The restaurant industry has a notoriously high annual employee turnover rate. In 2018, it reached a five-year high, eclipsing 75%. Women in front-of-house roles, especially bartenders, make up a large portion of those leaving restaurants in search of opportunities that offer safer, more supportive workplace culture, reliable wages, skills training, and career advancement.
If you ask a female bartender about the biggest challenges they face in the workplace, you’ll typically hear the following themes revealed to you at lightning speed: an underestimation of their skills, unwanted sexual advances, and unreasonable beauty standards.
“When you live off of tips, you’re split between providing hospitality and setting boundaries for the types of behavior you will not tolerate. And when you’re a bartender and the people around you are influenced by alcohol, that’s harder to do,” says SarahGrace*, 27, of Boston’s Paris Creperie Seaport.
Despite the monumental strides made by the #MeToo movement to create safer, more supportive, sexual-harassment-free workplaces for women, there’s still work to be done to protect and support women working behind the bar. Still today, women in the restaurant industry are limited to certain positions, denied others, and feel pressure to look a certain way to get ahead or make a living wage.
“When women demonstrate their capabilities and show leadership skills, many times they are perceived as aggressive or too assertive,” says Shannon Salupo, Corporate Beverage Manager of Quaker Steak & Lube in Cleveland, Ohio. “Yet, if they show characteristics of being kind and nurturing, they may not be perceived as strong leaders. It can be a double-edged sword.”
Understanding Sexual Harassment and the Representation of Women and Alcohol
In early American history, a woman’s role behind the bar was a far cry from the all-female bartending competitions we see today. Jeanette Hurt, author of “Drink Like A Woman: Shake, Stir, Conquer, Repeat,” wrote there were only 150 female bartenders in the United States in the early 1900s, which was only .3 percent of the entire restaurant workforce.
In 1948, the Supreme Court granted a ruling that prevented women from tending bar, which remained unchallenged by the restaurant industry until 1971. A feminist clerk named Wendy Webster Williams took the ruling up as a case of job discrimination with the California Supreme Court in the early 1970s. Once California had struck down the sexist ruling of 1948, the decision created a ripple effect and women began to return to bartending throughout the U.S.
The Washington Post reports that a study done by The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015 indicated that women make up 60% of the bar force in the United States. While we’ve made great advances since the 1940s, the restaurant industry has more work to do to protect women.
During the height of #MeToo, ABC News reported that 30% of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work and, out of these, 23% have had sexual advances made towards them from someone higher up in their organization. 8 in 10 women who have dealt with sexual advances said it was harassment, and one-third reported actual abuse. And the scariest statistic of all: Of the women who were surveyed, 95% said their male harasser went unpunished.
“There’s also in-house harassment,” says SarahGrace. “And when that behavior isn’t immediately addressed, you create a toxic work environment. And the number one thing my industry friends and I talk about is unwanted attention from guests.”
As drinking accelerates through the evening, bars can be a terrifying place for even the most hardened female bartenders to work in. Inappropriate behavior from guests can be a problem during almost every shift. This behavior can be identified as sly comments but often also outright inappropriate statements.
Erin Wade of the restaurant Homeroom is one woman in the restaurant industry who is leading the way in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Wade explained her approach to helping managers protect their restaurant staff to Toast on an episode of The Garnish.
It is a simple yet effective color-coded system staff can use to rate the level of harassment they’re experiencing and discourage inappropriate behavior from guests. Wade’s approach was unique and she gave her staff the liberty to develop a strategy that they felt would best help them.
“What’s been so amazing is that we came up with it as a way of dealing with the problem, but what it’s actually done is help curb the problem,” Wade said.
“No one really walks into a restaurant and sticks their hand up someone’s shirt, which is the incident that set this off,” she continued. “But what they do do is they start by checking that person out. And then they lob low-level inappropriate comments at them. They’re testing the waters. So when you change the power dynamic at that [point], it tends to stop it from escalating into a bad situation.”
Often, restaurants don’t have a designated HR department or individual who takes on the role of an HR coordinator. Without this, employees — especially women, people of color, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ — can suffer in silence through no fault of their own.
“Creating a safe, supportive environment in which female employees can succeed is still such a lofty goal,” says Karen Hoskin, CEO, and co-founder of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado. “#MeToo put some important people on notice and may have begun to shift the culture, but there is still a great deal more work to be done.”
