• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 10:03am
Cathay Pacific
CommentInsight & Opinion

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


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This article is now closed to comments

HK Chinese women are anything but 'docile'.
"Surprising. Not really" and "Again, unsurprising." Ms. Young - Just who is stereotyping whom? I have been a Marco Polo member for over 20 years and am a white male and frequent bus class traveler, so I guess that qualifies me as a pervert in your book. I take great offence at being stereotyped in this way (particularly by the airline's own union) as I am sure do many other MPO members. In my years of travelling I have never come across one incident of sexual harassment, so these 'frequent incidents' must have been carried out very quietly and discreetly. Personally, I think that the key roles of flight attendants should be safety and security - not looking pretty. Males are far better equipped physically for the former and perhaps a block on recruiting any more females as attendants would be a win-win; just think how much it would contribute to preserving the virtue of these precious people.
Let's put this all in perspective - at the end of the day, CX cabin crew is, in my mind, still the most professional among all on Asian airlines. I have stopped flying SQ and MH almost two decades ago because those dingbats actually thought the aisle was their catwalk stage. I can find eye candies elsewhere, i just need the cabin crew to be professional and safety-aware, that's it!
Cathay Pacific dresses its stewardess well because they want to sell a product and service and get awards for being a very good airline.
Men harass women usually when she is wearing very less clothes (showing a lot of skin) or her strong body language suggests she is open to a conversation of a sexual nature.
If Miss Young thinks that women from Asia are more docile or submissive, she must be living on another planet. Asian women are educated and smart and can more then take care of themselves in most cases. Only in the case of harrasment, should women be given counselling and protection from the law and I am sure that such cases on the airline take place when then man is intoxicated with alcohol and are very rare indeed.
As for the passengers, nowadays everybody knows where they can get their companionship and nobody is silly enough to harass stewardess which could easily result in the life of the passenger becoming very complicated even due to a single complaint from the stewardess. Most passengers prefer to talk to the stewardess to get her facebook or mobile number regardless of how she dresses and see if the stewardess responds.
No serious matter here due to the new uniform.
While I empathize those flight attendant victims, the nature of competitive business nowadays is more than just offering professional services and safety. Eye-candies are pleasant and do serve as a niche advantage in attracting customers when all other attributes are equal. The airlines can always request their stewardess to wear those Chinese-invented "hairy stockings" to vent off perverts, but I don't believe the stewardess would want to put those on. I still remember vividly an article posted by SCMP years ago when Cathay was redesigning the uniforms and some flight attendants commented that they didn't like the new version, because they think the uniforms are not pretty/fashionable enough.
Perverts will always be perverts, anyone anywhere in the world can be sexually harassed anytime. The focus should be on finding more ways to catch those perverts and throw them in jail rather than making changes to the minor stuffs. Management should also be more protective to their employees rather than worrying about losing a profitable perverted customer. e.g. perhaps installing in-cabin eye-in-the-sky and taking these sky harassment cases seriously instead of covering 'em up?
What are you to expect when Cathay advertise themselves and their hostesses as 'Always Game' at the Sevens...
Isn't that how it's done in all businesses? Retail, hotels, restaurants etc?
girls grow up wanting to be pretty flight attendants who can travel and point out exit signs and they got their wish, now they are complaining. Ok, give them baggy track pants, no make up and a sweatshirt. so hard to please anyone today
Enough articles on stereotyping, sexual harassment, out of the Cathay Pacific stewardesses' uniform saga. Authors are now writing themselves witless over non-issues.
I am a frequent flyer and have never witnessed stewardess abuse, only passenger abuse by the toughies of one airline.
Based upon my own experience flying Catay many times over the past 15 years, Cathay's attendants are superior in terms of friendliness and service. Cathay should remit its staff members sufficient flexibility so that their uniforms are fitted in a way that each individual is comfortable when wearing them. If the staff is happy, they will enjoy their work a will continue to provide great service.



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