Virgin's sexism in the sky


'Sexist Airways' by Chris JohnstonIt's 6am and I'm sipping a flat white in Virgin Australia's Sydney Airport lounge. I'm here with a colleague who has lounge access and favours this carrier over the opposition, Qantas.

Our debate over which of these two local airlines deserves our patronage continues as we take off for Melbourne: Virgin is bright, polished and inexpensive; it has a sleek, modern lounge which serves great coffee, but it won't allow economy-class passengers a complimentary cup of tea; Qantas, with whom we travel back to Sydney the following day, trades on customers' patriotism while pandering to its shareholders, and has shamelessly moved jobs offshore; but it keeps its cabins largely commerce-free, ensuring that they aren't transformed into cheap food kiosks.

But there's another point of difference, one that interests me most, and that's the way in which each airline chooses to represent women. The differences are stark.

For all the things Qantas stands accused of — selling out its Australian employees, uncompetitive pricing, bad management — it appears to be respectful of women, both its employees and its customers. And women hoping to thrive need all the positive reinforcement they can get from corporations such as Qantas, whose public persona is reflected in equal measure by men and women.

On our flight home to Sydney, I point out to my colleague the even mix of male and female flight attendants and the wide disparity in their ages. Indeed, most of the female attendants appear to be over the age of 40, and while they are well-groomed there is nothing provocative about their attire.

They set a comfortable tone in the cabin, for there is no confusion as to their role: they are here to take care of our in-flight needs and guide us in case of trouble; it is not their job to titillate us, to enliven the space with their beauty and cleavage, to stroke the egos of male passengers.

A ticket on a Virgin flight, on the other hand, brings with it the allure of sex, the commodity on which the company's brand has been built. Youthful air hostesses wear fitted dresses, 'Virgin Girl' pin-ups decorate the noses of some aircraft, and the company's advertisements depict flight attendants as sexually alluring supplicants and male passengers as the deserving receptors of their attention.

To be sure, sex is not an innovative marketing tool: Singapore Airlines has long used the beguiling 'Singapore Girl' to advertise its services; Ryanair is notorious for objectifying women, and just last week had its series of adverts featuring flight attendants dressed in lingerie banned.

A survey by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) found that sexism was rife within the aviation industry, with one respondent saying her employer only allowed women to serve passengers in its business class section. 'The object is to exploit the female body, to attract business class passengers. It undermines women's dignity, both as women and as professionals,' she said.

Such practices also put flight attendants at risk of sexual harassment, according to studies, and are an affront to female customers, who are not afforded the same consideration and respect as men.

And they undermine men, too: the male attendants who are discriminated against because their bodies cannot be exploited in the manner of women's; the men who are assumed by airlines to be incapable of separating their primal urges from their work-a-day lives; and men in general, for whom the sexist treatment of women is further legitimised by practices such as this.

While sexual harassment has become taboo, sexism of the sort peddled by Ryanair and the Virgin Group is accepted — even lauded — by the public. And men's voices, which are crucial in the fight against sexism, are often absent from the debate altogether.

The erosion of female dignity can be a difficult concept for men to grasp: after all, the representation of women as sexual beings in many ways serves their natural instincts. Why would they complain about something they find sexually alluring? When men do enter the debate, it is most often to accuse female complainants of being 'jealous', 'fat', 'old' or 'ugly', as though any woman who opposed sexism couldn't possibly be young, beautiful and sexy herself.

The potential for societal damage is great when women are treated like objects. The world receives the message that women are at their most valuable when they are beautiful, subservient and pleasure-giving. When men respond positively to such portrayals, they entrench this notion further.

And when these attitudes go unchallenged, they seep into the fabric of our society, debasing women in general and manifesting in negative outcomes such as remuneration gaps, lack of promotional opportunities, sexual harassment and even abuse.

Back on the flight that is taking us home to Sydney, my colleague nods in agreement as I espouse the virtues of Qantas' non-sexist, non-ageist policies. Here is crucial evidence, standing before us in the aisle and pouring a cup of tea, that women are valued by this company not just when they are young and slim and beautiful, but in all their rich, varied and priceless diversity .