Female Bartenders Need Equal Opportunities
Gender inequality’s role in career advancement is the same in hospitality as it is in other fields.
Even with their best efforts, skills, and education, women continue to earn less than men and are frequently passed over for management positions.
A four-year study conducted on gender inequality in the workforce by Mckinsey & Company revealed that for every 100 men promoted to a manager position, only 79 women made the cut. A gender inequality study done by trade conference Tales of the Cocktail reported that female bartenders earn 87 cents to every dollar that their male counterparts bring in.
“You’re passed over for management positions, your skillset is underestimated, and your value is based on your looks rather than your talent,” says SarahGrace. “Guests ask me if I know certain drink recipes more often than I’ve ever seen male bartenders questioned for the same thing. I am not immediately perceived as capable. I have to work a lot harder to prove my skill set and knowledge, and I can’t look bad when I’m doing it.”
Hoskin echoes this. “I am often mistaken for someone with no decision-making clout,” she says. “My decisions are questioned more often. I have to establish that I have knowledgeability before I am taken seriously - something my male colleagues rarely waste time on.”
When women do succeed, their authority is often questioned as there are so few women-owned businesses within the restaurant industry. A 2017 round-up in Eater showed that women only represented 31% of their chef and owner reviews that year.
Companies founded by women are challenged from their first day of operation, as they represent only 2% of the venture-capital transactions in the United States. In comparison, combined male-female teams earned 17% of the venture capital pie in 2017 according to Forbes. Despite the initial financial challenges these businesses can face, an MSCI market index provider study showcased in Fortune revealed that companies under female leadership showed a 36.4 percent greater return ultimately.
“Female-founded companies have a tendency to generate a larger return for investors and pay off on time or early,” says Hoskin. “So we have a great deal of work to do to create an equal financing environment for female-founded companies in food and beverage.”
While the industry has not completely caught up in terms of venture capital, great strides have been made behind the bar. The beverage industry can count New York City’s The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog and Death & Co as world-famous establishments that have had women running the show. All-female bartender competition Speed Rack was also founded in 2011 by Lynette Marrero in order to highlight the speed and skill of talented women mixologists.
Creating a diverse team is not only important to protect your staff, it can significantly improve your business, and a study by the Anita Borg Institute showed that staff turnover rate is 22% lower in businesses with diverse teams. Another study by PwC reported in Fortune showed that 60% of female directors considered gender diversity paramount in a business, and 42% were huge supporters of racial diversity. By creating a diverse team, your restaurant will actually have a higher collective team IQ, according to Anita Borg.
How Restaurant Owners and Managers Can Support Female Bartenders
There are numerous ways you can offer support to your female bartenders. It begins with providing assistance, investing in them, educating yourself and your team, and taking on the role of an HR manager to help your employees thrive professionally and deliver the ultimate dining experience to your guests.
The women (and men) you employ will ultimately take more pride in what they do and work harder for your establishment in the long run. Fostering a supportive culture will create the most efficient (and balanced) bar team for you, where your employees feel joy when they come to work instead of dread.
“Elevate women into management positions and involve their oversight and input into the workplace,” says Hoskin. “Sometimes the male owners and managers benefit from a gender-balanced team approach to set the right tone. My philosophy is that the inside of your establishment should reflect the outside in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. If it doesn’t, it is a good time to self-assess bias inside your doors.”
As a restaurant owner or manager, make the hiring process transparent so that you find women with the right skills and experience.
“Even the most seasoned bartenders will benefit from bar training,” says Salupo. “Not only to learn the new recipes but to keep techniques and processes fresh in their minds. Managers should take time to meet regularly with their bartenders to share positive feedback, as well as understand what the bartender’s goals are so that they can be supported.”
Once you’ve created a safe working space, encourage your female bartenders to speak up about harassment. Take it upon yourself to create the same zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment that a 9 to 5 human resources department would have. Female bartenders are more likely to put up with bad behavior if they are afraid of consequences for reporting harassment.
“Stand behind us when we cut guests off,” SarahGrace says. “Be invested in our safety. Properly address reports of harassment. Believe women when we come to management with concerns, because chances are, if we’re making a formal complaint - taking that risk - then it’s likely been a long time coming.”
Gender inequalities in the restaurant industry can be overcome if we work together as teams for the benefit of the entire industry.
*As of press time, SarahGrace has been promoted to Manager at Paris Creperie Seaport.