Cathay Pacific

Let's stop sexualising the image of women flight attendants

Su-Mei Thompson and Lisa Moore say complaints about revealing stewardesses' uniforms point to a common service-industry problem

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:42pm

Cathay Pacific's Flight Attendants Union captured the headlines this week when it complained that flight attendants' uniforms are too revealing and encourage sexual harassment.

This is a cause for concern. It throws up much larger themes relating to sexist stereotyping and unfair work practices in the service industry as a whole, which have persisted despite the enactment of anti-discrimination laws in many parts of the world.

Historically, employment eligibility criteria for flight attendants included strict height, age and weight requirements, mandatory appointments with appearance counsellors and a requirement to stay single. While these restrictions have been gradually removed - at least on paper - since the late 1980s, the image of flight attendants as nubile beings available to meet passengers' every need, particularly in business or first class, has endured.

In recent times, Britney Spears' highly revealing stewardess costume and performance in the music video for her hit song Toxic, Aeroflot's 2011 calendar featuring female flight attendants in the nude, and Qingdao University's flight attendant beauty pageant have only reinforced the objectification of female flight attendants and a permissive attitude towards these women.

All this may go some way to explaining why over a quarter of respondents who took part in a recent survey of Hong Kong flight attendants by the Equal Opportunities Commission said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

The current focus on the flight industry is but one small part of a much more serious problem. There are numerous examples where women are required to dress provocatively - consider skimpily dressed auto show models draped over new cars or bikini-clad beer saleswomen at sporting fixtures.

It is high time we replaced these dated stereotypes with images that are a more worthy reflection of the many professional women working in the service sector. It is probably time the "Singapore Girl" went into retirement. Becoming a flight attendant involves rigorous training and getting through highly competitive selection procedures. At Cathay Pacific, only 800 out of 11,000 applicants actually made it last year to become cabin crew members, and they must take examinations to renew their licences yearly.

Airlines need to think about rebranding in a way that highlights this level of professionalism and more comprehensively embraces the diversity existing within the industry.

For example, Cathay's recent "People. They Make An Airline" campaign helps to dispel the image of female flight attendants as good-time girls and emphasises their individuality and professionalism. In addition, Dragonair and Cathay both consult staff in the design of uniforms.

More cross-industry exchange of best practices in this regard is needed if concerted change is to happen. While rethinking uniforms is an important part of this, businesses, the media and other stakeholders need to be vigilant about promoting campaigns, practices and behaviour that work to reverse entrenched harmful stereotypes.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO and Lisa Moore is research & advocacy manager at The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on gender issues developed in collaboration with the foundation