How I handled sexism in the service industry
"The customer is always right."
Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows this age-old motto well. I certainly knew it as someone who up until six months ago had worked at a nationwide wedding venue company for five years. I went from cleaning, to pint pulling behind the bar, to being the head waitress. It only made sense to me that as a 21-year-old woman with this much experience I was qualified to take the next step and move on to the night manager position.
And that’s what I did. The new role required me to oversee the weddings that took place at our venues. After the celebrations of the first dance and the cake cutting were over, it was down to me to keep an eye on the dance floor while preparing the kitchen for the next day’s wedding with the other waitresses. Then, when the party ended, I was required to direct the guests to their taxis and lock the venue.
While the guests I had encountered when I worked in service jobs at these events had generally been polite and courteous, I found a stark change in their attitudes when I became a manager. When I asked guests to move so I could turn off the lights and shut the doors after their long day of celebrations, I became well acquainted with the sting of being undermined. “Walk on, love” and “Not a chance” were the most frequent phrases I encountered from those guests when I asked them to do something like move from the venue. Those comments were usually accompanied by distorted faces of disgust and a refusal to make eye contact. I didn’t usually feel legitimately intimidated or endangered by such interactions, but I certainly felt greatly embarrassed and disrespected.
This treatment was undeniably due to my gender. When male colleagues asked them to do the same exact things, those same guests would almost always respect, cooperate with, and even help them. They got responses like, “Yes, of course” or “We’re off, thanks for the night.” These were male colleagues, I might add, who were far less qualified staff members than I was, but were assumed to be figures of power and met with respect simply because of their gender.
That disrespect wasn’t even the worst of it, though. Male guests would often make sexual comments or invite me to leave with them. One time, a male guest demanded that I bring out food from the kitchen. I declined, as the kitchen was closed at that point, and was met with a mixture of shouting and chants from him and the men around him. The exchange went back and forth until a guest jeered that I should “loosen up,” something he thought he could help with, he said, adding that all I needed was a night with him in his car. He then continued to tell the group how he’d “love a woman for the night.”
Perhaps the worst part of this experience, though, was the way these guests treated me seemed to corrode my authority as a manager among my colleagues at work. I never complained about my job, nor missed shifts nor made any errors, yet after these events my coworkers would still ask questions like, “Are you sure you want to be an evening manager?” and make comments like “It’s tough being a girl with all these drunk men.” It didn’t take long to realize that some of my team members thought a guy should lock up after a long night instead of me.
I refused to feel powerless, though. Despite the way they treated me, none of those guests could take away the power I still had — power I earned — at work. I refuse to feel punctured by those experiences, but consider them stepping stones to change. The more women persist, and continue to possess the drive and ambition to further their careers in spite of the issues they face at work, the closer we’ll get to creating bigger change in any industry — from Hollywood actresses to women in the service industry.
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