The flight industry has demonstrated, once again, that it’s still a long way from gender equality. A 22-page document on the dress code for Norwegian Air employees was sent out to staff in early April. It has since been widely circulated and criticised in the media due to its old-fashioned and sexist content.
Female employees are required to wear make-up and heels that are at least 2 centimetres high. Male flight attendants cannot wear make-up or have long hair.
It’s a shocking example of how far the industry still has to go to catch up with the rest of society.
It is well-known that aviation has been limited by traditional gender roles in the past. Flight attendants have been female while pilots have been male. In recent decades, the industry has begun to diversify, although female pilots are still a small minority.
Most airline carriers have relaxed their dress codes, and now apply the same rules for men and women. Norwegian Air, however, still impose outdated gender stereotypes on their employees.
The document includes a thorough description of the required make-up – as well as how to apply it. There’s a “minimum” requirement of light foundation and eye makeup. It also specifies that make-up should “compliment the uniform and the skin tone”. Men, on the other hand, can only wear make-up to cover bruises or acne.
Perhaps worst of all, if women don’t want to wear heels to work they need to carry a doctor’s note.
Scandinavian companies are usually praised for being gender equal. Norwegian Air used to be known for being innovative and disruptive. Yet, it seems to be decades behind the rest of the society when it comes to dress codes.
Ingrid Hodnebo is a spokesperson for the Norwegian Socialist Left Party. She told Norwegian newspaper VG that “it is almost comical that we face these issues in 2019.”
“While the rest of society has moved on, Norwegian is stuck in a Mad Men universe from the 1950s and 60s.”
A spokesperson for Norwegian Air noted that it is common for other airlines to impose different dress codes on men and women. “We are a global airline which carries passengers from around the world with different cultures and religions on board. It is vital that our crew’s appearance does not offend or provoke.”
Most comically, perhaps, is the justification that women are asked to wear heels mainly for “health reasons.” SAS, another Scandinavian airline, also requires female employees to wear heels due to “ergonomic reasons”. This seems rather odd to me, given that male employees are not asked to wear heels, and heels are known for being damaging for the back and feet.
The reality is that these dress codes are imposed on sexist and old-fashioned grounds.
Does a flight attendant wearing make-up make the flight safer? No! Will an attendant in heels provide better service? No! In my opinion, the job of a flight attendant is to ensure everyone has a safe flight and to provide in-flight services. These can both be done without enforcing harmful gender stereotypes in the process.
Of course, just as in any industry, airline employees should be expected to dress professionally. As far as I’m concerned, this can be done perfectly well without heels or make-up.
It is disheartening to see this multi-million industry so far from gender equality. I am still waiting for the day when I hear a female pilot over airplane speakers. I did think, however, that companies now knew better than to impose strict and sexist dress codes on their employees.
The airline industry needs to wake up. They must take responsibility for employee diversity and actively work for a more equal workplace.
I call on Norwegian Air to take back and rewrite their framework, and for the industry as a whole to work proactively towards equality. In the world we live in, customers expect companies to act responsibly. The airline industry should be no exception to that.