Catherine MarhsallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Virgin, Qantas, sexism



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Existing comments

This is an unashamadly feminist piece - and I love it. It really does confirm, to those who might have doubted it, that feminism is still needed while sexism continues to thrive. I know that Qantas fares are usually more expensive than Virgin's, but this wonderful article tells us that it might be worthwhile to think, as consumers, what we are endorsing with our patronage.
Eveline Goy | 20 February 2012

I had a similar conversation with a Jesuit friend the other day. He hadn't noticed anything. Maybe that 'custody of the eyes' gear back in the day really stuck? Maybe. I notice that many good men in my life lack critical awareness of these issues. If I order wine and it is presented to them to taste they are inclined to see it as a simple waiting error. My husband thought so too when we first met - nearly twenty years later he knows that it is not. These examples may sound petty but they are manifestations of presumptions about the economic and decision making power of women. Yes, I am middle aged and grumpy. One hundred and one signs of disrespect daily will do that to a person.
Sandie Cornish | 20 February 2012

I often travel on Virgin and have always found all staff to be helpful and courteous. There has been a mixture of both male and female cabin staff. I do not agree with the comments made by Catherine Marshall.Maybe they reflect an isolated experience. They are certainly not at all consistent with what I have experienced with Virgin Airlines.
joan hanley | 20 February 2012

Virgin has been my airline of choice for quite a few years now. The young to middle age male and female staff have always been polite and well mannered as far as I have seen and their dress sense appears to be conservative and modern. Considering the few years Virgin have been running I am sure they will value their long term staff. Maybe you should turn on your television and watch a few ads for alcohol, glasses, clothes and a dozen other franchises that ram sexism down peoples throats.
Paul Belci | 20 February 2012

I always fly Virgin because I was treated shabbily by Qantas customer service in the past. Catherine’s great article can only touch the surface. For me the sexism of Virgin is always reinforced when I get into my seat and pick up the copy of the inflight magazine, which is titled Voyeur. The Macquarie Dictionary says a voyeur is ‘someone who attains sexual gratification by looking at sexual objects or situations.’ Does Virgin really celebrate this?
Virgin customer | 20 February 2012

I always fly Virgin now... i like their swift efficient service, their sense of humour, and yes, their youth. I like the cheerful males too, that have always been there on my flights in equal proportion to the females. I would rather have Virgin's straightforward approach than a cup of tea poured for me while Qantas ruthlessly treats all their employees (& non -share holders) by sending jobs offshore & cutting costs in other ways.
rosemary | 20 February 2012

Well done Catherine. You have really expressed what I thought about my Virgin flight. I felt like I was at a nightclub with all the carrying on of the flight attendants. They spent a lot of time flirting with each other and I found the behaviour and demeanour of the male flight attendants quite confronting. As I witnessed the male attendants salivating over the younger attendants, I actually felt sorry for these women having to put up with that in their workplace. One other matter that concerned me was the inflight safety. I actually felt unsafe. When your staff are too busy flirting with each other, I wonder how they will react in an emergency. It gave me no confidence.
Hear hear | 20 February 2012

Reg Ansett liked to staff his planes with young and attractive women (there were no male stewards). There was a great fuss when a woman (or was it women) past their "attractive" age were replaced by younger ones. Reg raised a furore when he said a certain woman was "no spring chicken - more like an old boiler". (Remember when retired layers were slaughtered and marketed for boiling as opposed to those purpose-reared for roasting?)
Michael Grounds | 20 February 2012

This is a difficult article to comment on objectively. Is it because I am a man and will be seduced by a photo of the attractive woman who wrote it? Or is it because I have two nephews (fit and handsome) and a niece (even fitter and at the same time beautiful) who between them have worked for Virgin for many years? The answer to both questions is - yes, to some degree. To a degree that I think is dangerous; or women are degraded;or my social/political/commercial decisions are made on the basis of sexual allurement - definitely not. Abuse of sex is a serious thing but sex itself (at least for non-celibates) can be a fun thing. Fear and loathing of the first should not prevent us from the joy and comfort of the second. The allure of female beauty is used to sell everything from All Bran to Used Cars, from Don Giovanni to X rated DVDs. Branson captured a brand name that goes to the heart of the male psyche (this time including celibates) but I think he uses it, dare I say, tongue in cheek. Risk being a voyeur, go on a Virgin voyage.
Uncle Pat | 20 February 2012

Congratulations Catherine for bringing this subtlety out into the open and naming it, something that I have had an intuition about for some time. I have noticed the inclusivity of age and gender on Qantas and felt that in this area Qantas was dealing fairly with all employees. I have also noticed what I thought was a lack of training in 'customer service' at Virgin and felt that the company was not investing their money in training employees to a high enough standard, dismissing this as lack of corporate responsibility for 'training'. From one who is undertaking a study in feminism to try to bring a balance and equality into our world, I encourage this awareness and discussion.
gabrielle | 20 February 2012

