Aer Lingus manager loses discrimination claim over ‘sexualised’ cabin crew uniform

Elizabeth Barry claimed in WRC case that design perpetuates the ‘trolley dolly’ image of female flight attendants

An Aer Lingus cabin crew manager has lost a discrimination case which claimed female flight attendants were being “sexualised” by uniform rules requiring them to wear heels and nylons.

Elizabeth Barry’s legal team argued that the airline’s Louise Kennedy-designed uniform, adopted in 2020, “still perpetuates the ‘trolley dolly’ image of its female cabin crew” and that there was a “strong association between high heels and female sexuality”.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) was told that although flat shoes were worn on board aircraft, female flight attendants “must wear high heels when in uniform” outside the plane unless they had a medical exemption letter.

Ms Barry lodged two statutory claims against the airline, one under the Payment of Wages Act 1977 over a pay cut during the Covid-19 pandemic and a second under the Employment Equality Act 1998 alleging discrimination on the grounds of gender over the uniform rules.


The claims were denied by the airline at hearing and were rejected by the commission in a decision published on Thursday.

“In being compelled to wear a uniform that is far less practical and comfortable and that portrays an outdated and sexualised image of women, the complainant is degraded in her professional duties,” said Leonora Frawley BL, instructed by Maryse Jennings of KOD Lyons, for Ms Barry.

Ms Frawley raised design concerns about the women’s jacket in the uniform and said the flat shoes issued to staff for use on board were “quite flimsy” while men wore “fit for purpose” lace-up shoes.


She said the design of the blouse also exposed skin just above the left breast through three petal-shaped holes.

“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,” she said. “Aer Lingus still perpetuates the ‘trolly dolly’ image of its female cabin crew with the current uniform and accessories.”

Tom Mallon BL, appearing for Aer Lingus, instructed by Hannah O’Farrell of Arthur Cox, told the tribunal that the complainant had not raised concerns about the uniform internally, either through her trade union or the airline’s grievance policy.

He said the uniform was designed by a “well known and globally established Irish fashion designer”.

“Aer Lingus 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,” he told the tribunal.

He said there had been research going back to 2018 involving “extensive focus groups” with cabin crew of all grades and ground staff.

Ms Kennedy also “did her own research by talking to Aer Lingus staff” at work “as she was determined to address areas of concern around comfort and quality, particularly for items such as overcoats and shoes”.

He said there had been four-week wearer trials with volunteers on long-haul and short-haul routes before the garments were presented to Ms Barry’s trade union, Fórsa. He also argued that Ms Barry’s equality claim form had been submitted too late, arriving to the airline on October 28th, 2020, some eight months after the uniforms were issued to staff.

Mr Mallon said an equality case “could not be based on what are no more than design features in a uniform”.

WRC adjudicating officer Jim Dolan said in his decision that Ms Barry accepted that cabin crew and customer-facing staff ought to wear a uniform and that the female uniform should be “different to the male uniform”.

“It was then put to the complainant that this was a matter of her not liking the style of the uniform and that this does not amount to discrimination,” he wrote. “Having considered all aspects of this complaint I find that the Complainant has not been discriminated against and therefore the complaint is not well-founded.”

He said Ms Barry had objected to her salary being reduced during the pandemic and alleged it had been an unlawful deduction.

He said he was not in a position to disagree with the airline’s position that the “collapse in air travel” during the pandemic “must lead to a reasonable interpretation that the contract of employment can either be temporarily suspended or reduced”. He rejected the pay claim.