WRC rejects female Aer Lingus manager's claim of gender discrimination over new uniforms

An Aer Lingus employee claimed the sexualisation of the female uniform "is inappropriate and degrading in a professional environment"
WRC rejects female Aer Lingus manager's claim of gender discrimination over new uniforms

Gordon Deegan

An Aer Lingus Cabin Service Manager who claims that the new Aer Lingus uniform perpetrates the ‘trolly-dolly’ image of female cabin crew has failed in her gender discrimination claim over the uniform.

At the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), long serving employee with the airline, Elizabeth Barry claimed that the sexualisation of the female Aer Lingus uniform “is inappropriate and degrading in a professional environment”.

Ms Barry claimed that she was degraded in her professional duties uniform as the new uniform “portrays an outdated and sexualised image of women”.

However, Aer Lingus rejected Ms Barry's discrimination claim and robustly defended the new uniform that was introduced in February 2020 which was designed by one of Ireland’s best known designers, Louise Kennedy.

In his findings, Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudicator, Jim Dolan found that Ms Barry was not discriminated against on gender grounds concerning the uniform and that her complaint was not well-founded.

As part of her discrimination claim, Ms Barry claimed that the shirt or blouse worn by female cabin crew is designed with three holes above the left breast area.

Ms Barry stated that this exposes skin just above the left breast and “it is humiliating and demeaning for Aer Lingus to enforce an appearance code that reinforces sexist and sexual stereotypes of lack of seriousness and ineffectuality in a workplace that is equally physically demanding of men and women”.

Ms Barry also contended that the less practical appearance and functions of the women’s uniform “are unnecessarily uncomfortable, impractical and places them in a subordinate position to their male counterparts who then appear more capable and professional than female cabin crew”.

Represented by Ms Leanora Frawley BL who was instructed by Maryse Jennings, KOD Lyons Solicitors, it was argued on behalf of Ms Barry that female cabin crew must wear high heels when in uniform and outside the aircraft, unless they have a medical exemption letter contending that “there is a strong association between high heels and female sexuality”.

Handbag

Ms Barry also contended that the handbag issued to female cabin crew "is decorative and impractical".

She argued that it is much smaller than the satchel issued to male staff "and again reinforces an outdated stereotype of feminine appearance and sacrifices practicality for that image".

Ms Barry contended that “it is not fit for purpose”.

She argued that “Aer Lingus still perpetuates the 'trolly dolly' image of its female cabin crew with the current uniform and accessories”.

Employed with Aer Lingus since 1994 and a cabin crew member since 1995, Ms Barry was seeking an order compelling her equal treatment in the provision of an equally practical uniform and accessories.

In response, Aer Lingus contended that Ms Barry was not discriminated against whatsoever, on the basis of her gender or otherwise concerning the new uniform.

Aer Lingus stated that there was extensive consultation with staff over the new uniform and “the fact that an individual might dislike an element of the sign does not render it discriminatory”.

Aer Lingus stated the uniform provides for a trousers option for female cabin crew and recognises that a cardigan can be worn under jacket in cold weather therefore addressing the issues raised by Ms Barry in relation to sleeve length.

The airline stated that Louise Kennedy did her own research by talking to Aer Lingus staff when she was flying with Aer Lingus, as she was determined to address areas of concern around comfort and quality, particularly for items such as overcoats and shoes.

Distinctive look

The airline stated that as part of the updated uniform design, Louise Kennedy was asked to modernise and refresh all garment designs while retaining a distinctive look for Aer Lingus.

Aer Lingus stated that it sought a stronger link between the male and female uniform, as a result of which the female range now includes a trouser and dress option.

The extensive research project around the new uniform comprised four key stakeholder groups – staff, guests, Aer Lingus and Louise Kennedy and as part of this research extensive focus groups were conducted with cabin crew members of all grades across the company who wished to attend the meetings.

Aer Lingus contended that the matters raised by Ms Barry in relation to the uniform have not been raised internally whatsoever, whether as an individual grievance or collective complaint by Ms Barry or her union colleagues since the launch of the uniform in February 2020.

Represented by Mr Tom Mallon BL instructed by Hannah O’Farrell, Arthur Cox Solicitors, Aer Lingus stated that as a union representative herself, it is respectfully suggested that Ms Barry is well-placed to raise any issues of concern applicable to her role as cabin crew through the appropriate fora for engagement with management.

In his findings, Mr Dolan stated that it cannot be said that the staff of Aer Lingus had no input into the design of a new uniform.

Mr Dolan stated that at hearing, Ms Barry was asked did she accept that the female uniform should be different to the male uniform and her answer was yes.

He stated that it was then put to Ms Barry that this was a matter of her not liking the style of the uniform and that this does not amount to discrimination.

Mr Dolan stated that having considered all aspects of this complaint he found that Ms Barry has not been discriminated against and therefore the complaint is not well-founded.

Mr Dolan also rejected a Payment of Wages claim by Ms Barry over her salary being reduced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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