Sexual Harassment and Discrimination in the Aviation Sector

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In the aviation sector: Gendered roles and discrimination

In the aviation sector, women are thought to be more suitable for jobs as airline attendants than for taking on primary duties as pilots. Most airlines believe that stewardesses must be excessively attractive and stunning in order for the company to succeed. The problem of gendered roles, as well as further discrimination and sexual assault, become relevant in this context. When dealing with rude or demanding passengers, airlines expect female flight attendants to maintain feelings of deference and refrain from becoming furious, annoyed, or irritated. Numerous reports are made by women who believe that the problems with harassment, gender inequality, and discrimination in the aviation business are intolerable. The paper discusses different types of these discrimination claims. Among the complaints include the two female flight attendants who sued Russia's flag carrier, Aeroflot for age and sex discrimination, four female pilots at Frontier Airlines in May 2016, and lastly the woman who sued Delta Airlines over sex assault.


It is evident that women have been relegated to a secondary life role, historically and also in the contemporary world. Experience in day-to-day life portrays women to only be part of secondary roles, for instance, they can only become legal secretaries and not lawyers, airline stewardesses and not pilots, secondary school teachers but rarely professors in universities. The society seems to support the perception that women are better suited for such secondary roles, and as such there exist numerous examples of sexual discrimination and harassment. In the airline industry, for instance, women are thought of as airline stewardesses who, according to most airlines, they are required to be overly beautiful to be part of the attractive flight crews. For instance, MacFarquhar (2017) of The New York Times reported that Aeroflot workers were openly informed that passengers wanted attractive flight crews; thus those considered unattractive were at risk of losing their jobs. With such requirements, many airlines discriminate against women and further pressure them to lead specific lifestyles in order to maintain their attractiveness at the expense of considering qualification.

Discrimination Complaints against Different Airlines

The aviation industry is a form of a service-based economy as opposed to the traditional manufacturing-based economy. In service-based economies, workers are expected to commodify their emotions as they serve their clients in the organization. In the airline industry, for instance, flight attendants 'sell' a particularly emotional experience to clients (flyers), and are thus expected to offer more than just peanuts and drinks. The flight attendants must ensure that flyers leave the airline with a feeling of being cared for and also safe. Similarly, the attendants are expected to muster feelings of deference and further ignore any feelings of anger, annoyance or irritation that are likely to come up when dealing with rude or demanding flyers. The industry is different from other sectors and professions such as bill collectors who are encouraged to portray their feelings of belligerence as well as force when compelling debtors to pay up.

According to Wingfield (2016), the divergent emotional standards are essential in understanding workplace discrimination and harassment since they reproduce gendered inequalities. Wingfield (2016) greatly borrows from the article The Managed Heart by Arlie Hochschild who notes that women are expected to show traditionally feminine feelings or emotions while their male counterparts are not prevented from showing their anger, irritation or annoyance. In the aviation industry, women are discriminated against and expected to hide their feelings in order to make the flyers happy and safe during their flight. Also, since women are required to show feminine emotions, they are considered ideal to take up flight attendant jobs, hence evidence of gendered inequalities.

There are numerous complaints by women who feel that the issues of gendered inequalities, discrimination, and harassment are intolerable in the aviation industry. For instance, as described by MacFarquhar (2017), two female flight attendants aired their grievances, and further took rare steps of suing Aeroflot, Russia's flag carrier. The two women sued the airline for sex discrimination and age (MacFarquhar, 2017). The women were against the airline's move to set standard breast sizes and the issue of attractiveness. During the case, two men who defended the airline argued that for the success of the business in that airline, flight staff were required to be attractive. The women suing the airlines were opposed to Aeroflot's decision in the year 2016 to enforce weight standards for its cabin staff, with women required to fit into a maximum cloth size of 48 (same as size 14 in the United States). The guidelines by the airline perpetuated gendered inequalities since an autonomous union representative reported that men were allowed to put on more weight, despite being cabin staff (MacFarquhar, 2017).

The airline had barred the two women (Irina Ierusalimskaya and Evgeniya Magurina) from international flights on the grounds that their size of clothes were larger than the set size of 48 (MacFarquhar, 2017). The women claimed that the move caused them dearly as they lost a significant amount of their potential earnings. Such type of discrimination is unwarranted as it was inconsiderate of the airline to overlook professional success and rather consider clothing size. Even though the airline business thrives on the attractiveness of the cabin staff, particularly flight attendants, it is disheartening for any worker to be discriminated against for being somewhat bigger size than the set standards, provided they have the required professional requirements.

