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‘Show more cleavage and wear more makeup’. Discovering the unequal treatment of female flight attendants.

‘Show more cleavage and wear more makeup’. Discovering the unequal treatment of female flight attendants.
Author: Siiri-Matilda Maununiemi
3 Commentries
Abstract: While the pilot sector of aviation is truly male dominated, majority of the flight attendants worldwide are female. Several inequality issues have been brought up to the unions’ and media’s attention during the recent years, showcasing the unequal treatment of the female flight attendants. The purpose of this conference paper is to discuss the unequal treatment of female flight attendants and the various aspects of it.

Keywords: female flight attendants, inequalities, aviation industry, emotional labour, gender pay gap

Flight attendant’s job is emotionally highly demanding and the performance of the flight attendants is a crucial factor in the business’ success. Flight attendants are part of the emotional labour and they are expected to use surface acting in daily basis. This acting means that the flight attendants are expected to put on a face to place their outward emotional appearance in line with that is acceptable in the work situation (Hochchild, 1983). The reactions this method gains varies between genders, as performing in a caring and positive way is perceived as natural behaviour from females, whereas males are rewarded from performing this way. Additionally, female flight attendants have been reporting sexual harassment for decades (Lagrave, 2017). However, responding to sexual harassment on board can be challenging, as the surface acting limits the flight attendants’ possibilities to show their real feelings towards the behaviour. Experiencing such behaviour without being able to respond to it can cause anger and humiliation, which can cause stress and even burnout (Hochchild, 1983).

Gender inequalities have been broadly discussed in the recent years due to various campaigns and new legislations. Majority of the gender inequality literature on the aviation industry discusses the horizontal segregation of the industry, as 94.7% of the pilots worldwide are male, whereas majority of the flight attendants worldwide are female (Morris, 2018). While the number of male flight attendants is steadily growing, the high number of female flight attendants is a clear continuum from the late 1900s when the role of a flight attendant was strongly female dominated. As the flight attendant’s role in the 1950s and 60s was perceived as to please and serve the passengers, with the emphasis being on their looks, the treatment of these females was truly unequal. Female flight attendants needed to measure between 5”2 and 5”9, be single, weight under 140 pounds and retire by the age of 32, as they were not seen as attractive after the mentioned age (Lagrave, 2017).

The unequal treatment of female flight attendants has improved since the rise of feminism in 1970s. However, various case studies of unequal treatment of female flight attendants have been filed in the recent years. In 2015, the International Transport Workers Federation exposed Qatar Airways rules in the contracts for the female flight attendants. These rules included aspects such as that the female flight attendants can only be hired if they are single, they must remain single for the next five years and that falling pregnant could lead into firing. Moreover, the uniforms of the flight attendants are adding to the unequal treatment of the female flight attendants. Where male flight attendants wear a trouser suit, their female colleagues are expected to wear unpractical dresses and skirts. However, this is not the case in every airline, as various airlines today let their female flight attendants to wear trousers. Lastly, the union representing the flight attendants in Air Canada, filed a human rights complaint against the airline in 2018, as the managers have allegedly encouraged their female flight attendants to show more cleavage and wear more makeup.

Besides the inequality case studies mentioned above, the gender pay gap raised questions on the inequalities in the aviation industry. as The Equality Act 2010 Regulations 2017 made it mandatory for companies in the UK with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap statistics by the 4th of April 2018. British Airways reported a 10 percent gender pay gap, whereas Ryanair reported a high 72 percent gap (Morris, 2018). However, the high gaps in Ryanair and other airlines were explained with the lack of female pilots and females in the management roles, as the annual income for these roles differ from flight attendant roles, which again, is female dominated.

To close the gender pay gap and increase the number of female flight attendants, the role of pilot and flight instructor should be promoted as more gender neutral careers. This would encourage more females to apply for these positions. Additionally, airlines should provide their staff with trainings regarding preventing and responding to the sexual harassments and assaults. This would lower the boundary for the victims to come forward with their experiences, while also possibly decreasing the number of the harassments and assaults. However, the society needs to change for further major changes to be made. Before the society starts to see sexual harassment and assaults as truly unacceptable, major changes cannot be expected. Bringing these issues to publics knowledge, breaks the stigma and shame around the topic, which shows how important the social media campaigns just as #MeToo truly are. With the changes in the perception of the society, there is a possibility, that one-day flight attendants will be respected enough to be treated equally regardless their gender.

