Movements like #MeToo have been pivotal in unveiling the sexism women face. But it seems as if some aviation companies haven’t got the memo to stop focusing on women’s appearance, according to a report revealed by GMB Union, the trade union for workers.
The report said that notable businesses, including aviation services company Swissport and airport services provider dnata, have a “shameful trolley dolly culture” that “pervades within the sector and that needs addressing.” Female employees in companies like these are expected to adhere to policies which force them to wear make-up, high heels and have well-groomed legs as a prerequisite.
The report claims that under Swissport rules women must wear make-up, lip gloss of red, pink or brown shades, and heels at least 1.5cm in length, as well as have clean shaved legs. Employees of the company who are members of the trade union revealed that they could only wear flat shoes if they had a doctor’s note.
At dnata, dreadlocks are banned and the policy outlined a list of make-up colours that workers were required to wear when on duty. They also had to wear nail varnish.
However, following the report, Swissport said the reason was because it had to comply with its partners. A spokesperson said: “The current Swissport uniform and protective clothing policy is designed to comply with airline partners’ policies and health and safety standards. We are currently carefully reviewing elements of the policy to ensure the comfort of all staff.”
Subsequently, dnata responded by saying a customer facing role demands policies which require the employee to look professional. “Like most other companies’ consumer facing staff, dnata’s employees are expected to meet grooming requirements and wear uniform on duty to ensure consistency, uphold a professional image and help consumers identify them with their profession and the brand at each airport,” a spokesperson said.
Commenting on the report, GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said: “I thought uniform policies like these had been consigned to the history books, they have no place in the modern workplace.
“Having policies that apply to women but not men is discriminatory, plain and simple.
“The GMB is calling on all employers in the aviation sector to radically overhaul their uniform policies and bring them up to modern day standards,” said Houghton.
Companies like dnata and Swissport are hardly alone in harbouring a sexist culture and strict policies for female staff. The pattern can be seen even in airline companies. For instance, United Airlines explicitly says uniforms cannot be altered and that tattoos should not be visible. Air India’s female cabin crew were given deadlines to lose weight or they would be assigned to ground jobs.
The chief executive of Qatar Airlines boasted that the average age of the airline’s female crew is 26, while describing US airlines’ crew as “grandmothers.”
Houghton added: “Leadership and management within the aviation industry – like many industries – is dominated by men and therefore if men are making choices on policies that affect women and women’s bodies, without serious engagement from their workers and trade unions, they are going to continue to get it wrong when it comes to ensuring equality and fairness is at the heart of decision making.”
However, many companies have changed their policies to become more inclusive. From Virgin Atlantic to British Airways rules were relaxed wherein women could now wear trousers and ditch the high heels. In fact, the former even dropped the mandate for female workers to wear make-up.
“If the Me Too movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal have taught us anything it’s that women need proper protection at work,” said Houghton. “While these policies don’t constitute sexual harassment they contribute to a frankly dangerous perception of the way women should look and behave in order to fit in with a superficial, patriarchal standard.
“It’s these perceptions and dress code requirements placed on women that lead to them being sexually objectified.
“It’s structural sexism and the GMB is at the forefront of challenging it.”
International Transport Workers’ Federation’s assistant civil aviation secretary Eoin Coates agreed with the report. “This pattern is culturally imbedded both internally in the industry and externally amongst society.
“There is a significant cultural change needed from management to eliminate this kind of attitude from airlines and aviation companies. For example, the role of cabin crew is traditionally seen as a service-only role which is not the case. Cabin crew are primarily for the safety of passengers and traditional airline culture rarely reflects this,” Coates said.