The most common experiences reported by cabin crew were ‘patting, touching, kissing or pinching’. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Is aviation the industry that time forgot? While air travel might seem to be at the cutting edge in terms of technological innovation, stories about the sexual harassment of female staff continue to surface, and airlines repeatedly release adverts and in-flight entertainment videos that shamelessly sexualise women to grab viewers’ attention.
Harassment and abuse faced by cabin crew hit the headlines this week after a Jet2 plane was forced to make an emergency landing by a male holidaymaker shouting a tirade of verbal abuse at a member of airline staff. Passenger Liam McKeown reportedly yelled “Get your tits out” and “Show us your minge” at a female flight attendant.
The story may sound shocking, but it was probably less surprising for many women working in the industry. A 2014 report revealed that almost one-third (29%) of female flight attendants reported being sexually harassed while on duty in the past year. Offences were perpetrated by passengers and colleagues and included lewd jokes, “staring in a sexual way”, “showing obscene or pornographic materials” and explicit requests for sexual favours. But the most common experiences reported were types of physical contact, described as “patting, touching, kissing or pinching”.
It becomes less surprising still that airline employees experience such harassment when you realise the extent to which the industry actively sexualises them – and encourages passengers to do the same.
Half a century on from the sexism of Pan Am and National Airlines’ “I’m Cheryl, Fly Me” campaign, airline advertising still relies heavily on emphasising the glamour of female flight attendants and the manly strength of pilots. One Virgin advert features female cabin crew in red stilettos being ogled by businessmen, before ending with the slogan “Still Red Hot”. An Avianova advert showed cabin crew stripping to bikinis and soaping up a plane suggestively. In a 2012 incident, bikini-clad women were instructed to dance in the aisles on board a VietJetAir flight, reportedly to “make passengers happy”.
Meanwhile, the infamous Ryanair cabin crew calendar featured sexualised bikini shots of real staff members and was sold in-flight, as well as being used to advertise tickets, under the tagline “Red Hot Fares and Crew”.
Jo-Ann Davidson, the secretary of the Flight Attendants Association of Australia, has voiced concern about the possible link between this imagery and the treatment of employees, saying: “Such suggestive advertising portraying cabin crew as part of the product they’re selling sends wrong messages and puts cabin crew at risk of sexual harassment and abuse – all for a $10 air fare.”
The idea that female cabin crew are expected to look attractive is apparent in stringent staff grooming rules, too. Many airlines still have strict hair and makeup requirements, demanding female staff wear high heels when walking through the airport and mandating strict rules about aesthetic details such as nail varnish colourthat have no bearing on a woman’s ability to do her job.
When the government recently launched an inquiry into high heels and workplace dress codes, the committee heard from a flight attendant who said her dress code made her feel “extremely uncomfortable”. She added that it was:
“dehumanising and humiliating to be made specifically to wear items of uniform that sexualised my appearance or enhanced my sexuality – no aspect of the men’s uniform was designed to enhance their male sexuality. They looked very smart – they all looked immaculate – but none of them was enhancing their sexuality to somehow improve the image of the airline or the service we were providing.
The stereotype runs deep and goes right to the top. Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson never misses an opportunity to launch a new venture by posing with a bikini-clad woman (often manhandling her in the process), including as recently as the launch of Virgin Voyages in October last year. So enamoured is Branson with the use of women’s bodies as props, in fact, that he has inspired a blog named simply “Richard Branson Picking Up Women”.
When accused of sexism for these tactics in 2009, Branson responded: “If I promote a product and I line up with three male models, the photo won’t get into your paper and the new business won’t get talked about.” But what about the potential impact on staff when a company sends a message to customers, whether deliberately or not, that it sees women as sex objects?
There are, at least, some signs of progress. In 2015, Qatar airways changed its policies on terminating the employment of female cabin crew if they married or became pregnant after being condemned by the UN’s International Labour Organisation. In 2014, despite having reacted defiantly to earlier criticism, Ryanair dropped its painfully sexist cabin crew calendar, and last year female British Airways cabin crew finally won a two-year battle to be allowed to wear trousers.
But it remains difficult to imagine women in many mainstream jobs enduring the same blatant sexism faced by cabin crew, both in-flight and in their employers’ advertising. The fact that flight has traditionally been associated with glamour and excitement is no excuse for treating your female staff like sexualised props to lure in customers, particularly when levels of harassment in the industry are so high. To borrow a well-known feminist slogan, if your plane was any good, you wouldn’t need sexism to sell it.