Time to Deal with the Restaurant Industry's Sexual Harassment Epidemic

If this election season has proven anything, it’s that we need to revisit our definitions of appropriate behavior when it comes to the treatment of women. 

As the meme of Donald Trump’s “locker-room banter” illustrates, we have a similar and likely more pervasive issue in our own restaurants. It’s time we as operators, professionals and human beings address this head on.

A powder keg

Anyone that has spent time in the average kitchen can tell you, bawdy language (and that’s a mild description) is the norm in the BOH where mostly young men are resident. Since women are a larger percentage of our FOH staff, you have a recipe for inappropriate and sometimes damaging circumstances

Couple this with the realities the average female server encounters when they are attending to their guests and you can see the pervasive problem of harassment in our restaurants and bars.

By the numbers

Let’s start this conversation with some metrics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 
As of 2015, women are make up an enormous percentage of FOH positions in our restaurants. Women represent 59.8% of bartenders, 70.1% of restaurant servers, and 82.1% of hosts. Overall, women are 54.5% of all food service workers, but only 47.1% of managers. 

While not representative of the overall makeup of the industry, the fact that women are approaching 50% of managers is cause for hope

Addressing the sexual harassment problem

If you have been a manager for any length of time, then you likely have a story pertaining to harassment of your staff that is serious and upsetting. Heck, it may have happened to you personally while managing. 

The harassment of women is so ubiquitous in our industry that we have become inured to it. Most times we don’t even react. What sounds like friendly banter and innocent flirtation to one person may be a trigger for discomfort or insult to another. If we are ever to address this issue, we first have to acknowledge there is a problem.

So, what is the problem? 

There are two major causes (however, I won’t dismiss that there are more). To start, sexual harassment is a direct result of the assertion of power by those with it over those without it. A server is required to care for her guests and by the nature of that subordination, many in our society take it to be an invitation to behave poorly. 

Any woman reading this that has worked as a server knows the lurid look, the inappropriate comment, and the brash touch that characterizes this complete lack of awareness on the part of the perpetrator. 

Which leads to the second major cause: the misconception that this is just the way it is!
Don’t be fooled by the apologist for aggressive sexual behavior; it’s never justifiable. The men and women that took the airways to defend Donald Trump’s indefensible description of how he treats women are contributing mightily to the continuation of this absurd cultural belief. If we don’t believe that men can control themselves around an attractive person (yes, person because sexual harassment isn’t an exclusive experience of women), then what other inappropriate behaviors should accept? Oh, he only robs banks because he’s really attracted to money and can’t control himself.

Fixing the problem

As a man, I reject the idea that we can’t control our own impulses. As an operator, I am willing to fix myself against allowing it to happen in my operation. How, you ask? As we said before, it starts by acknowledging you have a problem. 

Ask your female staff about their experiences. Think empathetically. It's an awful cliche, but think of them as if they were your own daughters, sisters, wives and friends -- because they are! Once you make it personal, the incentive to make changes will happen naturally. 

Then explore your options. There are plenty of resources. One in particular, SafeBars.org, is specific to our industry and can teach you strategies and policies that can reduce and manage these problems. However, it will always be an operator’s responsibility to support and protect their team from these terrible situations.

We may never eradicate this problem in our industry or our culture. However, we can take it on with smart policies, training and a lot of empathy. We can certainly start by holding our leaders and public personalities to a higher standard and then hopefully our culture can follow.

What are you doing to combat sexism and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry? Let us know in the comments below!