Who wears the pants?

March 24, 2016

flight attendant illustrationBy Chloe Gulati ’17

Women in the workplace. It’s a trending topic, and rightly so with women currently making up almost 50% of the U.S. workforce.

Leading the national dialogue, the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration (SHA) is facilitating discussions about women in business, both in and outside the classroom. Susan Fleming, a senior lecturer at the school, teaches a Women in Leadership class that helps students understand the unique challenges faced by women in business, as well as how to overcome these challenges and attract more women into the hospitality industry.

Beyond the classroom, SHA engages alumni and industry professionals by hosting events that encourage lively discussion of this topic. A recent panel hosted by the school’s Real Estate Club connected students with successful women in the industry through the WX New York Women Executives in Real Estate organization. The panel provided the opportunity for current SHA students to hear firsthand about changes in the industry, plans for improvement, and where they may fit in the industry in the future.

The airline attendant has always been a sexualized position, catering to the male role.

Despite efforts to guide the business sector toward gender equality, at least one segment is still lagging: the airline industry. A recent article detailed British Airways’ contract change, which allowed women flight attendants to wear pants as part of their uniform, instead of being restricted to skirts. Although it’s a step in the right direction, the change indicates gender inequality on a greater scale within the industry. Since 2012, skirts had been a mandatory piece of British Airways’ “ambassador” uniform, despite a union survey indicating that 83% of members wanted the option to wear pants.

Historically, the airline segment has been rife with inequality and segregation, regarding the flight-attendant role as exclusively a woman’s job. Some airlines even market accordingly, flaunting the attractiveness of its cabin crew as an integral part of the in-flight experience. Past marketing schemes include Braniff International Airways’ incorporation of the “air strip” into a commercial, insinuating that flight attendants would strip inflight, and a National Airlines commercial in which flight attendants told viewers to “fly me.”

Some airlines continue to implement inequitable regulations today. As recently as 2014, Air India mandated guidelines that require flight attendants to maintain a low body mass index (BMI)—which measures fat based on height and weight—or forfeit their jobs. The airline deemed 130 crew members unfit to fly, a substantial majority of which were women. Although flight attendants have been objectified in the past, it is startling to see that progress is still so slow.

As recently as 2014, Air India mandated guidelines that require flight attendants to maintain a low BMI.Fleming attributes this lag in progressivism to a male-dominated revenue-generation industry landscape, saying that air travel was originally “for the very affluent and for the business people, with the vast majority of these customers being men.” According to Fleming, because of the high percentage of male travelers in the industry, “the airline attendant has always been a sexualized position, catering to the male role.” And even now, as the airline shifts to an industry that caters to virtually everyone, the high-price, business-class seats are generally occupied by a mostly male demographic.

Though movement in the airline industry is slow, British Airways’ allowance for pants in the flight-attendant uniform demonstrates progress. Not allowing women to wear pants separates them from men, placing them in a lesser category and maintaining the idea that their position is more about looking pretty than ensuring safety. The high heels and skirt make their position seem less professional and inhibit them from performing the full functions thereof. Although societal expectations often still see men to leadership positions, the airline industry is right to promote the idea of women in authority positions not only in an aircraft, but in the workplace.

On a broader scale, British Airways’ change in uniform is a testament to the national movement of women in authority positions as a social norm. SHA remains engaged with this topic—the Cornell Hospitality Thought Leadership Series will feature a Women in Senior Leadership Panel next month in Washington, D.C., and, as the industry continues to progress, SHA will showcase industry pioneers as well as ensuring a place for future graduates in the evolving industry.

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