Before the change, certain female crew members — members of a “mixed fleet” of crew who fly a combination of long and short-haul destinations — were required to wear British Airways’ standard “ambassador” uniform, which has not traditionally included pants.
The crew’s union, Unite, said 83 percent of its members working at British Airways wanted the option of wearing pants “for warmth and protection.” By giving all of its employees the choice to wear either pants or a skirt, a Unite spokesperson said the airline is “joining the 21st century,” and called the move “a victory for common sense.”
“Female cabin crew no longer have to shiver in the cold, wet and snow of wintery climates, but also can be afforded the protection of trousers at destinations where there is a risk of malaria or the Zika virus,” the Unite spokesperson said in a statement on Friday.
Cabin crew members for airlines — more commonly called flight attendants — have historically been gendered employees. This occupation became feminized as “women’s work” in the 1930s with a particular emphasis on women’s appearance; many airlines imposed age, height, and weight requirements for their flight attendants. It wasn’t until several decades later, when civil rights laws made it illegal to discriminate against employees based on race or sex, that these companies were forced to abandon their hiring preferences for attractive young women.
Outside of airlines, however, women in the workforce have struggled with dress codes that are unevenly applied to employees of different genders. Female hosts on Fox News, for instance, have said they’re not allowed to wear pants on air. And male lawmakers in several states have recently sparked controversy for suggesting that their female colleagues need to adhere to a stricter dress code that covers up more of their bodies.
The argument over gender-based dress codes has also spread to middle schools and high schools across the country, as female students push back against the assumption that the way they dress may distract their male peers from concentrating in class. Critics say this approach to dress codes reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are inherently tempting to men and that women are responsible for covering themselves up. The implicit message, then, is that it’s a woman’s job to change her behavior to prevent a man from committing a sexual crime.
Last year, one Missouri lawmaker took this idea to the extreme: He suggested that the state could prevent sexual harassment by requiring female interns to follow a stricter dress code.