A veteran Aer Lingus flight attendant has lost a sex discrimination claim she brought against the Dublin-based airline over what she described as the “sexualisation of the female uniform”, which she said was “inappropriate” and left her feeling degraded.
Elizabeth Barry, who has worked for the Irish flag carrier in various roles for more than three decades and has been a member of cabin crew since 1995, complained to the Workplace Relations Commission because she felt the uniform worn by female staff placed them in a “subordinate position to their male counterparts”.
Aer Lingus unveiled its latest cabin crew uniform just before the pandemic in January 2020, the first redesign of the uniform in 22 years. Leading Irish designer Louise Kennedy was praised at the time for reworking the uniform in a new colourway and fit options, but Barry said the uniform “degraded” her.
The uniform features 25 different garment options and, for the first time in the history of Aer Lingus, female cabin crew were allowed to wear trousers alongside a skirt and dress option.
At the time, Aer Lingus boasted that the uniform featured stretch for a better fit and ‘easy-care’ shirts and blouses were meant to make the uniform more comfortable and easier to care for.
Barry, however, took issue with several features of the female uniform that she complained were less favourable or practicable than the male uniform.
Specifically, Barry said that the three-quarter length sleeves on the female suit jacket exposed the wrists and lower arms of female crew to the elements during the cold winter months. This was made worse by the fact that female crew had to wear short sleeve shirts and couldn’t wear cardigans underneath.
“This means that in colder weather, female cabin crew do not have appropriate clothing to wear that will keep them warm,” Barrys wrote in her complaint to the commission.
Barry admitted that female crew could wear a cardigan if they really wanted to but contended that most didn’t because it “is cumbersome and unsightly as the sleeves of the cardigan protrude from the jacket sleeves.”
Barry also took issue with Aer Lingus’ insistence that female cabin crew wear high heels unless they had a medical exemption and complained that nylon tights were “unhygienic” and not as warm as the cotton socks that male cabin crew wore.
“It is humiliating and demeaning for Aer Lingus to enforce an appearance code that reinforces sexist and sexual stereotypes of lack of seriousness and ineffectuality in a workplace that is equally physically demanding of men and women,” the complaint continued.
Barry further raised concerns about the handbag issued to female crew and a petal-shaped cut out in the uniform blouse that “exposes skin just above the left breast”.
In response, Aer Lingus contended that it had “sought a stronger link between the male and female uniform” during the design process and that an “extensive” research project involving key stakeholders, including all frontline staff, helped inform the design.
Lawyers representing the airline argued that a sex discrimination case cannot be “based on what are no more than design features in a uniform”. The submission to the commission continued: “The fact that an individual might dislike an element of the sign does not render it discriminatory.”
During a commission hearing, Barry agreed that the female uniform should be different to the male uniform. Ultimately, adjudication officer Jim Dolan determined that Barry had not been discriminated against and dismissed her complaint.
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.