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A recent study that got picked up by the media says that 90% of women in restaurant jobs that depend on tipping report being sexually harassed at work.
That sounds like sexist behavior out of control. But allow me to put some context on that based on my restaurant-owning experience.
I believe it is true that 90% of women working for tips in restaurants are sexually harassed by coworkers and/or customers. That fits my personal observations after working in the industry. But let’s put some context on that and see if your feelings about the story change.
For starters, let’s remove from the stats the folks who take jobs at Hooters and other restaurants that position the staff’s appearance as part of the “entertainment.” I would argue that those employees are signing up to be sexually objectified in return for the promise of easy work and good tips. You can make a convincing case that Hooters should not exist, but I don’t think you can lump the servers at Hooters with the servers at Applebee’s and get a good statistic on restaurant sexual harassment in general.
So let’s say the non-Hooters rate of sexual harassment for female restaurant workers is something like 80%. That still sounds terrible. But I’m not done with context yet.
In my experience, attractive female bartenders and servers are completely conscious of trading their sexuality for higher tips. They talk about it freely. They pick blouses to accentuate their best assets. And some will admit they choose jobs that allow them to trade on their looks. If I were in my twenties and could make money in a job that depended on my looks instead of my muscles I would take it in a heartbeat, assuming I had good looks.
My best guess is that if you remove from the stats the women who are intentionally using their sexuality to improve their income, you get about 50% of women in tipping jobs who get sexually harassed and have done nothing intentionally to inspire unwanted attention. That is still a horrible number.
But 50% is also the rate of men who report being sexually harassed in server jobs. In my restaurant experience, when we had handsome male bartenders or servers the female staff and customers were shameless with their non-stop sexual banter, flirting, and direct sexual offers. And if you thought all of that attention was the good kind, you’d be wrong. It was an ongoing problem for the guys. The handsome gay servers had it the worst because they had no upside potential from the female attention.
So here’s the proper context, in my opinion, based on years of direct restaurant experience: 100% of attractive men and women are sexually harassed at work in the restaurant business. And nearly every one of them took the job knowing that would be the case, but they decided it was worth it for the relatively easy money.
Everyone who has restaurant experience knows that the industry attracts folks who are simply not as sensitive as the general public on this and other topics. In a typical office setting, a sexual conversation could be a career-ender. In a typical restaurant, half of the conversations are x-rated humor, and most of it is coming from the women. Comparing restaurant folks with typical white collar workers is comparing apples and oranges. Restaurant workers are self-selected as not-too-bothered by sexual banter. Or maybe they just become that way after a month on the job. I’m just saying they are not the same personalities that are working at IBM.
The ratio of harassment drops off as you move from the attractive restaurant employees to the merely average of both genders. Probably only half of average-looking employees get harassed. That is still too high, of course.
And then you have the homely restaurant employees of both genders. They have their own problems, but sexual harassment isn’t at the top of their lists.
The bottom line is that sexual harassment in restaurants is not so much a gender issue as an attractive person issue. But it doesn’t become a story until you layer on the sexism angle and leave out the context. Would you read a story with a headline that says, “Attractive people get more unwanted sexual attention than ugly people” or would you think you already know that story? Sometimes good context makes a bad story.
In related and not-so-surprising news, a study says attractive women get more job interviews than unattractive women. Attractive men have no similar advantage.