Hong Kong, stop telling women to dress ‘feminine’, you're being sexist

Ernest Leung

Sexist dress codes for female flight attendants are just the tip of the iceberg – should female students in Hong Kong have to wear skirts?

Ernest Leung |

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Some of Cathay’s flight attendants have complained that their tight-fitting uniforms are too revealing, and are impractical for carrying out their physically demanding duties.

Recently, Cathay Pacific’s flight attendant union protested against skirts being compulsory dress code for stewardesses. This case has drawn attention to the underlying sexism in the industry. The union offered a very strong case for the uniform change, arguing it could eliminate gender discrimination and the potential for sexual harassment. The current dress code seems to only gratify the demands of male customers while at the same time reinforcing the deeply ingrained stereotype that, for a woman to dress formally, she must wear something resembling a dress.

This sort of sexism has no place in modern society. It’s ironic that, at a time when there are criticisms aimed at the feminist movement for overextending women’s rights, such a sexist policy has managed to remain in place and people (besides the flight attendants) seem to accept it. However, should we not extend this argument to include other examples of women being forced to wear skirts and dresses for their uniforms?

Surely, if we are to accept that such gender stereotypes are outdated and unfair, it is morally inconsistent to enforce them among our children when it comes to school uniforms. The argument for preventing sexual assaults may be less relevant here, but the fact that we are enforcing gender norms on female students – that they should be wearing dresses as opposed to trousers – at such a young age is equally worrying.

When we examine some of the arguments put forward by the flight attendant union, such as the cold winter flights and the restricted movement, the same applies for school uniforms. It’s common to see students in skirts shivering in the cold in winter, as well as the clear inconvenience wearing such clothes dress causes them.

Perhaps the problem was never unique to the airline industry in the first place. The broader picture here is that there is a persistent social norm which forces women to appear “feminine” by wearing skirts and dresses. The policy should undoubtedly be abolished in the airline industry. So shouldn’t we do the same with our school uniforms?

In some schools in Britain and around the world, gender-neutral uniforms are slowly replacing the old rigid requirement for gender-specific uniforms, ie. skirts for girls and trousers for boys. Hong Kong should follow suit. To tackle the underlying sexism and the overall moral issue, we must be willing to confront this issue in different contexts and certainly at a younger age.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge