Like most college students, I sometimes need some extra cash. Let’s face it: higher education is financially burdensome, which explains why 85% of American university students work on top of school. My position is more privileged than most. Without working during the semester, I could get by thanks to my scholarship and my family’s college savings. But in order to save for grad school, live more with more financial comfort, and fear the future less, I choose to spend my weekends serving food and drinks.
In both my hometown and Harrisonburg, I’ve worked at a dodgy diner, college bar, hotel, two pizza places, and two trendy brunch cafes. I’m not saying I’m the most competent employee out there, or even the most passionate. I plan on pursuing a career in social work instead of hospitality, and I’ve definitely broken a few glasses in my day. But some part of me loves what I do and keeps going back.
Still, with my feminist-colored glasses (they’re basically the opposite of rose-colored glasses but with a sheen of hope), I understand the implications of some long-standing patterns in the food industry with misogynistic roots. This isn’t to call out any of my former/current employers. I’ve seen these things happen everywhere, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to work in some progressive atmospheres that actively strive towards inclusion.
But with 90% of women and 70% of men in the restaurant industry reporting some form of sexual harassment, I see a need to explore how restaurant owners can dismantle sexism and create a more positive, productive environment for both staff and guests. My half-baked thoughts:
Diversify each position.
Let’s face it- gender roles in restaurants are REAL. Typically you see young women hostessing, slightly older women serving, and men in the kitchen and managing. I once walked into a restaurant with the intention to apply for a kitchen job and had the owner take one look at me, say “server,” and schedule me to waitress the next day. Roles are often racialized as well. This makes no sense to me because gender/race have absolutely no correlation to how well one can explain a menu item to a guest, pan sear some salmon or distribute paychecks. It would be neat if all restaurants could base hiring decisions off of qualifications instead of profiling people based on random traits.
Don’t tolerate harassment from customers.
Luckily, I work somewhere now where I feel totally confident that if I faced significant harassment from a customer, my managers would resolve the situation appropriately. That is NOT always the case. I’ve heard a coworker be called a “bitch” and a “dog” repeatedly by some drunk guys in Celtics jerseys only to have the manager pass the table off to a male server and allow the customers to continue making comments. I’ve served an older man late at night who “couldn’t understand what the big deal about Trump was” because he “used to grab young women by the pussy all the time.” As a hostess, I had a table of regulars that I had to skip Black servers for because apparently racist comments weren’t enough to ask them to leave. And there’s nothing wrong with leaving your phone number on a check, but tipping a server less for denying your advances is textbook sexual harassment.
Business owners should ditch their “the customer is always right” motto when the customer demeans another person, service worker or otherwise. We can handle losing a few dollars in sales; we can’t accept hate.
Create feasible ways to raise concerns.
Discussing sexual harassment and discrimination isn’t easy in any settings, much less a setting entirely dependent on service to others that often assumes sexual harassment as a norm. Combine this with the stats that 70% of restaurant servers are female while over half of managers are male, and it’s totally reasonable for lower-level employees to feel uncomfortable raising concerns. Restaurant owners and managers should have training on how to effectively and appropriately respond to claims with both in-person and in-writing options.
I love my food service side hustles, don’t get me wrong here. I’ve had some amazing coworkers and managers. It’s satisfying to work hard all day and come out smelling like scrambled eggs with some $20 bills in hand. It’s a weird flex to carry a tray of 10 glasses without spilling, but ok. It buys the books. However, sexist work environments should never be the norm, and the study after study shows that the food industry as a whole can do better. We can share the table with equity and compassion instead.