Virgin Atlantic Removes Cabin Crew Make-Up Policy

Virgin Atlantic recently announced that it is changing its dress code, so that for female employees, makeup will no longer be mandatory and trousers will be issued automatically.

Dress-code rules which apply solely to female members of staff seem somewhat outdated in 2019. This is especially true of those rules which are stereotypically associated with females, such as compulsory makeup or high heeled shoes.

However, such rules are still common place in many longer-established airlines. While the move by Virgin may simply reflect its desire to be seen as a more progressive company – we consider whether a uniform policy which has different rules for women and men can be legal regardless of whether it seems fair or not.

Gender specific dress codes in the workplace

Many employers have some sort of dress code, whether it is stated in the contract or has become accepted by practice. The current general legal position is that a dress code policy can be gender specific as long as it is applied in an even-handed and non-discriminatory way. Accordingly, for discrimination to be established, it is not necessary to show that genders are treated differently, but that the treatment afforded to one gender is less favorable than the treatment accorded to the other. The courts have described at some length that asking men to wear makeup could therefore be discriminatory as it would require them to act in a way seen as ‘unconventional’. In other words, there can be a requirement for all members of staff to present a ‘smart’ image, and if this means that women must wear makeup, then the stance of the law is that this is not discrimination, because women wearing makeup doesn’t go against ‘the norm.’

Obviously where there are gender specific dress code requirements there is always a risk of discrimination as each legal decision is determined on its own set of facts.

What this means in practice

What the law states and how a company may wish to present itself to its staff or the public, are growing increasingly different in this area. Arguably, societal attitudes have come a long way over even the last few years. Virgin Atlantic’s decision is a perfect example of this. While compulsory makeup for women may not (yet) be discriminatory in the eyes of the law, as a business, it may be increasingly difficult to argue that mandatory makeup for women is a requirement of a ‘professional’ image. Indeed, while Virgin Atlantic has drummed up some positive publicity with the relaxation of its dress-code, the opposite could be a real possibility for a company wishing to make its dress-code more gender specific or continue with its existing requirements for skirts, high heels and make up.

We are sure that other companies will follow Virgin Atlantic’s decision. We are also sure that it won’t be long before there’s a high profile legal case brought by an employee who feels discriminated against due his/her employer’s gender specific dress code.

For more information, please contact our Employment team on 0161 926 9969