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The burden of serving: sexual harassment in the restaurant industry

Feb. 27, 2018
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I was 15 when I started my job at a local catering hall. It was my first job, and I was incredibly excited to work somewhere so formal—the employee dress code was black-tie, and from what I’d heard, the entire venue had historical prestige. During my 8-hour shifts, I waitressed; I catered to increasingly drunk wedding guests and raced around the ballroom for seemingly endless amounts of time. 

At first, it was harmless fun. I got to meet hundreds of people each weekend, starting conversations and helping people on the happiest day of their lives. But after a few weeks, I began to notice that something was a bit off. Had men always looked at me like that? Or was I just overanalyzing it? 

This trend of increasing concern—all of which I tried to brush away with a haphazard it’s probably nothing—continued relentlessly. I received cheeky comments while blowing out candles, endured painstakingly chauvinistic, flirtatious banter during cocktail hour, gently turned down a 30-year-old man’s drunken invite to that night’s after-party, and pretended as though having tips tucked into the hem of my pants was perfectly fine. I found that when I wore more makeup, my tips almost doubled. The majority of this cash came from (you guessed it!) creepy old men. 

But none of that compared to what happened during a cool April wedding last year. I was 16. A man approached me at coat check and initiated a conversation. I thought nothing of it—it was the end of the night, and he was probably bored out of his mind waiting for the bus to come so he could leave and go home. So I stood there, responding minimally to his small talk, until he rested his palms on top of my clasped hands and looked at me.

“You know, you’re really cute. We should hang out sometime. I’m an entertainer—I could entertain you.” He slurred, reaching into his pocket to hand me a business card. At this point, several thoughts were reverberating in my brain.

  1. This is a 50-year-old man. He could be my father
  2. An entertainer?
  3. Coat check is isolated from the rest of the ballroom. Where were my coworkers?

After he left, I stood there. I felt the odd, misplaced sentiment that so many women have felt in my place: was this my fault? Had I somehow led him to believe I was interested in hanging out? What should I have done differently?

That was bad, but it’s not like it was the be-all and end-all of my Bad Workplace Experiences With Men. Three months ago, I was working another monotonous wedding and a table of slightly rowdy men, all of whom were at least twenty to thirty years my senior, were giving me coy looks. Okay. Nothing I hadn’t handled before. But what really threw me for a loop was what followed.

“Do you have class tomorrow?” One of them asked. He had to be my stepdad’s age.

“Yes, unfortunately!” I smiled. I could be friendly from a distance.

“How old are you?”

“17. Why?” He looked disappointed.

“That’s a shame. Me and my friends,” he said, gesturing to the other men at the table, “were taking bets on whether you were old enough.” Old enough. 

I have bonded with my female coworkers over the threat of sexual harassment too many times to be as naive as to not understand what that meant. And in all honesty, it wasn’t until I read an article by Kirsten King that I realized how prevalent this harassment is across the industry. It wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just my catering hall; in fact, it’s been discovered that tipped-wage workers across the board are more likely to experience higher levels of sexual harassment.

Even worse, a stunning 90 percent of women in the restaurant industry report being subject to unwanted sexual advances while on the job. After all, the principle has always been that the customer is right. Why would that differ when sexual comments are introduced to the conversation? As Dianne Avery, a writer and retired professor at the University of Buffalo’s School of Law, has remarked, the incorporation of tipped wages creates a harmful dynamic between the male customer and female waitress. 

Says Avery, “This is the exchange: ‘I’m getting to look at you and talk to you, and I’m paying for it.’” 

I am thankful to live in a time in which men are finally being criticized for the sexually imbalanced workplace culture they have created in the film industry. But it’s time to expand this conversation to the other industries in which this culture is running rampant: while more than 14% of sexual harassment claims between 2005 and 2015 were made by members of the restaurant industry, retail workers came in a close second with 13.44%. If true progress is going to be made, it must cater to those beyond the silver screen; it must cater to the average woman. 

illustrations by Teresa Woodcock