This week’s Insight considers new research by Smith, Cohen, Kimbu and Jong, published in the Annals of Tourism Research, which chiefly concerns how gendered meanings are crafted through airline texts, signs and gestures. Whilst on the face of it this may sound abstract, the importance of symbolism to reify gender roles was brought into sharp relief as I, the author of this blog, researched images to accompany this blog. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to subvert stereotypes where I can, I attempted to select imagery which subverted traditional organisational roles in aviation, which can arguably be encapsulated by the notion of the female flight attendant and male pilot. It was only upon beginning my research that I realised the depths of the pervasiveness of gendered stereotypes: female flight attendants were ubiquitous on image sites, whilst pilots were almost invariably male. It took time and effort to source images which depict a female pilot/ male flight attendant, demonstrating to me the power of visual imagery to uphold stereotypical gendered scripts.
To carry out their investigation, the authors analysed organisational blogs, websites, annual reports, charters and visual media of four key airlines- Emirates, KLM Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic. They used systematic document analysis to observe how gender ideologies are both passively reinforced and undermined, grouping their findings through the key themes which formed the larger gender scripts of the documentation.
Firstly, a primary theme which recurred throughout the airline’s literature was the acknowledgement of gendered inequalities in the aviation industry. Whilst this may seem commendable, admission of this fact by airlines does not entail action, and can also be seen as practically unavoidable when it is considered that only 2.25% of pilots at Virgin Atlantic identified as female in 2020. Further, awareness of imbalances was framed primarily in terms of women’s exclusion from the most prestigious roles, instead of a larger, structural awareness of inequality at all levels.
This was also compounded by the focus on inspirational role models in the aviation industry to be epitomised by the female pilot, as a paragon of gender equality for airlines. As a point of recommendation, the authors suggested that airlines move beyond this cliched trope, to champion other, more under-represented subjectivities- such as a male flight attendant, or female air traffic controller.
Furthermore, the authors observed how whilst there were no explicit associations of certain roles with a particular gender, the language used to describe the qualities of an ‘ideal’ candidate for certain roles were nonetheless imbued with gendered meaning. For example, despite there being no reference to pilots as primarily male, the stated qualities of an ideal pilot included strong-mindedness, courage, and technical prowess- all of which are traditionally masculinised. These descriptions therefore demonstrated the ‘ghost of gender roles past’.
The authors concluded by recommended that whilst the symbolism of aviation documentation indicated a conscious effort to subvert the traditional female flight attendant/ male pilot tropes, ultimately their understand of what gender equality in aviation means needs to be expanded. At Equality in Tourism, we wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Gender equality is not just granting women access to prestigious roles within tourism organisations, but in fact guaranteeing them parity at every level. It is only then that traditional scripts can be said to be subverted.
Smith, W. Cohen, S. Kimbu, A. and Jong, A. 2021. Reshaping gender in airline employment. Annals of Tourism Research. 89. 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2021.103221