This article comes across as a superficial concept of feminism, something that actually detracts from the feminist ideal, and perhaps even a hidden promo for Qantas. I am a proud Frequent flyer on Virgin (I call myself a "Frequent Virgin") and I have noticed both the attractive female and male attendants of all ages, but have never regarded them to be scantily clad. Marshall's premise seems to be that dressing in an attractive way amounts to the degradation of women - don't you think these attendants (both male and female) have the brains and freedom to wear their uniforms the way they feels suits them?
AURELIUS | 20 February 2012

To be fair to Virgin Australia, Economy class passengers are served tea, coffee and water complimentary on all flights. This was a change to their inflight service in recent months as the airline continues moving towards a Full Service airline.
Jack | 20 February 2012

Uncle Pat says it best....
Chris Beal. | 20 February 2012

Hey Catherine, actually Virgin Australia has offered complimentary tea, coffee and water to all passengers since the 18th of January as per this media release:

And virgin has also since changed their advertising to prominently feature both men and women as seen in this print ad here:
Sam | 20 February 2012

Perception = truth, just as the journalist has confirmed with such wide spread accusations based on a small personal experience. Would love to have seen both Australian airlines contacted for information on age and sex averages. Yes Qantas would definitely be older, one may also conclude that this is due to the age of the airline and senority making these older cabin crew better paid than some pilots.... I am sure it is a economic decision more than a marketing one on the behalf of Qantas. Pretty disappointing article.
JO | 20 February 2012

Yep, Uncle Pat says it best.
Patricia Taylor | 20 February 2012

This is the most ridiculous article I have ever read.
Jonathan | 20 February 2012

One of the main rules in marketing is that sex sells. Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson did not make his Billions by ignoring this ule. It is up to us as customers to make a decision. Do we support a company which promotes itself on a certain sexy youthful image or do we support a company with different values? I am sure that most people use a specific airline because the company provides a flight at an attractive price and the schedule meets our needs. We should be able to assume that in the year 2012 most people are educated enough to see through the glitter of advertisement to make mature decisions. Qantas has been attacked virtually nonstop during the past decade. It is similar to the current bashing of banks and supermarkets. It fills in the time of bored politicians and boring TV stations. They do forget that most Australians are shareholders of Qantas, the banks and supermarket chains through their superannuation funds.
Beat Odermatt | 20 February 2012

Did it ever occur to you the difference in ages of the employees can be related to the difference in ages of the companies? Qantas has been around since 1920 while Virgin Australia is only 2000 - of course the employees and therefore the Flight Attendants will be younger! With new companies come, new employees comes starting salaries, with older companies and Unionized employees comes tenure and higher wages - I doubt anyone (male or female) over the age of 40 even applied to fly.
MalibuJim | 21 February 2012

Thank you for bringing to the surface the subliminal. Most men includung myself are not always observant of these things so may be complicit without thinking I hope we have not inadvertantly been disrespectful. I would be ashamed if I had.
graham patison | 21 February 2012

The reason Qantas have so many older cabin crew has nothing to do with them respecting females (or any staff for that matter), and everything to do with the fact that the airline has been around for 100 years. Qantas would ditch them in a second if laws allowed it (not because they are "old boilers", but because they could hire someone cheaper). Also, if you actually bothered to research Virgin Australia instead of writing about what you think it represents, you would know that their cabin crew come in all shapes and sizes, many are over 40, and most importantly, almost all are polished professionals.
Not Really | 21 February 2012

I usually travel Qantas, but I must say I must have missed the bit about "they are here to take care of our in-flight needs" I find on very early flights the more senior flight attendants seem half asleep.
Chris P | 21 February 2012

Like Sandie Cornish, I have a male friend, a priest, who simply doesn't notice. I've done my best to make him miserable by pointing out the increased commodification of women and girls, shown a dozen times a day in a variety of girls. He can't see it, fortunately for him. "What's wrong with girls trying to look pretty?" I was gobsmacked. It's not about looking pretty. It's about our sexuality becoming a valuable object for the pleasure of others - in fact, the only valuable thing about us!
Joan Seymour | 21 February 2012

