’t feel like it hurts to discuss some things every now and again.
Great, so we got up 45 minutes before our male roommate and applied our warpaint, let’s put on our uniform and head to the airport. Uniform is a bit of a tricky subject, on one hand women usually have a larger number of items to choose from but on the other hand a lot of female airline uniforms are borderline inappropriate, uncomfortable or just downright insulting to the profession. Some airlines options for females are extremely revealing and some skirts are so short that you just know the passengers are going to get a good look at your backside when you stretch to close the overhead compartments. Flight attendants are supposed to be safety workers in disguise, meaning they should look like hostesses but fight like soldiers. As everyone knows, one performs best in a tight miniskirt. In most cases a female staffers choices are between a dress, a skirt and a pair of trousers. Now, if you decide not to take the trousers because, like in my case, they make look like actual clown-pants on you and you just got indoctrinated about having to look your best at work, that means you end up having to wear nylons every day. Nylons in themselves are a safety hazard and probably the worst clothing to fight a possible fire – although they can be used to make a nice pressure bandage. They are also another financial factor since they can only be used 2-4 times before you need another pair and if they have to be a specific tone of red like at my former company you end up buying a pair per week from the company. Awesome. That only sums up to about 40€ a month that you are paying back from your salary. Nylons are also really impractical and rip during work all the time, something that your peers will not get tired to point out if it happens to you and you better always carry two spare pairs per shift. To be fair, you could have chosen the pants, however some airlines do not offer pants or discourage their female staff from wearing those and, as I said before, it has already previously been ingrained in your brain that you need to look super pretty and that there are rules to what qualifies as pretty. I encourage you to look up the different uniform options airlines offer for females/males and think for yourself which of those you find more sexualizing or respectful to the employee.
But OK, you’ve got your make-up, you brought a washing load of nylons and your sexy dress now all you have to do is put on your shoes. While you are usually not forced to wear heels all the time, a lot of airlines only offer flats to wear during in-flight duties and some places it is frowned upon entirely. It is common practice for female airliners to have two pairs of shoes with them during a shift, heels for the boarding/deboarding process and walking around at the airport and flats for inflight service, when passengers cannot see your ugly little feet in flats. In case of emergency, react instantly but don’t forget to take your shoes of first. Obviously the male staffers are free of the weight of changing shoes mid-shift or performing physical duties on unhealthy, impractical footwear. In addition to the insanity that wearing heels as a flight attendant is anyways, the company might need you to wear shoes in a specific tone of color again which will leave you with uniform shoes. Now, the problem with uniform shoes is that everyones feet are different. At my prior employer, the females wear red company shoes while the males get to choose their own black shoes. Even if a company offers 3 different types of shoes for the employees that will leave many of thousands of employees with individual feet wearing one of those types during all their shifts because the others simply don’t fit. If those are the highest, you’re just going to bite your tongue and put your head up high while your feet slowly deform to bunions because you are wearing the same pair of ill-fitting heels for 13-hour shifts on your feet every day. If that leaves you unfit to work after a couple of years, you’re just going to have to live with that I suppose.
You’re dressed now, you can go work. Will you experience some in-flight sexism? Let’s find out in the next post.