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  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 4:05am
Cathay Pacific
CommentInsight & Opinion

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


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Sorry, but retire the Singapore girl? You must be mad! Are the Singapore airlines cabin crew wearing too revealing uniforms? What is your point? I put it to you that, in fact, it is YOU that is stereotyping cabin crew as 'good time girls'. As a frequent flyer I am well aware of the rigours of cabin crew training and rely on this to underpin the safety of my frequent journeys. I am grateful for it. That its coupled with a high degree of personal grooming, grace and politeness only enhances my appreciation of the training and organisation of the airline. You are the ones implying that the two are mutually exclusive in some way - and that an attractive appearance implies they are out for a good time (especially in first class and business class? Really?). You should maybe fly more and see more of this world. You really have no clue. I suggest a years flying in coach on domestic American based airlines. Happy flying, girls!
Thirty years ago this article might have been right. But I don't think it's true now. Not because the flight attendant uniform is unattractive, it is certainly nicely cut, but because public standards are such that the cut of the uniform is pretty much normal.
Take a look at what people in "normal" professions wear. Take a look at the length and cut of casual women's clothing. The cut of the flight attendant uniform isn't conservative, but nor is it significantly shorter than what you see women choosing for themselves to wear. In fact, compared to some outfits I've seen worn around Asia, the flight attendant uniform looks downright classy and sharp!
It's true that men find beautiful women sexy, but it's also true that women dress themselves specifically to attract attention. That does not excuse any sexual harassment--men should behave themselves like humans rather than animals--but women are choosing to sexualize themselves in how they dress. Of course, if it's a matter of a male dominated boys club thing forcing this on women who don't want to look that way, then okay, but if it's similar to what women already wear (as it seems to be to me) then the issue is not about men, but social standards.
And what is wrong with having an attractive service staff? Attractiveness is a quality that can attract business. The problem only comes in when there's a lack of respect or an expectation for something more than flight service.
Feminists always claim that men or the public are objectifying or oversexualising women, when in fact, most men do not give a toss about it. I have witness several occassions where women in MTR or trams shout out "pervert" or give glares at other men for either standing too close or making eye contact when in fact the guy was just taking a seat like every other person.
Firstly, if women drop the perception that they are different in any way, or deserve special treatment, then men will begin to view women as equals, a lot of the times, no one is sexualising women apart from the women themselves.
On the note of flight attendants, especially Cathay, I have travelled quite often on business with them and they have always been a delight, and honestly, as a male, I really could not give a rats bottom about how short the attendants' dresses are as long as there is prompt and friendly service. Sure, if the flight attendant has an attractive smile, then it's nice, but then that applies for both male and females, not just females.
Part of the problem is the management and company culture at CX. They put customers way at the top and their employees (especially the frontline staff) way at the bottom in the scale of importance. Their recent campaign slogans are just propaganda that has no real meaning.
send in there some Air Canada crew, they will do exactly the opposite!
Formerly ******
Fly any US or UK airline and one quickly will be cured of any sexual fantasies regarding flight attendants.
They wear a suit and when serving meals and drinks, they discard the jackets and wear some kind of apron over their shirts, which are usually button all the way up. So what's "revealing" about that? No one has heard of any complaints until this Women's Institute started it all, and for what purpose?
We are all pretty matured these days about flying and noted that the days of the "Coffee, Tea or Me" are well and truly over. So calm down W.I. So don't go to the extreme of being politically correct and pick the less-attractive ones JUST BECAUSE they are less-attractive.
Who is sexualising the image of flight attendants? Their own Union expressed concern, and the rest of us very public-mindedly gave our views. We would probably not have cared about the propriety or otherwise of the new uniforms had the Union not raised the matter.The authors may be writing for their own agenda, that of the Women's Foundation, whatever it does. I sit in the cattle class, and have never witnessed any favoritism to passengers nor abuse of stewardesses. I also travel Qantas, because of the Frequent Flyer Points. And there, I doubt any male would find any staff member 'suitable' to harass, despite the improved stewardesses' uniforms from the previous dung-color. Qantas must be doing something right in this regard.


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