International Women’s Day:

Is she married or single? Who cares and why do airlines and hotel chains ask questions about this?

Women who wish to travel are forced to share irrelevant and intimate details about their private lives

OPINION: There is a lack of cultural awareness and gender equality in the travel industry.

Following two years of mainly closed borders, Norwegians are eager to travel again. Sunny days in Southern Europe beckon and cycling along the canals in Amsterdam is only a few clicks away. However, when it comes to booking the flight, women’s customer journey takes a different turn to that of men.

On the airline KLM’s Norwegian language website, women are required to classify themselves as either “fru” (Mrs) or “frøken” (Miss), by contrast to men, who are all classified as “herr” (Mr). We are wondering why KLM requires that female passengers state whether they are married or not when booking a ticket?

Gender equality and cultural awareness

We welcome the opportunity to book tickets using Norwegian language on KLM’s website, but why are they insisting on using titles, when this is not a common practice in Norway or among Norwegian airlines? Is this a case of poor website translation or is it a reflection of international corporate communication not being a priority for KLM? In any case, it signals a lack of cultural awareness.

It seems particularly intimate to ask women about their marital status when staying at a hotel.

KLM and other international corporations can choose to communicate in the same language everywhere (usually in English) or to translate their communication to different languages. In both cases, they can choose to adapt their communication to different target groups when needed.

Corporations also make conscious and unconscious choices regarding all their communication, including the choice of gender terms or gender categories.

As researchers of global corporate communication in multinational corporations, we are interested in how such companies choose to approach their linguistically and culturally diverse target groups.

Language confusion

On KLM’s English language website and on British Airways’ website, women are at least given a choice between the titles Miss, Mrs and Ms. Should women choose the more neutral title Ms, they will not be sharing information about their private lives and are therefore treated more similarly to men. In Norwegian, there is no term corresponding to Ms, which makes the use of titles on Norwegian websites even more problematic than on English websites.

Nevertheless, the choice between Miss, Mrs and Ms on English language websites creates much confusion for Norwegian travelers. A Norwegian forum post with the heading that translates: “Help needed urgently! Am I a Miss, Mrs or Ms on my plane ticket?” clearly shows that Norwegians are not used to classifying themselves in this way.

Possible breach of data protection principles

The Norwegian airlines Norwegian, Widerøe and Flyr, as well as Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), are using the gender categories “woman” and “man”, but this was not always the case. In the past they also used titles. The Communications Director of Norwegian admitted to the newspaper Dagbladet in 2006 that the “only reason we have carried out this practice is that it is an international standard. However, as a woman I will admit that this is somewhat old-fashioned".

Initially, we thought that using old-fashioned titles was only practiced by the airlines. However, when booking a hotel room recently, we noticed that the hotel chain Radisson Blu also asks women to register by title. The choice was strangely enough between ‘Mrs’ and ‘other’, both on the Norwegian and the English language version of the website.

We are questioning this practice. Do hotels really need any kind of information about marital status or gender? It seems particularly intimate to ask women about their marital status when staying at a hotel. This gives us unpleasant associations back to a time when it was not socially accepted for unmarried women and men to share the same hotel room.

In the worst case, asking for information about gender and marital status may be in breach of the data protection principle which states that one should not collect personal information that is not necessary for the processing purpose.

How to avoid such mistakes

Why has KLM chosen to translate their website into Norwegian? We imagine that they are interested in attracting Norwegian customers. But to succeed, the Norwegian language customer journey needs to be a positive one, for both women and men. When glancing through the homepage of, we notice several examples of poor language choices.

For example, we find the headline “Bærekraftighet”, which is not a Norwegian word. It appears to be a direct translation from the English word sustainability.

Also, KLM proposes to organise accommodation and car hire, asking customers: “Vil du berike reisen din?”, which would translate as “Would you like to enrich your journey?”. This simply does not make sense.

In order to avoid what we might call a direct translation, the translator has to take a step back from the text and ask “How would this normally be expressed in Norwegian?” The mere fact that the titles “herr”, “fru” and “frøken” exist in Norwegian does not mean that they ought to be used in a translation of Mr, Mrs and Miss. For KLM’s translator, the logical follow-up question should have been: “Does it feel natural for Norwegians to use such titles in this particular context?”

Translators are not walking dictionaries. Translators play an increasingly important role as intercultural and linguistic mediators in today’s globalised society, as well as being marketing advisers collaborating with experts of user experience online. If KLM had involved a professional translator in the development of their Norwegian language website, we are certain that Norwegian customers would have enjoyed a more positive booking experience.

Time for copy editing

Now that it is possible to travel again, we would like to encourage KLM and the travel industry to engage in some spring cleaning of their webpages.

Correct use of professional language and professional translation generates trust, provides a positive user experience, and contributes to building a good corporate reputation.

Women, or 50 per cent of the customers, would most likely appreciate being treated equally as male customers.

Happy International Women’s Day!

This article was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv.

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