Hochchild, A.R. (1983) The Managed Heart. Berkley: University of California Press.

Lagrave, K. (2017) From Stewardess to Flight Attendant: 80 years of sophistication and sexism. Conde Nast Traveller, 8 March. Available at https://www.cntraveler.com/story/a-timeline-from-stewardess-to-flight-attendant [accessed 30 April 2018].

Morris, H. (2018) Why do airlines have such large gender pay gaps? And whose is the biggest? The Telegraph, 5 April. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airline-gender-pay-gaps-female-pilots/ [accessed 1 May 2018].

Commentary upon 'discovering the unequal treatment of female flight attendants'
Author: Anne Karlen
I have chosen to comment on this particular paper as inequality is a very interesting topic and is comparing genders in the airline industry. Moreover, this topic interests me as I have a dream to be part of the airline industry and I am also a woman who wish to someday work in an industry with equal pay, behaviour and dressing in any job of tourism industry.

As the inequalities of women are happening every day, I think this paper is an important piece of information as inequalities and negative behaviour towards women concerns all women who need to put up with it in their everyday life. Everyone deserves their work environment to be safe and without the need to experience these gender inequalities'. This paper discusses well the fact that inequalities, pay gap and poor treatment of women in the industry has been part of the industry for decades (Voel, 2017). It is shocking that so little improvements have been made in so many years for the sake of the women wellbeing on the such jobs like flight attendant.

It is good that the paper acknowledge feminism playing an immense part in improving the work environment of women (Hochchild,1983). The paper brings up issues of women treatment and the various rules that the women must follow in order to keep their job for example women are needed to wear makeup and have a certain weight, this was very surprising to read. The differences of dressing of men and women are well brought up with examples of different cases in several different airline companies which are still continuing today. It also discusses the emotional side of the flight attendant job that one would not necessarily knowledge when flying in a plane.

Paper discusses well the manager part of the inequalities with notion of The Equality Act 2010 which has been trying to shift the industry with new law of equality, with not much improvement (Corderoy, 2018). The pay gap between companies have been examined well as it also illustrates the differences between these companies.

While this paper has been interesting overall and joy to read, it is also well structured and provides large information. However, this paper lack of the requirements of today's airline industry which could have provided insight of the today's condition of inequality. This topic is needed to further research so that these issues could be brought up in order to change the usual airline industry habits, especially the flight attendants.


Corderoy, J. (2018) The sexist history of flight attendants. News Australia, 22 August. Available at http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-advice/travellers-stories/the-sexist-history-of-flight-attendants/news-story/aac6c06021f4f8d8391fec1c6416cfb9 [accessed 30 April 2018].

Hochchild, A.R. (1983) The Managed Heart. Berkley: University of California Press.

Volpe. A. (2017) What happens when women say 'no' to emotional labor. Lily, 18 December. Available at https://www.thelily.com/what-happens-when-women-say-no-to-emotional-labor/ [accessed 1 May 2018].
Review of the Discussion paper 'Discovering the unequal treatment of female flight attendants'
Author: Marcus Kindstedt
This paper was chosen to be reviewed, as the topic of flight attendants evolution from gender perspective and how their experiences has evolved. It was fairly surprising to read about degrading instructions given to female flight attendants as late as 2018, which referred for them to “show more cleavage”. These actions/reports should truly be taken seriously by the board of directors.

However, the statement that female flight attendants role in late 50’s and 60’s was solely to please and serve passengers based on their looks and that this “is truly unequal” is a straightforward assessment, and could use further articulation. According to England (1993, 165) who studied dimensions of feminism reviewed Horchild’s research that found that female flight attendants role was to work as “shock absorbers” which referred to females being soothers for mishandled passengers that potentially resulted in reduced complaints. Furthermore, male flight attendants were acting as more authority role. This is however a clear diversification of gender roles and has since been reduced as discussed in this paper.

