By Simone Barber
On October 15, 2017, Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, please write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
In response to actress Rose McGowan’s sexual assault accusation against director Harvey Weinstein, the tweet garnered thousands and thousands of responses, particularly from women. After McGowan’s rape became widely publicized, more than 30 women came forward to reveal that they too had been victims of Weinstein’s cruelty. Since then, many women working in entertainment, business corporations, and various other careers have come forward to share their experiences of sexual assault and further the #MeTooMovement.
This movement, lead by women who have risked everything to seek justice, represents great progress and development towards equality in many careers. But the pervasive misogyny of other career sects, such as the restaurant industry, haven't been granted the same attention as those under Hollywood's spotlight.
According to Plate IQ, the median average wage is lower for women than for men in over 90% of food service jobs. Specifically, full-time female servers are earning an average of 68% of what their male counterparts earn. This website also sites “A Fine Line” by Aliana Productions that explores why only 6% of restaurant owners and executive chefs are women and reports that “nearly 37% of sexual harassment charges filed by women to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came from the restaurant industry.” These statistics show how women not only are paid less and face greater obstacles in getting promoted, but also must cope with a grailing environment of sexual harassment, often from male coworkers and customers alike.
“The dynamic between customers and workers is absolutely fucked up” asserts Andria Nicoloro*, a UCLA freshman who worked as both a hostess in a high-class restaurant and as a cashier at a busy, local bakery. “I’ve had older men try to flirt with me, shove tips down my back pocket, and call me things like ‘jail bait’ to my face.” Nicoloro says that these micro-aggressions sometimes take more physical forms, describing that she’s had men hug her, which she said she found strange. “I generally think no one needs to be touching anyone else in the food industry.”
She says that male customers would often get uncomfortably close in other ways, sometimes putting their arms around her waist. Although she first brushed these physical interactions off as normal, she realized that they were actually inappropriate and also completely unnecessary. “Could they just, like…. not do that?” Nicoloro rhetorically asks.
Nora Barber, my sister and a first year at San Francisco State, related similar experiences with male customers being strangely touchy in the restaurant for which she works. She says that customers often make inappropriate jokes or even come around the desk to be closer to her. She explains that it can be difficult to maneuver such uncomfortable situations “You feel like you have to be nice to people,” she said. “You have to tiptoe around them flirting with you, and sometimes it's interpreted as you flirting or being into someone because it's hard to be so respectful and nice while also deflecting someone's attention.”
Barber has a message for all those men out there that can’t seem to understand their positions as customers: “Don’t hit on your servers. Don’t hit on your hosts. They aren’t being nice to you because they’re into you, they’re being nice to you because that is their job description and that is what they’re being paid to do.”
Nicoloro has also struggled in navigating the often misogynistic terrain of the food industry. Although she has considered telling a customer off or speaking to a manager about uncomfortable situations in the past, she explains that the “small touch that maybe shouldn’t happen” or “some quasi-sexual remark that you aren’t quite sure is over the line but definitely makes you feel gross inside” can seem minute in the moment, but eventually add up to create a feeling of unease and unsafety.
But, even if a woman is self-aware or educated enough to reach this point of understanding, Nicoloro points out that there is not necessarily an established framework of how to go about addressing the issue.“What do you seize on to complain about? And who would you even talk to?” she asks. “The customers are already gone, leaving behind their tips.”
This leads to another important dynamic in the food service industry, especially for women – tipping.
According to Business Insider, tipping is commonly traced back to 17th century England, and was originally used as an act of superiority of aristocratic classes. However, today tipping service workers, especially in restaurants, is seen as socially acceptable and even mandatory for anybody who can afford to dine out in the first place. Because hourly minimum wage is rarely enough to support a family or even an individual, food service workers often depend on tips from customers to survive.
For women dealing with an onslaught of both subtle and blatant harassment from male customers, the reliance on their cash can put them in a sticky situation.
Although Nicoloro was young when she began working in restaurants (which she sees as an additional factor to her vulnerability as a woman in the food industry), and was not supporting herself, she witnessed the effects of that reliance on tips in her coworkers. “For the waitresses and waiters that were full time, those tips mean the difference between paying rent or buying their kids soccer gear or being able to put oneself through nursing school,” she said. “Those servers have to come to work every day with a welcoming, charming attitude, regardless of how they feel inside.” And they’re expected to retain that demeanor no matter how they are treated.
This extreme reliance on a customer’s contentedness feeds into the “customer is always right” attitude, often emphasized by owners and managers. Nicoloro believes that this culture can be toxic, especially for women. Despite these fundamental issues Nicoloro has with the food industry, she emphasizes that she has so far felt generally supported and protected by her managers and coworkers. However, for others, the harassment does not end with customers.
To the right are some of the statements Nora Barber remembers hearing from the owner and boss of one of her first restaurant jobs. Despite the fact that they were in a professional setting, not to mention she was 15 or 16 and he was in his 40s, he would often tell her that it was ideal for her to wear short dresses or tight-fitted clothing. On Friday nights, when the local restaurant transformed into a tourist-based nightclub, he required her to stay even though there was no need for the usual hostess positions at this time of night. “Asked why I had to be here, he would tell me that my job was to just stand there and look cute,” she said.
This demeaning treatment escalated with frequent “brushing” against her butt, and finally culminated with the owner “full on grabbing” her butt, causing her to quit the job. “I talked to many other teenage girls who have hosted at the same restaurant and have had the same exact experience or an even worse experience with this man,” Barber said. Yet none of them have reported it to her knowledge.
Often, women are hired for typically lower-paid hostessing positions rather than as bussers or a servers, which contributes to their marginalization in the industry. “Most traditional restaurants only hire women, specifically young, pretty girls, as hosts,” Barber said. “They make them dress cute and wear nice outfits and do their makeup. A lot of it is about presentation.” Of course with comments like these, she can’t help but feel she’s been hired for her appearance. “Your job is to be the face of the restaurant,” she’s been told. “When people come in, you represent the restaurant.”
Barber also notices that it often takes longer for girls to move up in positions, and to retain the same level of respect that boys do even at entry-level positions. This contributes to the often commonly held view in food service that girls are simply pretty objects to attract customers and increase profit.
When asked why she chose not to say something about her past boss’s inappropriate advances, Barber stated that truthfully “It seemed like a lot of work.” Even more so, she felt the need to protect his family, explaining that “he had a really cute daughter and a wife that I was close with. I didn’t want to ruin his life if it would affect his daughter.”
Barber sees this problem and the overarching misogyny in the food service industry as lying in its “politically incorrect subculture.” She expands on this idea, saying that she has experienced a lot of blatant racism and sexism within restaurants. “If certain types of customers come in servers will get angry if I seat them in their section,” she said, citing women and people of color as those who were often discriminated against. Possibly because service workers are often not highly educated, many have worked at the same job for years, and they mostly associate with other industry workers. “They kind of have their own culture of talking shit about other people and thinking that political correctness is stupid," she said.
Nicoloro also blames the industry’s backwardness on the culture surrounding restaurants and food. She asserts that the culture is what needs to change. “Men need to stop acting like just because they tip means they can treat their female servers like sex objects,” she said. “A lot of men don’t even know this is an issue because so few women will speak out about it for fear of losing their jobs or having repercussions or being criticized as someone who just needs to grow a thick skin. We gotta change that.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy of the source.