For flight attendant’s, there’s one hell of a debate simmering at the moment over what does and doesn’t constitute sexism and other discriminatory behaviours. Some commentators have questioned whether the marketing campaigns of some airlines, such as Singapore Airlines, focus too much on female flight attendants – reinforcing outdated views of women.
Much of the time, the attention on this debate is focused on Asian and Middle East airlines – we talk about their marketing campaigns, the strict rules and the hiring policies as examples of the old-fashioned, misogynistic treatment of women, especially flight attendants in these airlines.
At the same time, it’s all too easy to think that ‘Western’ airlines – especially in North America – have got the equality thing pretty much sorted. Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, we saw plenty of airlines, including Air Canada organising women-only flights – but was it all a cheap marketing gimmick?
The Canadian Union of Public Employees may well think so. The union which represents over 8,500 flight attendants at the Canadian flag carrier has filed a human rights violation complaint against Air Canada, alleging “systemic discrimination and harassment of flight attendants.”
“Our complaint states that Air Canada, through its policies, procedures and practices, fosters harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” argues CUPE’s Air Canada Component Vice-President Beth Mahan.
“This must stop now,” Mahan demands.
Specifically, the union points towards Air Canada’s rules on grooming such as its uniform, hair and makeup policies which female flight attendants have to comply with. The union says some flight attendants have to model the uniforms, claiming the practice is “clearly discriminatory towards female flight attendants on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and race.”
Are Onboard Service Managers to blame?
But the union also points towards a new onboard management role which is making the problem even worse. Air Canada recently introduced Onboard Service Managers or OBSM’s for short as a way to improve the overall in-flight experience.
Essentially, they are a separate manager from the purser and they monitor the in-flight service rather than getting directly involved. A number of other airlines have introduced this type of manager with great success – seeing their Net Promoter Score’s significantly improving without any real investment in the actual product.
Unfortunately, CUPE says that rather than improving the in-flight experience, the OBSM’s at Air Canada are in fact creating a “toxic environment”. There are allegations that many of these new managers have made “sexist, racist and homophobic remarks” while causing “fear and intimidation in the workplace.”
What’s even worse, is an allegation that the OBSM’s have been engaging in “inappropriate behaviour towards flight attendants of both sexes.”
In it’s motion to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, CUPE is calling for a wide-ranging review of policies at Air Canada and is hoping the airline will disband its OBSM programme.
The issues raised by the union will be sure to divide opinion – as brand ambassadors, most flight attendants fully expect grooming standards to be an important part of their job. Having said that, does it really follow that men shouldn’t be allowed to wear makeup while women have to wear makeup?
It’s a really difficult debate and we can imagine a lot of airlines – predominantly in North America, Europe and Australasia – will be trying to find the answers to these questions in the next few years.
We’d argue that very few passengers would find a dishevelled, unprofessional flight attendant acceptable in any circumstances – if they can’t look after themselves, how on earth are they meant to look after a plane full of passengers? But customers appreciate and welcome genuine warmth, passion and service – not just traditional views of beauty.
We’ve reached out to Air Canada for comment but at the time of publication had not yet received a response.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.