I fail to see how women wearing fitted dresses, or men wearing tight trousers for that matter, could be regarded as sexism - which is that basis of this article's case against Virgin. To JOAN SEYMOUR, maybe the priest missed the point because the is no point. The fact the someone takes pleasure in another's appearance in no way commodifies anyone.Is this 2012 or 1950?
AURELIUS | 22 February 2012

There is free tea, coffee and water on all Virgin flights. Nice to get your facts right!
J | 22 February 2012

Beautifully put thoughtful piece.
Jo Spangaro | 24 February 2012

An interesting piece and an opinion I once shared however having taken 6 flights across both airlines in the last few weeks (last one 2 on Thursday) and I observed 3 women over 40 and one pregnant, all with Virgin. Have a few more flights coming up so will continue to observe the make up as I was surprised myself. As you have pointed out airlines have a legacy of objectifying women but there is no doubting the fact that women business travellers represent a notable portion and it is only fair that all sexes get objectified or none at all! ;)
Radhika | 25 February 2012

Virgin's new uniforms actually provide greater overall personal coverage for both male and female staff than before. Furthermore, the new uniform was designed by a woman - Juli Grbac. In regards to the argument of the objectification of women as airline staff - does that still hold when the symbolism created in a uniform comes from a woman herself?

I disagree with the general comparison between Qantas and Virgin, as it ignores, as others have pointed out, the size and age of each company, as well as the demographics that make up the employment pool. For a large period in Qantas's history, male crew made up approximately 80% of the cabin crew pool - some of whom could feasibly 'skew' the current demographics if one airline is to be compared to the other today.

Time will tell just how alike Virgin will fare against Qantas in the long term - particularly given the fact that Virgin's newest CEO, John Borghetti, spent 30+ years at Qantas. The shift towards a more corporate, professional image, while retaining Virgin attributes, will be interesting to witness as the company develops. Whilst I'm all for a feminist argument, this article unfairly generalises.
Chris | 26 February 2012

I think you will find a major factor behind 'older' female (and male) crew on Qantas flights is the fact that many are on original work contracts that far exceed what most crew are on with other airlines these days. I'm sure if you were on similar wages, you would stay on to serve tea and coffee. I also see nothing provocative with the old uniform at Virgin, but especially the new one. What exactly about it, do you find provides the lure of sex? There is nothing overtly sexual, about the new, sophisticated uniform sported by Virgin crews.
Fly Boy | 26 February 2012

Hi, inadvertently came across Eureka Street - some very interesting reads. I particularly enjoyed Catherine Marshall article "Virgin's sexism in the sky " - it brought a smile to my face. I stopped flying virgin last year because I found them to be one of the most nauseating airlines I have ever come across - all front and no substance, lateness of flights, inability of staff to provide useful information when things go wrong, etc. The most annoying thing was their staff profile. I find flying with Virgin is like flying with a combination of a modelling agency and the High 5 club (kids program on TV). I can remember during one flight some years ago before Christmas the female stewards donned rein deer antlers and introduced themselves as Prancer, Vixen, etc. During the flight they even tried to get us to participate in group exercises-the type you get on some bus tours. But not to trivialise the article. The Australian population is diverse and we are getting older. Virgin's staff profile is perhaps more akin to an experiment from a eugenics laboratory. No thanks. Give me Qantas any day, and no I don't work for Qantas. All the best.
Joseph D | 28 February 2012

I fly both (Qantas and Virgin) and you must be judging on one day only....I will fly Virgin only from now on although have noticed a huge mix of employee types, old, young, male and female.
Pete Prentiss | 04 April 2012

QANTAS has shown its lack of concrn forv Australia by its employment practices of bioth management and proletarian workers. Virgin's repair facilities are in Brisbane. BOth Voirgin Qantas and Jetstar have turned their once comfortable flights into Cattle class rail boxes. Both QANTAS and Virgin have check in proicedures thatt resembe the stoclkyard at an abatoir. All they need is a couple of Airline employees with cattle prods to make the trip seem bovinially terminal. Bring on High speed inter city train travel as suggested by BOb Katter and in doingf so put both of QANTAS and Virgin out iof their misery like a bereast taht breaks its leg as it gets out of the truck. WE can always promise to hold one job as a steward on the train for a knickered irishman.
Andrew Jackson | 09 June 2012

I think this article is humourless in the extreme and fails to accepte each airline's right to be different. If you don't like the Virgin style fly Qantas. I happen to find the Qantas service rather marginal and sterile. Virgin has more appeal overall as an airline from my perspective.
Anthony X | 07 October 2012


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