TUI Airways handed out sexist stickers to children onboard. Is a sorry enough?

After the German airline gave future captain stickers to boys and future cabin crew stickers to the girls on board, we asked PR experts to find out how it could recover from the backlash

TUI Airways handed out sexist stickers to children onboard. Is a sorry enough?

Gender bias and inequality in the workplace needs no introduction. Movements such as the #TimesUp and the #MeToo saw more women voicing their struggle to break the glass ceiling in the boardroom and top level jobs. While companies are trying to encourage women in managerial positions, it seems like some have to still take those ideas onboard.TUI Airways is the latest one in a long row of businesses that may need a lesson in sexism.

The German company was accused of encouraging gender stereotypes among children after a crew handed out stickers to girls and boys as a part of an activity bag during a flight from Bristol to Cyprus. The boys were given future captain stickers whereas the girls were provided future cabin crew stickers, according to some passengers.

On Wednesday August 15 a passenger, Dame Gillian Morgan noticed the stickers and found it “deeply sexist.” “The stickers were gender neutral but it’s the way that they were handed out that makes it complicated,” Morgan told Metro. “It happens implicitly all the time. The boys can have the Lego, the space rocket going to the moon and the girls can have a little pony.”

It seems this was not the first time it happened. Linzi Williams, a former passenger, called out to the company in July 2018. “Lovely touch by @TUIUK flying out to Corfu Friday by giving children TUI stickers and activity sheet,” she tweeted at the time. “Not so lovely that all the boys were given ‘future pilot’ stickers and the girls ‘future cabin crew‘. Sexist much?”

Following the news, TUI was criticised on social media. For instance, the Fawcett Society, the charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, tweeted: “We are speechless @TUIUK. Are you aware it is 2018? Only 6% of pilots in the UK are women. And we wonder why numbers are so shockingly low when young girls are being fed sexist messaging such as this.” Indeed according to UK and Ireland figures released by TUI in 2017 showed that out of 870 pilots only 5% are women.

After facing the backlash, the airline issued an apology. “We’re sorry to hear a small number of customers have been upset by this,” a spokesperson from the airline said in a statement as reported by the Guardian. “We think it has just been a simple mix-up since our future pilot and cabin crew stickers are designed for use for any child regardless of gender.”

Following the story, we reached out to see what marketing and PR experts thought of the TUI Airline’s actions. And it’s fair to say that not everyone was impressed by the apology. “TUI’s apology was just a bit rubbish” said Kate Hartley, co-founder of Polpeo, the crisis simulation company, when speaking with Elite Business. “[It was] basically trying to get the message across that this wasn’t something that affected a lot of people, so it’s not important. I can see why they did that but it comes across as almost snarky.”

For others in a similar situation, Hartley offered this advice: “I always say to people: read your statement out loud before you issue it. Then you’ll hear how it really sounds. What TUI could have done was to be more human and genuine about it. They could have said “This genuinely wasn’t what we intended. We want boys and girls to aspire to fly planes, and be cabin crew.’”

She added: “What TUI could do now is to be open about whether and how it is actively recruiting women as pilots and what the numbers look like compared to the rest of the industry. It could turn this into an opportunity to lead the way in encouraging young women to train as pilots. It could showcase its women pilots and turn this into a discussion about wider diversity in the industry.”

Others were less than impressed that the sticky stickers situation arose in the first place. “It was an act of carelessness or even stupidity and it proves that gender stereotypes are still ingrained in our culture,” said Anna Coscia, strategic planning director at Quiet Storm, the marketing company. “What comes natural to people is to think that the right place for a girl is to be a cabin crew member while a boy can definitely aspire to be at the front of the plane.”

Adding her voice to backlash, Claire Foster, vice president of Women in PR, a PR firm, told Elite Business: “This is just another example of everyday sexism that simply shouldn’t happen in 2018.” But she acknowledged that the airline seemingly meant for the stickers to be distributed evenly among boys and girls. If that was the case, she puts the blame on the people training the personnel. “It was a campaign executed badly through a lack of training and a reflection of the culture at the airline,” Foster explained. “It didn’t occur to the cabin crew and staff who mistakenly encouraged the boys to become future captains and girls to be future cabin crew that they were doing anything wrong.”

However, others pointed out that there are ways for the company and other businesses facing similar situations to turn the situation around. For instance, TUI Airways could take a note from rival airline easyJet who chose the right timing and launched a video campaign to inspire more girls to become pilots, a move designed to solve gender stereotypes. Reimagining a scene from Catch me if you can, the video showed a girl impersonating Leonardo DiCaprio with a male crew around her.

Looking at TUI’s mistakes, it needs to do much more to get women taking control in the skies. “I hope the company sees this as a chance to start a conversation about diversity that’s long overdue,” Hartley concludes.

Varsha Saraogi
Varsha Saraogi

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