Author: University of Surrey
Author Contact: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016073832200158X
Published: 17th Jan 2023
Peer-Reviewed Publication: Yes
Additional References: Workplace Discrimination Publications
Summary: Despite airline industry attempts to cultivate diverse working environments, gendered practices and pressures persist with female cabin crew encountering expectations on appearance not extended to male counterparts.
A flight attendant, also known as steward/stewardess or air host/air hostess, is a member of the aircrew aboard commercial flights, many business jets, and some government aircraft. Collectively called cabin crew, flight attendants are primarily responsible for passenger safety and comfort. Initially, female flight attendants were required to be single upon hiring and were fired if they married, exceeded weight regulations, or reached age 32 or 35, depending on the airline. In 1964, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law which prohibited sex discrimination and led to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1968. By the end of the 1970s, the term stewardess had generally been replaced by the gender-neutral alternative flight attendant. Also, during the 1980s and 1990s, more males were allowed to apply as flight attendants, helping to create more usage of this term. More recently, the term cabin crew or cabin staff has begun to replace 'flight attendants' in some parts of the world because the term recognizes their role as crew members.
Will the airline industry ever steer away from gender conformity?
Despite attempts by the airline industry to cultivate more diverse working environments, researchers from Surrey have found that gendered practices and pressures persist - with female cabin crew encountering precise expectations on appearance that are not extended to their male counterparts.
Whitney Smith, lead author of the study from the University of Surrey, said:
"Airline organisations, in part, maintain the feminised cabin by setting strict appearance standards that workers embody. Focusing on aesthetic labour, our findings indicate that female flight attendants actively maintain their 'slim' bodies according to organisational rules by routinely engaging in body treatment."
Researchers conducted interviews with currently and recently employed flight attendants from Virgin Atlantic, Qantas and Emirates airlines to examine how they attempt to construct the ideal aesthetic for flight attendants.
The research team found that airline companies take an active role in regulating and shaping female flight attendants' appearances. Flight attendants are informed of grooming and physical appearance standards through detailed manuals, such as 'look books', which dictate every aspect of their physical appearance, for example, uniform, application of makeup and appropriate hairstyles.
This gendered criterion is also enforced through a combination of self-policing and peer pressure, which often results in colleagues naming and shaming people they feel do not keep up with appearance standards.
The findings also demonstrated that, while flight attendants occasionally employ subtle forms of resistance, they primarily adhere to traditional gender norms.
Scott Cohen, Professor of Tourism and Transport and co-author of the study from the University of Surrey, said:
"Our research clearly shows that airlines often demand additional aesthetic performances - a certain look - from women. These expectations are not extended to male employees."
"We would have hoped that companies would provide more diverse environments in this day and age, but it's obvious there is still a long way to go."
In an attempt to adapt to broader societal developments, British Airways recently released a statement saying they would allow male flight attendants to wear 'natural' makeup, nail polish, accessories and 'man buns', as part of their new uniform policy.
In 2019, Virgin Atlantic also made significant changes regarding gendered grooming standards by removing its long-standing makeup requirement, as well as offering trousers as an additional component of the female flight attendant uniform.
Creamy and Seductive: Gender Surveillance in Flight Attendant Work | University of Surrey (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016073832200158X). SexualDiversity.org makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith. Content may have been edited for style, clarity or length.
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• (APA): University of Surrey. (2023, January 17). Creamy and Seductive: Gender Surveillance in Flight Attendant Work. SexualDiversity.org. Retrieved January 30, 2023 from www.sexualdiversity.org/discrimination/work/1127.php
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