The Blog

Does the Service Industry Encourage Sexism?

We need to consider whether implicitly this part of the job is encouraged, and whether customers themselves could avoid intensifying the underlying dynamics within service environments.

As I'm moving on from several years in a waitressing job, I have found myself looking back on the things I wish I had noticed and confronted during my time there.

Service workers in general often experience more than their fair share of rudeness, impatience and scorn. There is however, an extended element to this which puts people at a dual disadvantage; firstly as a service provider and secondly as a sexual object.

What academics call 'sexually objectifying environments' are places which promote and sanction the treatment of people as sexual objects. Restaurants and hotels in particular are characterised by their widespread sexual harassment. For instance, 'The Glass Floor' study by the ROC United and Forward Together found 50% of women and 47% of men reported experiencing 'scary' or 'unwanted' sexual behaviour while working in restaurants. Forty percent of transgender, 30% of women, and 22% of men reported that being touched inappropriately was a common occurrence in their restaurant.

Sexual harassment is a more worrying expectation of being a service provider. Especially since workers learn this to be a 'normal' part of the job and will often bear behaviours they know to be wrong. This is why the concept of 'living with' sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be held as something different to consent. Many workers ignore and put up with harassing behaviours because they fear they will be penalised through loss of income from tips, unfavorable shifts, public humiliation, or even job loss.

This feeds into aspects of writing this article when considering not just the experience of objectification itself, but the impact - emotionally and psychologically- which follows. Looking back on the job I notice behaviours which were implicitly expected of me, such as flirting, and allowing customers to make degrading comments, or give inappropriate looks.

I also notice that my own response was usually to tolerate it and brush it off. I remember receiving outrage and dismissal from customers where I hadn't provided the anticipated flirtatious or subservient reaction that they were expecting. Most of the time however, I would simply behave in the ways expected of me in order to get through the shift. I would say the forgotten aspect of this experience is not the event itself, but the frequency with which it happens and is ignored. It is the repetitiveness of sexual harassment which becomes grinding and emotionally draining.

The European Commission Code of Practice defines sexual harassment as: 'Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men at work. This can include unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct.'

The true degree of sexual harassment is often disguised by the conspiracy of silence which blankets the issue. The service provider can become so immune to the behaviours which become a natural part of the service dynamic, that it becomes more noticeable when it doesn't happen, than when it does. A friend and ex-waitress described to me that sometimes it surprised her 'when big groups of men were respectful', that part of 'looking after customers meant looking good, and dealing with their comments, leering and the occasional attempted grope'. Another waitress described sexual harassment as 'literally part of the job.'

In official terms there are laws and regulations to protect employees; sexual harassment is regarded as a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. In reality however, there is no obvious line dissuading customers from exerting themselves onto those serving them, and no clear attitude amongst workers on how much to take.

It is perhaps interesting that people will oblige in subservient behaviour more, within the context of a job like waitressing, compared to everyday life. On the flipside of this; being sexually objectified while providing a service, whether you're a man or a woman, creates an internal battle between wanting to give good customer service and resisting unwanted harassment.

Gender is certainly a factor and influence in these situations, with women receiving a higher frequency of sexual harassment in their everyday lives. For men in the service industry however, the instances of sexual harassment are much higher than in their everyday lives making it a noticeable problem.

The general portrait shows the service industry to be holding widespread harassment- particularly towards women and tipped workers- and demonstrates how power is used to exert control over other workers' bodies and livelihoods. The service industry creates a prime environment for sexual harassment since by its nature; the service process is set around satisfying a customer's expectations, and if possible exceeding those expectations.

We need to consider whether implicitly this part of the job is encouraged, and whether customers themselves could avoid intensifying the underlying dynamics within service environments.