El Al has a new dress code policy: all female flight attendants must wear high heels until all travelers are boarded and seated.
The old policy required high heels at the airport, but allowed attendants to swap out the heels for flats before passengers began to board. But no more: now flight attendants are obligated to stay in heels while navigating the aircraft, assisting passengers with luggage, insisting (while smiling) that, no, that’s not going to fit in the overhead bin, yes, of course we can try it, but see, nope, you’re going to have to gate-check that, sir.
El Al insists there is nothing sexist about a dress code that only requires women to wear uncomfortable, risky footwear (this may shock you, but no such high heel demand is made of male flight attendants) because wearing “presentable shoes” is standard practice industry-wide. According to the Times of Israel, El Al’s shift in policy reportedly came after El Al officials observed flight attendants on other airlines remaining in heels until right before takeoff.
About 200 flight attendants have signed a petition against the policy. Galia Wallach, CEO of women’s group Na’amat, wrote an open letter to EL Al CEO David Maimon, which was excerpted in The Jerusalem Post. It read, in part, “I am not convinced that high heels are an absolute condition for women’s presentability, and certainly not for a female flight attendant who is required, as part of her job, to be on her feet for extended periods… I welcome Mr. Maimon to try walking in high heels for just one hour before requiring [flight attendants] to damage their health for no apparent reason.”
Yehudit Grisaro, vice president of customer service at El Al, told the Times, “The company updates its service procedures and within that framework it was decided that the stewardesses teams wear presentable shoes also when welcoming customers to flights.”
Grisaro does not appear to have an opinion on the fact that science has demonstrated, time and time again, that regularly wearing high heels causes ankle instability, balance problems, muscle weakness and increased risk of injury. There is an obvious line between formal, professional attire (which no one reasonably expects will be quite as comfortable as pajamas) and actually painful, harmful articles of clothing. (El Al, which is based in Israel but has offices in New York, did not return ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.)
The debate here seems to hinge on one charged word: presentable. What does it mean, in modern, professional society, for a woman to be “presentable”? Who gets to decide what constitutes presentability? Why does the standard for a presentable female flight attendant demand the sacrifice of comfort, health and safety, but the standard for a male flight attendant does not? How could that kind of rule be anything but gender discrimination?
That is the flashpoint: they are a symbol of sexism.
El Al’s new rule is extra-egregious considering the context: aren’t flight attendants supposed to be dressed in such a way that their movement would be unhindered in the event of an emergency? The policy — not to mention Grisaro’s use of the very retro term, “stewardesses” — treats flight attendants as primarily decorative instead of functional, as though their first purpose on the aircraft is to adhere to an outmoded code of beauty, not to, as the Department of Labor describes it, “provide personal services to ensure the safety and comfort of airline passengers.” It is hard to believe that a flight attendant can only ensure the safety and comfort of others by giving up safety and comfort for themselves.
If you are appalled by El Al’s policies, you’ll love Qatar Airways, which requires female flight attendants to be single in order to be hired; then they must stay single for five years, and have to ask for permission should they decide to get married. Attendants are also obligated to report to the airline as soon as they know they’re pregnant, a state which constitutes a breach of contract and could get them fired.
Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, the largest flight attendant labor union in the world. (AWA-CWA represents US Airways, Continental Airlines, United Airlines, and others.)
Grisaro insists that El Al’s new heels policy “is accepted in the world air industry.”
“He’s off base,” Nelson said by phone. The rules are much more relaxed than that. There is a standard practice and instruction that would encourage a heel in the concourse and flats on the airplane. However, there is a lot more latitude because of the work that we’ve done on beating back gender discrimination and stereotypical roles.”
While there are uniform standards, Nelson said, “Many of the airlines recognize that requiring a certain standard of shoe can lead to health problems: they can cause people to be out of work in order to fix their problems with their feet, or other problems that can be caused by stress on their feet in some way. So we have medical exceptions.” While that doesn’t exactly address the issue of heels causing medical problems in previously healthy feet, Nelson said, AFA-CWA has “encouraged [airlines] to expand the look in order to have shoes that are comfortable and functional for flight attendants to wear, such as Dansko shoes, that nurses wear.”
Flight attendant attire, footwear in particular, is something of a lightning rod in the aviation industry, Nelson said, because of the slow response to the rapid evolution of the role of flight attendants. “The reason that flight attendants were first added to the flights were for passenger comfort,” she said. Old school practices die hard: weigh-ins before flights were an industry practice until 1993.
Today, flight attendants are primarily on board as “safety professionals,” and the uniform “is also a visual cue to passengers that flight attendants are in a role of authority on board the aircraft… so that we can keep order in the cabin, serve in our role as aviation first responders, and get passengers to heed our instructions and be the first one on the scene in the event of emergency.”
“While the uniform on the whole helps to promote that symbol of authority and the work that we do as safety professionals, that means that we could just have a uniform shoe that would not detract from that uniform,” Nelson said. “High heels come from the days of flight attendants being there for the comfort of the passengers, and even in the sexist way they were portrayed by airlines to sell flights in the 1960s and ’70s. That is the flashpoint: they are a symbol of sexism.”
The overwhelming majority of flight attendants are female, Nelson said; it’s about an 80/20 female/male split. Male flight attendants don’t typically think about the footwear requirements for their female colleagues, Nelson said. “Women who are comfortable wearing heels wear them, and those who are not do not wear them.”