Female Flight Attendants Strike Back Against New High Heels Requirement

Good luck stuffing a heavy carry-on bag into an overhead compartment while wearing three-inch heels.

(Photo: Milton Brown/Getty Images)

Jun 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Public schools aren’t the only places sparking controversy because of their dress code rules for women. Female flight crew members employed by Israel’s El Al Airlines are pushing back against a decision from the company that will extend the amount of time they’re required to wear high-heeled shoes while on the job.

The flight attendants were previously required to don high heels as part of their uniform while walking through airports, but they could ditch them for more sensible, comfortable shoes once they were on the plane. However, under El Al’s new rules, which were emailed to staffers late last week, female crew members now have to keep those high heels on until every passenger has boarded the aircraft and is sitting down.

That means the women would have to wear heels while navigating relatively narrow airplane aisles, solving whatever seating disputes pop up, and helping passengers jam their overstuffed carry-on baggage into overhead compartments.

As a result, more than 200 unhappy El Al flight attendants have signed a petition asking the airline’s management to ditch the new policy, according to The Times of Israel. But the company says it is simply bringing its practices in line with the dress code policies of other airlines.

“The company updates its service procedures, and within that framework it was decided that the stewardess teams wear presentable shoes also when welcoming customers to flights,” Yehudit Grisaro, vice president of customer service at El Al, told the paper. “Immediately after the seating, and during the entire flight, activities are in work shoes. We stress that this practice is accepted in the world air industry.”

Indeed, female flight attendants working for one of the world’s largest carriers, United Airlines, are required to wear shoes with a heel height of between one and three inches. Women crew members can only switch to a lower heel—it still has to be at least one-fourth of an inch high—during the service portion of the flight. Seriously, can you imagine having to push a 200-pound cart full of drinks and pretzels down an aircraft aisle in three-inch heels? Female attendants then have to switch back to the higher heels once the flight begins its initial descent. Meanwhile, their male colleagues are required to wear one set of shoes: plain black leather with a heel no higher than three-fourths of an inch.

So, Why Should You Care? Along with putting female flight attendants at increased risk of toppling over or twisting an ankle while hefting someone’s 50-pound suitcase into the overhead bin, wearing high heels alters a woman’s body—and not in good ways. The shoes pinch a woman’s toes together, place uncomfortable pressure on the ankles and back, and throw the spine out of alignment. They change her gait too.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that wearing heels significantly modifies the way a woman walks—her gait becomes shorter due to tightened calf muscles and tendons. The researchers in that study also found that frequently switching between high heels and flat shoes, as will be required for the El Al flight attendants, can do more harm than good.

If a woman frequently wears heels, that becomes “the new default position for the joints and structures within,” Neil J. Cronin, the lead researcher on the study, told The New York Times. Ironically, changing that setting by putting on flatter shoes “could increase injury risk.”

“I agree that flight attendants should look presentable and respectable, but not at any price,” Jerusalem-based foot expert and orthopedic shoe–chain founder Avi Avigdor told The Jerusalem Post.

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Feminist activists are also pushing back against the idea that wearing heels is what makes a woman look professional.

“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,” Galia Wallach, CEO of the women’s group Na’amat, told the Post.

High heels equaling a well-dressed woman isn’t a concept that’s isolated to the airline industry. In May, women wearing flats were allegedly denied admission to some Cannes Film Festival events.

As for El Al, whether the airline will back down from its new policy remains to be seen. Wallach told the Post that if the policy is not rescinded, her organization might file a discrimination suit against the company.