Sexism in the Service Industry

By Thea Voutiritsas

The food service industry is a petri dish for sexual harassment. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was sixteen, and I have never experienced such open sexism and harassment in any other workplace. Five years and four restaurants later, here is what I’ve learned:

  • Being a female server is hard. I commend all the ladies out there with a thick enough skin to handle it. Customers have called me sweetheart, girlie, and told me to smile more. People have touched my arms, shoulders and waist to get my attention. I walk into work every day knowing at least one person is going to make me uncomfortable.
  • The ratio of male-to-female employees in the kitchen is dreadful. Less than 20 percent of chefs in American restaurants are women, while more than 70 percent of servers are. Women receive little protection from harassment, even in popular chain restaurants large enough to have an HR department.
  • The turnover rate is insane. Restaurants are notorious for hiring and firing staff on the regular. I’ve visited restaurants just two years after working there and been greeted by an entirely new staff. The truth is, very few people working in the service industry see it as their final destination. Most of the staff members have other jobs, or are in college, or both. When workers don’t plan on being there long, what incentive do they have to create a positive work environment?

All of these conditions, combined with the high-stress nature of a restaurant create a culture that accepts and normalizes sexism and harassment. Restaurant culture is a beast of its own. Insults and inequity are deeply embedded in the culture, and are so heavily laced with sarcasm and humor that I didn’t even realize how desensitized I was. So people ask, “Why not just quit?” Strangely, I still like my job. I stay hopeful that things will get better. I see staff members also stand up for and support each other every day where the system falls short. If I quit, I’d never see or make the changes that I’m asking for.