The mention of emotional strain and how individuals were perceived to act, react and behave according to their gender was an interesting topic as I found it highly relevant in present times as well and found to require further research (Mills, 2017). Furthermore, the Qatar Airways report of recruitment requirements was also surprising to read and would be interesting to see the full version of this paper for if this was discussed further, since the reason for these requirements would have been beneficial to be discuss further.

The paper brings up a good number of evidence towards this argument and is amended for this. The paper brings up the mental- and emotional strain, recruitment requirements and economical inequalities, and evaluates them with evidence showcasing strength in argument. These arguments summarise well how women in the airline industry might feel powerless and cause stress.

This topic further raise the question whether the higher rate of female flight attendants is that men are reluctant on the role of steward and whether differences in hiring between genders exist (Taylor and Taylor, 2000). This concludes the paper well with the recommendation that these positions should be commercialised as gender neutral to encourage more women to apply for these positions.


England, P. (1993) Theory on Gender/Feminism on Theory. New York: Walter De Gruyter.

Mills, A. (2017) Cockpits, Hangars, Boys and Galleys: Corporate Masculinities and the Development of British Airways. Insights and Research on the Study of Gender and Intersectionality Airline Cultures. 13(1), pp. 237-263. Available from https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/978-1-78714-545-020171014 [accessed 15 May 2018].

Taylor, S. and Taylor, M. (2000) Emotional labour and Sexual Difference in the Airline Industry. Work, Employment & Society. 14(1), pp.77-95. Available from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/work-employment-and-society/article/emotional-labour-and-sexual-difference-in-the-airline-industry/02533EE4AA75816769776B2B7AC81D25 [accessed 15 May 2018].

Critical Evaluation of ‘Show more cleavage and wear more makeup’. Discovering the unequal treatment of female flight attendants.
Author: Michal Olizarowicz
There has been a number of discussion papers focusing on the gender inequity among flight attendants for the virtual conference. This one provides the most comprehensive background of the social pressures female flight attendants has faced since the beginning of the profession, which is why it was chosen for critical evaluation.

Building a solid historical context for the discussion of unfair treatment of female flight attendants is vital in understanding the challenges they women have faced in this industry. The author does an excellent work in providing readers with an overview of how the perception of female flight attendants has changed over the years and how, despite wide acknowledgement of gender inequity of airline work environment, the progress on these issues has been disappointingly slow. Recent examples of unfair treatment are given, such as Qatar Airways contract rules for their female employees, and they effectively illustrate the types of injustice female flight attendants continue to face in the industry. (ITWF, 2015)

The author highlights the multi-faceted nature of the high number of females in the profession, which is a result of both, perception that flight attendants role is to ‘care’ about passengers and women are naturally better at it, as well as the overrepresentation of male pilots. These assertions are successfully linked with emotional labour flight attendants are expected to provide and the gender pay gap between flight crew members. (Fennell, 2006)

While the author correctly identifies the emotional labour female flight attendants are required to perform, it is disappointing to see that no aspects of gender-specific role expectations are appropriately recognised. Both the title and the examples given in the discussion paper provide ample evidence that female flight attendants are expected to perform aesthetic labour (Nickson, Warhurst, Witz, & Cullen, 2001: 170), and do so to a greater extent than their male counterparts, which should be acknowledged with appropriate reference. A closer look at the treatment of male flight attendants would have provided more opportunity for direct comparison between their respective experiences, allowing to better identify, which of the challenges are gender-specific.

Overall, the paper discusses the multitude of challenges that female flight attendants have been facing in the industry and how these issues have changed along with the social perspectives on what the role of a flight attendant is supposed to entail. While the narrow focus of the study has some drawbacks, it also successfully highlights the specific vulnerabilities of female flight attendants that other discussion papers have omitted from discussion.

Fennell, D. (2006). Tourism Ethics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

International Transport Workers Federation (2015) First victory for staff rights at Qatar Airways. Available at: http://www.itfglobal.org/en/news-events/press-releases/2015/august/first-victory-for-staff-rights-at-qatar-airways/

Nickson, D., Warhurst, C., Witz, A. and Cullen, AM., (2001) The importance of being aesthetic: work, employment and service organisation, In: A. Sturdy, I. Grugulis, and H. Willmott, (eds) Customer Service: Empowerment and Entrapment, London: Palgrave, pp. 170-190.