The world’s 10th largest air carrier imposes rules on its flight attendants that are literally from the 1960s.
Qatar Airways requires female flight attendants to be single to get hired, and they have to stay single for five years, according to Chico Harlan at the Washington Post. They have to ask permission if they want to get married.
And while the rules require flight attendants to notify the airline as soon as they know they’re pregnant, pregnancy is a breach of contract and can end up getting them fired.
CEO Akbar al Baker has defended both policies. “If you come to seek employment with Qatar Airways we give you a document that these are the rules and regulations, if you as a mature individual accept those conditions, then you shouldn’t complain,” he has previously told Reuters. “You know they have come there to do a job and we make sure that they are doing a job, that they give us a good return on our investment.”
As for the restrictions on pregnancy, cabin crew on any airline aren’t allowed to fly while pregnant, although some companies allow them to fly for the first three months of their pregnancies and then most companies give them work to do on the ground. That’s not what Qatar Airways chooses to do. “We are not in the business where we can guarantee ground jobs or let people stay away…and don’t do anything for the airline,” al Baker said.
Qatar airways may have some of the most extreme rules, but it’s not the only one with retrograde policies. Flight attendants for Asiana Airlines have to comply with guidelines for makeup color, hairstyle, and even nail length, and only two years ago the skirts-only dress code was expanded. Emirates fires flight attendants who become pregnant within the first three years. Women who work for Singapore Airlines are called “Singapore Girls” and have to wear sarongs. China Southern Airlines and VietJet both hold competitions for new crew members that include swimsuit contests.
All of these policies would sound very familiar to American flight attendants in the 1960s. According to Gail Collins’s book “When Everything Changed,” one of the few career paths available to women was becoming a stewardess. It came with rules about height and weight with constant monitoring to make sure they maintained their appearances. They were required to quit if they got married — and they couldn’t keep it secret long as supervisors would look at wedding announcements to see if anyone had broken the rules.
When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission first opened in 1965 to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and other attributes, the first people to bring complaints were these stewardesses. They were ignored at first: at a House subcommittee on the issue, a congressman asked the stewardesses to “stand up, so we can see the dimensions of the problem.” The airlines argued that the job of serving food and ensuring passenger safety were only something young, single women could do because male passengers would feel strange if flight attendants were male. Some courts agreed.
But in 1973, a federal court in Washington, D.C. ruled that Northwest Airlines had to get rid of appearance rules and any other restrictions not related to safety. These practices have constituted gender discrimination since then.
But some still continue in different industries. Pregnant women have repeatedly sued employers for being fired after they disclosed their pregnancies, including one woman who says she was fired on her first day of work just hours after telling her supervisor of her pregnancy. Employers often rely on untrue stereotypes and vilifications to justify firing pregnant workers.
Some employers also still police women’s appearances and have gotten away with it. Cocktail servers at a casino sued because they were prohibited from gaining weight and were subjected to regular weigh-ins, but a judge ruled that the practice wasn’t illegal.
On Monday, Qatar Airways Senior Vice President Customer Experience Rossen Dimitrov emailed a statement refuting these practices: “Qatar Airways flight attendants do not have to be, or remain single. Many of our cabin crew are in fact married. The employment contracts simply use the term ‘single status’ which is a common term in many Gulf companies’ contracts. In addition, cabin crew do not have to ask permission before marrying. Like many other airlines, for health and safety reasons and as mandated by Qatar Civil Aviation Authority, cabin crew do have to notify us when they become pregnant…Cabin crew who cannot fly, due to pregnancy, or who for any other reason are unable to maintain their license, are assisted with finding suitable ground positions.” Questions about when its policies changed were not immediately answered.