A Guide to Navigating the Institutionalized Sexism of the Service Industry

Please don’t call me sweetheart.
Publish date:
June 16, 2015
sexism, service industry, sexual harrassment, Gender Discrimination

If you’re a woman who has worked in the service industry, chances are, you’ve got a tale or two to tell.

Since my first job behind the counter at a local burger joint when I was 16, I’ve been working in restaurants. And for every job, I’ve got at least one horrible sexual harassment story.

Last October, a study revealed that 90% of female restaurant workers have experienced some kind of sexual harassment. Some articles suggested that tipping could be a part of the problem.

Because I rely on my tips for my paycheck, I’m probably not going to call-out the guy I’m serving who’s looking down my shirt and calling me “sweetheart,” or hilariously, “honey bear,” as a customer did last week. While relying on a creep’s tips to pay my rent is certainly part of the problem, I’m gonna say it goes deeper than that.

The sexualization of the waitress, the bartender, the hostess, etc. is so endemic to the industry that it is part of the culture. And that flows from top to bottom. Customers aren’t the only people I’ve come to expect harassment from. The kitchen staff call out flirtatious endearments as I pass. One co-worker used to regularly whisper lewd comments in my ear as I walked by with a full tray, or block my path with his body so I had to slide by him to get to my tables.

“You’re hot,” the drunk owner of a hookah bar where I used to work told me as he tried to untie my apron strings. “Why do you think I hired you?” He then tried to get me to kiss him before I got the manager to kick him out.

Waitresses are supposed to be flirty. We’re expected to be bubbly and friendly and sexy and that is why hitting on the waitress is such a tired cliché. That’s why the leers and the “darlin’s, and the winks are so ubiquitous that among my co-workers they barely warrant an eye roll.

If I’m serving a group of middle-aged men just one bourbon on the rocks too far gone, it is not likely that someone will slide his arm around my shoulders or my waist to get my attention, it is virtually guaranteed. It’s normal. I expect it, and they expect me to be flattered.

The harassment isn’t reserved to servers. It applies to any woman working in any capacity at any restaurant anywhere. At 19 years old, I was a host at a hotel restaurant in a resort town, where middle-aged men began rubbing my shoulders in order to induce me to find them a seat.

As a manager, my boss’s advice to me for talking to the staff was, “You know. Be friendly, give them a pretty smile.”

Legislation to rectify the tipping system in some way will only go so far towards addressing this problem. It is an industry with sexism and harassment so rampant and so deeply ingrained that the only viable recourse for female workers is to develop their own strategies for dealing with it.

Here are some of mine:

If the harassment is coming from a manager or a boss, I quit.

Part of the reason I stay in the industry (or at least keep finding my way back to it) is that for the most part, I like it. This has a lot to do with how well I get along with my co-workers, and how supported I feel by the management. If I feel like my managers are looking out for me and the atmosphere is warm and comfortable, the job can actually be satisfying. I have fun at work.

If, however, I’m 16, and my manager is asking whether or not I’m a virgin and inviting me to sit on his lap, it’s adios. It is not possible to work in an environment where you feel threatened by the guy who is supposed to protect you, and no one should have to.

I’ve stayed at places where I’ve been harassed by managers because I simply needed the job. The owner of the hookah bar mentioned above is a notable example. But after years of experience, I put my foot down. I’ll find another job. It’s not worth it to me.

If it’s mildly lascivious comments from a line cook, I let it slide.

The only difference between a line cook telling me how pretty I look today and a random dude on the street telling me how pretty I look today, is that I work with the line cook. I know the line cook and that he’s married and has two kids and lives in Queens. And I know that he probably doesn’t mean any harm.

Of course it’s sexist, and it wasn’t always something I was OK with. But you know what, I’m OK with it now. He means to be friendly and there is really no use in letting it get to me.

Egregiously lascivious comments and/or actions from a line cook, I tell my manager.

At this point, I need to decide whether or not HR is worth it, or whether I need to start looking for a new job. Maybe it is. Maybe this guy has been a creep with multiple women and management needs to get involved. Sometimes they will. A lot of times they won’t.

Sometimes, it’s OK to call a customer on their bad behavior.

Yeah, yeah, the customer is always right. Except when they’re wrong. A lot of people don’t like to do this because they’re worried about their tip, or that the customer will go to the manager.

But in my experience, sometimes a little shaming goes a long way. If, as often happens late at night on the weekends, a guy slides his arm around my waist and says, “Hey darling, can you get me another vodka soda?” it is OK to gently extricate myself and say, “Good guess, but my name is actually Kathleen. I’ll be right back.”

Maybe I’m part of the problem.

Reportedly, most workers don’t feel comfortable going to a manager when they get harassment from a customer, for fear the situation will escalate. And neither do I. It’s just so much easier to stay polite, move away, and take drink orders from a safe distance.