Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Other airlines should follow Virgin's lead and abandon regressive make-up rules

Would it really be so terrible to have your tea served by someone not wearing lipstick, asks Fionola Meredith

Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic has dropped mandatory make-up for female cabin crew
Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic has dropped mandatory make-up for female cabin crew

Virgin Atlantic has abandoned its long-standing diktat that female cabin crew must wear make-up when they're on duty. And in the same mood of enlightened generosity, they will also offer the women trousers, if they like, to wear on their bottom halves, instead of tight little red skirts. Trousers were available before, to be fair, but they had to be asked for specially, on request. Now they are to be freely, gladly given.

Is Virgin Atlantic blazing a triumphant jet-trail for the liberation of women everywhere?

Well, no, not quite. But it is 2019 and it seems reasonable that female employees shouldn't be forced to paint their faces simply in order to do their jobs.

Actually, I had no idea that some airlines still enforced these absurd, Benny Hill-era policies.

Credit to British Airways for dropping its no-trousers rule for women cabin crew in 2016, but why the hell does it continue to demand that they wear make-up?

What would be so terrible about female staff doing the flight safety announcement without mascara?

Would it be a travesty if they served somebody a coffee having omitted to apply their lipstick (the minimum, apparently, that British Airways requires)?

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We don't call them air hostesses any longer, let alone trolley dollies - what a sexist, demeaning phrase that was - so why should we expect them to be more glamorous and gussied-up than their male counterparts?

This is the crux of the issue: anything that draws an adverse distinction between a man and a woman doing the same job is fundamentally discriminatory.

Equality, in every aspect of every role, is essential, even in dress - sometimes especially in dress. It can tell you a lot about a company.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that Virgin Atlantic has a substantial gender pay gap between its male and female employees?

According to official figures, women's mean hourly rate is 57.9% lower than men's, which means they earn 42p for every £1 that men earn.

Let's see if the new cosmetics arrangement for the female flight attendants - as well, of course, as the freely given trousers - has any impact on the fairness of take-home salaries.

Meanwhile, if British Airways and other long-established airlines continue to insist on these ridiculously archaic rules, they should apply them to every member of the cabin crew (Actually, on a recent flight with a budget airline, I noticed that one of the young male air stewards was sporting some rose-coloured eyeshadow and matching lip gloss, and very nice it looked on him too).

Ludicrous, you say? Well, it's no more nonsensical than demanding that women clabber themselves in expensive coloured gloop before they're allowed to come to work.

Of course, there should be a basic expectation of cleanliness, neatness and formality - even uniformity - for flight attendants, but it has to cut both ways.

Likewise, it seems reasonable to insist that crew of both sexes should not exceed a maximum weight, since they are operating in a tightly confined area with little room to manoeuvre.

As Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy sang of the "jolly hostess, selling crisps and tea", in his ironic hymn to the delights of travelling by National Express coach: "It's hard to get by when your a*** is the size of a small country."

I'm not one of those joyless feminists that wants to ban make-up, by the way. I'm partial to a bit of lipstick myself.

And if female flight attendants want to go for the full 1950s glamarama look that currently prevails on certain airlines, then they should be entitled to do so, but it should be a matter of choice, not employer demand.

Virgin Atlantic has sniffed the breeze - or checked the direction of the wind-sock? - and made a canny move here.

The days have gone when billionaire Richard Branson, who founded the airline, could sweep the supermodel Kate Moss into his arms, wearing a very skimpy corset-like outfit and kicking her stiletto heels while posing on the wing of a jumbo jet, as he did to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Virgin Atlantic in 2009.

Looking back from the vantage point of the MeToo era, the stunt looks seedy, not sexy.

In the same way, mandatory make-up is an unwarranted throwback to a time when women were primarily valued for their decorative appeal, rather than for anything they said or did.

Other companies should take note of Virgin Atlantic's decision, and follow suit. Until then, the trolley dolly is not dead.

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