I Feel Ya, Katie O.: Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

I was going to write about something completely different for my post today, but after reading Katie O’s piece on sexual harassment in the workplace, I feel compelled to talk about my experiences as well. It is so disheartening that after reading Katie O’s post, my immediate reaction was “Oh…yup, me too!” It’s just a perfect example of how “normal” sexual harassment in the workplace is.


I got my first job at a bagel bakery when I had just turned fourteen years old. I was really young (maybe too young, but I did have a work permit) to fully understand the “workplace” and all of its different norms, but I really did enjoy working there. One day, this guy came in who was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, and while I was wiping tables with my back towards him (and I guess my butt in his general direction?) he said; “That should be illegal to do to a guy first thing in the morning.” Before I could really even start to try to understand what he said, one of my coworkers (a middle-aged woman who worked in the kitchen) had screamed at me to go to the back room and wait there. As I was walking back there, confused, I could hear her screaming at this guy to get the fuck out of the bakery and to never come back. Looking back on it now I want the fourteen-year-old me to give her a high five on my way past her. But the point is that I didn’t really understand what was going on… except that this guy creeped me out and made me feel gross when I was just doing my job, and that he had no right to make me or anyone creeped out. I was just a kid (and a girl, of course…)!


I can’t even begin to explain how not only irritating but completely demeaning the restaurant industry can be to women. Last year, I worked as a waitress at a restaurant and things hadn’t changed at all since I was fourteen. One man, sitting with his whole family (two daughters and his wife), asked me what I was studying and what I wanted to do when I graduated. I replied I was studying global justice and policy studies and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. He then advised me not to go into the State Department because they call all the female employees in the department “foreign fuckers” (or something of that nature, I try to block it out to keep my brain from melting). Implying that women in the department are there to travel around and have sex with foreign men in the name of diplomacy! Thanks for the advice, asshole. However, I just laughed awkwardly and walked away because honestly-I just wanted a good tip. The worst part about this story wasn’t how this guy affected me. No, I wish you could’ve seen the humiliation on his wife’s face. You could tell she literally wanted to melt away but she was powerless in that he was clearly the head of the household, and her place was to be quiet. I could get away and forget about this if I tried, but she was stuck with it forever.


At that same restaurant, two guys came in who were obviously a little drunk, high, or just generally up to no good. They sat in my section and I said to myself “Ya know, I’m not going to judge them because of this and I’ll just give them the same good service I’d give to anyone else.” Well, they were nice enough, but once as I was walking away, he said loudly to his friend “I mean…she’s got a butt, though.” Wow, I thought, thank god I have some sort of redeeming quality since clearly I have nothing else going for me. By this point I was so mad but kept my cool because again, I wanted a good tip. I did get a good tip. Along with his phone numbers scribbled on the receipt. Yeah, buddy, I’ll definitely be calling you. The part that drives me the most crazy about that story is that I specifically went out of my way to give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them with dignity, yet because I was a woman, and a waitress at that, they knew that they could belittle me and treat me like an object. Not only is it an issue with customers treating waitresses this way, I can’t even start on the way the men that worked in the kitchen of the restaurant talked to the waitresses. We could not walk by or enter the kitchen without some sort of sexual comment being made or ogling taking place. One of the guys in the kitchen once said to me; “Baby, you have the best body here.” What the hell does that even mean? My reaction was just this look of utter confusion on my face and an “Ew. Go away.” That was literally the best I could think of, and I consider myself somewhat articulate. He had succeeded in making me feel belittled, no matter how I reacted. My manager would constantly call me “honey” and “sweetie” when talking to me about work. Not because he was trying to hit on me, but because that was his way of saying “I’m the boss, don’t you forget it.”


I have so many friends who still work as waitresses and there is an endless amount of stories like these. Women deal with this crap on a daily basis, and while they may get used to it, it’s exhausting, annoying and eventually takes its toll. It’s really disappointing to see that despite lots of advancements that women have (or maybe haven’t as Katie O. proved) made in terms of empowerment in the workplace, some things never change.


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