A Washington state civil rights commission has concluded that Alaska Airlines discriminated against a non-binary flight attendant on the basis of gender identity and gender expression because of the airline’s insistence that employees choose between a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ look when wearing the company’s uniform.
Justin Wetherell, a long-serving flight attendant and crew instructor, complained to the Washington State Human Rights Commission after unsuccessfully championing a new uniform policy that would account for the needs of non-binary staffers who don’t identify as either male or female.
In response to Wetherell’s campaigning and an intervention from the American Civil Liberties Union, the airline did make some major changes to its uniform policy in March 2022, but managers still insist that staff comply with standards based on either a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ look.
When Alaska Airlines introduced a brand new uniform in 2019, it forced employees to choose a uniform based on two binary definitions of gender. There was the female uniform and the male uniform and employees were not permitted to mix and match from the two uniforms.
Both uniforms had differing standards. Female uniform wearers could wear their hair down and wear makeup and nail varnish. Male crew were barred from wearing earrings and high-heel shoes but could roll up their shirt sleeves.
After the ACLU’s intervention, Alaska publicly announced a new uniform policy that was meant to “provide more freedom and flexibility in individual and gender expression”.
“With these changes, fingernail polish, makeup, two earrings per ear, and a single stud nose piercing are expression options available to all employees,” the Seattle-based airline explained in a statement.
“We’ve also updated our grooming policies to allow tattoos in more locations, more hairstyle options and are adjusting the names of our uniform kits to be focused on fit vs. gender identifications.”
Privately, however, the airline still imposed ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ looks. For example, employees with facial hair aren’t permitted to wear female uniform pieces, while someone choosing to wear male uniform items isn’t allowed to wear tinted lip gloss or lipstick that is red, bright pink or berry colored.
As a result, Wetherell still feels compelled to wear the masculine look because its the only option available to someone with facial hair.
“While teaching new flight attendants, I am able to dress and groom in a manner befitting my gender identity and expression. Supervisors, coworkers, and students constantly share their happiness in seeing me show up as my full self, Wetherell said on Monday.
“However, while working as a flight attendant, I am forced into an outdated ideal of masculinity and femininity. Alaska Airlines wants to portray stereotypical genders to the public, which actively harms employees and creates an exclusionary work environment.”
The commission found that Wetherell has been treated less favorably than employees who identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ staff who had uniform kits designed specifically for them.
The ACLU is calling on Alaska Airlines to make further changes to its policy to accommodate employees like Whetherell.
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.