Airplane Seating is Accommodating Women's Biological Structure Less and Less, and It's a Gendered Issue

Gillian Sisley

As the world is opening back up, many are preparing for travel in the near future.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Plenty of travel we can expect in the near future will include flying on airplanes.

That said, we're seeing a disheartening trend as planes continue to be reworked over and over to accommodate more passengers, and thus create more income potential, while reducing space and comfort for passengers.

A study has found, through experiments of seating all women versus all men in airplane seating, that the lowest rate of comfort and accommodation existed when all women were seated. Alternatively, there was 20% more accommodation space in seating when all men were seated.

Mechanical engineer Elizabeth Miller, who took part in conducting the experiment, had the following to say:

“Female passengers tend to be disaccommodated more by seat width because women on average tend to have wider hip breadths."

Once again, this is a man's world and women are a second thought.

Just before the pandemic started, I had a 4-day business trip. The experiment above was all too relatable to me.

I hopped onto my flight home after the trip, and only wanted to curl up next to my window and read silently. That was when an older couple took their seats next to me. The husband took the middle seat next to me.

With a polite smile to the couple, I got back to reading and minding my own business. Pressed as much against the window as possible, I did my best to get as much space as I could. But as the older man next to me got more comfortable, the more he leaned into me and towards me, rather than towards his wife. I became smaller and smaller, becoming less comfortable as my space was infringed upon.

His hips pressing against mine was bad enough, especially as he continued to lean further over each time I tried to retreat.

And then ‘the elbow’ started getting much bolder and inching its way into my personal bubble, little by little.

As I sat there, having my space infringed upon again and again by this man, I couldn't help but stew in frustration, wondering where this entitlement to touch me came from. There was more space available near his wife, so why there was complete disregard towards my comfort level as a total stranger as a woman?

But that's the life of a woman, frankly. We are a second thought, and our comfort or personal space is often disregarded over the desires and entitlement of men.

Everyone has a right to space.

Airplanes are uncomfortable enough.

A hundred-plus people, stuffed into a small tube like sardines, in horribly intimate conditions where one person’s germs become everyone’s germs.

And if you live with a steady undercurrent of anxiety (mine is due to diagnosed PTSD), that makes this process even more uncomfortable.

The study mentioned above highlights how we're set up for complications to begin with, only to be exacerbated. For one, the design flaw of prioritizing the physical structure of men, while disregarding that of women, puts everyone in a more likely situation for an uncomfortable flight.

Secondly, if you add people into the mix who are inconsiderate of the space and comfort of others, and feel entitled to take up as much space as possible despite the discomfort it causes others, it can feel like a lose-lose situation.

If you don’t claim your space, someone else will take it from you.

Now, back to the man shamelessly infringing on every millimeter of personal space I had.

I felt myself shrinking, smaller and smaller, further against the window. For every centimeter I moved away, to lower my anxiety and feel more comfortable, he occupied that space until his elbow and body was, once again, pressing into my side.

By this point, my back was practically against the wall of the plane, and his was occupying half of my seat.

Truthfully? I was desperate for my own space, and was on the verge of tears. My anxiety was through the roof.

I felt silenced by my anxiety and backed into a corner. If there was more space on flights, for people to sit more comfortably, there wouldn't be as much of a dog-eat-dog mentality when it comes to taking up as much space as possible, as if it was the apocalypse.

I sat there, wishing and praying this man would cozy closer to his wife, rather than to a complete and total stranger minding her own business.

We must actively defend that which we have a right to.

Airlines will do whatever they can to increase profit. That means they will continue to reduce space and amenities on flights more and more, to make as much money as possible.

If we as citizens say nothing in response to this, and do not claim better standards of comfort and accommodation for what we paid for, that space will continue to be reduced. And for women, that statistically means we are allotted less and less space to accommodate our actual, realistic physical structure as female human beings.

We must not be inactive participants in our own lives.

The reality is, if there is space, there will always be someone in the room who will instinctively try to take it.

There are a lot of reasons why certain people claim extra space, while others shrink to as small as they can and lose the space they deserve.

These reasons are influenced by unique personalities, but are also heavily influenced by societal stereotypes and constructs related to gender, culture, socio-economic status, religious belief, geography, and the like.

It is societal influences that play most directly into the issues of inequality in our world.

This is why a male coworker may not hesitate to vocalize an idea he heard from a female coworker at a meeting and receive praise for it — only because the female coworker was waiting for a ‘more appropriate’ spot in the meeting to speak up herself.

This is why white supremacists loudly scream and shout and get up in people’s faces, while those they are discriminating against do not duplicate this behaviour.

This brings light to the fact that the balance of space being occupied is often dramatically unequal, with those who are more privileged taking up the most.

Not only is this a call for each of us to ensure we’re claiming the space we have a right to, but also be mindful of the fact that those of us who are privileged in certain (or possibly all) social scenarios need to refrain from taking more than their own reasonably allotted space.

Instead, we need to give others in the area their opportunity to claim their portion equally — this is a direct action we can all be mindful of to actively get closer to overall equality in our world.

Whether it's intended to or not, when there is space, someone present will take up that extra space.

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Online solopreneur. Tea drinker. Committed optimist. I write about trending news, funny viral content, and anything else that tickles my fancy!


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