Another discrimination complaint was filed by female pilots working at Frontier Airlines in May 2016 (Mendoza, 2016). According to the four pilots, the Denver-based carrier (Frontier Airlines) had discriminated against them as it failed to accommodate them and their 'breast-pumping needs'. The airline had strict rules that prevent females from breastfeeding their babies upon returning to work after maternity leave. The move, according to the airlines, was to help the women maintain their body size and shape, thus conform to the attractiveness standard set. Any workplace discrimination is against the law. Therefore, on behalf of the pilots, the law firm of Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint of discrimination with the Denver's Office for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Mendoza, 2016). According to Mendoza (2016), the four pilots had collectively worked for the Denver-based carrier industry for 35 years.

The women were put in a position to choose between their jobs and breastfeeding their children. As exclaimed by one of the women, Kiedrowski, the carrier had put the female workers at compromising situations when it set its standards of not accommodating for pregnancy and breastfeeding (Mendoza, 2016). However, the airline issued a statement saying that its practices and policies regarding breastfeeding and pregnancy complied with all state and federal laws. Besides, the policies complied with the relevant provisions put forward by the collective bargaining agreement between the pilots and the carrier industry (Mendoza, 2016).

The other complaint raised by the pilots was that Frontier demanded that pregnant women take an unpaid leave of eight to ten weeks before their due date. Similarly, the carrier allows the workers a maximum of 4 months of unpaid maternity leave. Besides, the female pilots claimed that the airlines discriminated against pregnant and breastfeeding women since it failed to accommodate them to pump their breast milk after returning to work (Mendoza, 2016). Even though the carrier categorically stated that its policies and practices are in line with the federal and state laws, it is discriminatory for pregnant workers to be sent away to mandatory leaves that are unpaid.

Another significant form of discrimination is the sexual assault to females. As reported by Brand-Williams (2017) of The Detroit News, a woman sued Delta Airlines over sex assault. The woman was assaulted on July 27, 2016, during a flight to Detroit from Myrtle Beach (Brand-Williams, 2017). The man who assaulted the woman was seen by flight attendants as he performed a sex act on himself before the flight, but instead of establishing protocol to restrict the man's movement, the attendants allowed him to get back to the cabin and sit next to the woman (Brand-Williams, 2017). Sexual assault is prevalent in the aviation industry where individuals, particularly males, assault females without any legal action against the perpetrator. The complaint filed by the woman dismayed Delta since it is based on the principle of prioritizing the security and safety of their customers and employees (Brand-Williams, 2017). Such harassment requires immediate legal action upon collection of adequate evidence. According to Blinder (1971), sex discrimination is a law, and thus it must be enforced, particularly in the aviation industry.


Women have been considered to portray feminine emotions even in job situations that require one to show feelings of anger, irritation, or even annoyance. The issue of gendered inequalities in the workplace contributes to the perception that women are more suited to some occupations such as flight attendants as compared to their male counterparts.

The fact that women in airlines are required to be overly attractive, and be in line with set standards of body size and shape is proof of sexual discrimination and harassment. Those women who do not conform to such standards remain sidelined, and as explained by MacFarquhar (2017), such women even miss some international flights, which translates to lost incomes. Therefore, the issue of sexual discrimination and harassment in the aviation industry should be considered in relation to the airline policies and practices to ensure that no woman is disadvantaged from such scenarios as pregnancy or breastfeeding.


Blinder, D. (1971). Sex Discrimination in the Airline Industry: Title VII Flying High. California Law Review, 59 (5), 1091-1112.

Brand-Williams, O. (2017). Woman sues Delta Airlines over sex assault on flight. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from The Detroit News:

MacFarquhar, N. (2017). Aeroflot Workers Are Told Passengers Want Attractive Flight Crews. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from The New York Times:

Mendoza, M. (2016). Female pilots file discrimination complaint against Frontier Airlines. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from Denver Business Journal:

Wingfield, A. H. (2016). How ‘Service With a Smile’ Takes a Toll on Women. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from The Atlantic:

July 15, 2023

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