Cathay Pacific

Stereotyping of Asian women the real problem for Cathay flight attendants

Jingan Young says sexual harassment of Cathay flight attendants stems from the enduring stereotype of the docile and submissive Asian woman

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 5:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 1:38am

It came as no surprise when "too revealing" female flight attendant uniforms landed Cathay Pacific in yet another dispute with its employees.

Michelle Choi of the airline's Flight Attendants Union said the attendants' "too tight, too short" skirt and blouse have contributed to an increase in the number of cases of sexual harassment. She singled out the worst offenders as being members of the Marco Polo Club, the airline's frequent fliers.

Surprising? Not really.

Despite this being yet another example of oversimplifying the issue of workplace harassment - reducing it in this case to mere "fashion" - we should welcome the public outcry and expressions of sympathy that followed.

The South China Morning Post article about the complaint garnered many positive comments online. Unfortunately, there were also the misogynist, "they had it coming, they're stewardesses" type of remarks. Again, unsurprising.

This echoes a Toronto police constable's infamous comment in 2011 that women could avoid being sexually assaulted if they didn't "dress like sluts". In an age of the glorified overexposure of self, thanks to social media and web forums dedicated to celebrities' state of undress, it is refreshing to see women fight for the dignity of their profession.

Is the uniform really to blame? There is a more troubling issue at work here. Gwen Sharp, a sociology professor from Nevada, believes perceptions of Asian women as "submissive and docile" largely contribute to the unwanted attention and treatment they receive in the workplace. She notes that such stereotypes are constructed and perpetuated by the media, and cites Cathay's marketing campaigns as prime examples.

Indeed, Cathay has come under fire for its sexist campaigns. The Adweek website ran an impressive analysis of airline ad campaigns a few years ago. Cathay's 2011 campaign, for example, features a photograph of flight attendant Grace Hui, who was quoted as saying "I love helping people even before they ask". Robert Klara, who wrote the Adweek article, noted that Cathay Pacific hailed from a place where "'gender equality' isn't in the dictionary".

It is clear that sexual harassment and other grotesque treatment of women stems from a combination of a long-held stereotype and contemporary society's refusal to kill it.

So is Cathay's public relations strategy to blame? Over the years, the company has tallied up an impressive number of awards for customer service excellence in Hong Kong. One 2013 recipient, Emily Yip, a customer services officer based at the Hong Kong airport, was recognised for her "willingness to go the extra mile to meet customers' needs" and "persistent manner in tackling problems".

There is no question of the exemplary work ethic of Cathay's employees. The carrier has a long history of superior customer service and we should continue to praise where praise is due, and investigate when its staff makes a public protestation of wrongdoing.

To make real progress in tackling harassment, however, we must get to the root of the problem: the promotion of the stereotype associated with short skirts and "docile" Asian women. Enough is enough.

Jingan Young is a freelance writer and the first playwright commissioned to write in English for the 2014 Hong Kong Arts Festival