Not On the Menu - Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

By Ravyn Salas

There are a set of job requirements not found on job applications.

Grinning and bearing through sexual innuendos, finding notes on your car, men threatening to tip you less if you decide not to give them your number, guests telling you they will wait until your shift is over so they can take you out, guests ogling and making inappropriate comments when you have to turn your back to them to pour a beer... The list goes on.

Bartending pays the bills but at what expense?

A report showing the restaurant industry as the single largest source of all sexual harassment cases by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, made clear these experiences are not personal nor are they unique. The EEOC receives 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges by women from one industry alone. 

The way employees earn their income in the service industry differs from all other industries. Tips serve as a way that employers can justify keeping employees at or sometimes even below minimum wage without having to provide raises or benefits. Because workers in the restaurant industry depend on tips as a way to supplement their income, the environment in this particular sector leaves many vulnerable to being at the expense of each guest, as different as each may be.

The Restaurant Opportunity Center United, which provides information and resources for workers, employers, and consumers in the restaurant industry, weighed in on the EEOC’s findings. With this information the ROC-united put together an extensive analysis surveying and evaluating the conditions of the restaurant industry that allows for sexual harassment cases to run rampant.

“The system of workers having to obtain their wages from customers has the effect of blurring boundaries, as it becomes difficult for workers to effectively draw lines between providing good service and tolerating inappropriate behavior from customers,” the ROC states.

Servers and bartenders not only have management to answer to but become micromanaged by their guests’ needs as well and a sexualized environment is something they do not shy away from.

Depending on the establishment, customers may think they are paying for a sexualized version of good service, owners may see its benefit because sex sells, and co-workers observe and internalize a system that places the worker in a subservient and vulnerable service role.

As a norm of the industry, resisting compromising positions for money takes a lot of work, especially when facing it from the establishment itself. “Restaurant workers in focus groups gathered through this study noted that sexual harassment is ‘kitchen talk,’ a ‘normalized’ part of the work environment and that many restaurant workers are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their experiences with sexual harassment."

Not only are guests the source of harassment but co-workers and management can add to it significantly. It is engrained in the culture of restaurants which may account for employees becoming desensitized when their guests do it.

Ana Saucedo, who serves in a local pizzeria in Victoria Gardens expresses the unwanted attention that comes from her own coworkers more often than actual guests.

“A lot of employees in the back are perverts and if you don't go along with their disgusting flirtatious comments, you come off as a bitch but that's okay. A female needs to be respected and that starts with respecting herself,” Ana expresses.

“There are more times I can recall of inappropriate comments and actions from back of the house employees than guests themselves.”

The experience Ana and many other women face, is not exclusive to their own experience but can stem from gendered biases that make women more vulnerable.

“Our interviews repeatedly show the extent of sexual harassment that women restaurant workers face: in fact, 90% of tipped workers report experiencing unwanted sexual comments or behaviors in the workplace,” the ROC adds to its report.

With inappropriate behavior coming from within the industry, an understanding of what constitutes as sexual harassment may be skewed, and inappropriate behavior normalized. The industry only becomes more gendered with restaurants that encourage revealing uniforms, the expectation of flirting and sexual joking as part of their job and the perception that the work women carry out is less skilled or valuable.

Sexual harassment can not only cause a divide between sexes but is a result of it as well.