The restaurant industry will be no different than most others this year: challenges for women who want to succeed, or just get their job done safely, are still common. How women and men, managers and employees, deal with these challenges can define the success of your workplace — not to mention play out over your bottom line, as the workforce gets even more integrated in the years to come.
Breaking into “The Boys’ Club”
Women represent half of both management and staff in restaurants nationwide, but barriers still exist when it comes to the perception of the quality of their work — and sometimes their actual presence. Navigating the working environment for women is complicated, awkward, and complex. Managing past the cliquey behavior among male employees (including higher-level staff) — and other elements of the atmosphere that leave women feeling excluded — can be quite difficult.
This is especially true at independently or family-owned restaurants that have built (or been built from) longstanding friendships and associations. While this behavior can be quite innocent and unintended, cliquey behavior in male employees can have repercussions for the health and well being of your staff over time.
One solution to alleviate this phenomenon is developing an open culture for employees and managers at your restaurant. Open book management often focuses squarely on the financial aspects of a business, providing transparency to the success and challenges of the establishment as a whole to every worker — from dishwasher to head chef and everyone in between.
One of this practice’s prominent side effects is enabling every employee to have their voice heard in maintaining the health of every aspect of the business. This gives both women and men employees opportunities to be heard — not just by you, but by each other — in a forum that won’t favor long-time employees or any kind of “boy’s club.” The key to success of an open culture is leadership’s management of staff interactions in the spirit of openness the process encourages. This is not an easy path to follow, but as the diversity of the workforce continues to grow, it is a necessity for your business to thrive. An open work environment, is just good business.
Restaurants may have policies committed to gender diversity, but it is a struggle to put that commitment into successful practice. Restaurant owners and managers should treat gender diversity like the business imperative that it is, and that starts with better communication, more training, and clearer focus on the results.
Gender bias can be as innocent as only asking men to lift and move heavy boxes, or as insidious as presuming women employees won’t be as good at math as the men. Pre-conceived notions about staff that arise from gender bias can have a real debilitating effect on staff as a whole. At its worst, these types of assumptions would appear to contribute significantly to the gender imbalance we see in workplace roles today.
Even though there are nearly equal numbers of men and women working in the industry, we still see pockets of the industry today where 7 out of 10 servers, but only 2 out of 10 chefs, are women. Some of that distillation may start showing at the hiring level, but in truth, pre-conceived notions of gender value — and who feels welcome in what position — goes all the way back to early training and culinary school applications for many women in the industry.
Restaurant managers and owners must make an effort to cater their reactions and instructions to the actual skill set each employee brings to the table, regardless of gender. This needs to be true in daily interactions with existing staff and in the entire hiring process, from resume read to final decision.
It’s not just about fairness, even though as an ethical business owner that is important. It’s also simply good business sense to be able to recognize talent and valuable resources on an individual basis. Your restaurant benefits from every skill your team can bring to the table. There is no value in ignoring any of it, especially given the growing challenge of filling positions.
Two-thirds of women today are shouldering the burden of breadwinning — either alongside an also-working spouse or partner or making it alone as a single parent. This opens up a challenge for work-life balance that most families over half a century ago didn’t have to face. In addition to supporting children and functioning as their primary caregivers, more women than men are becoming primary caregivers for elderly parents, who are now living longer than in decades past.
This extra responsibility outside the workplace can leave women at a statistical disadvantage, both in terms of advancement and perceived diligence among supervisors (male or female) who may not experience the same additional burdens in their home lives.
Making reasonable accommodations (and planning schedules based on employees’ real needs) as a manager or owner is only half the battle. Employees need to plan for as many contingencies and variables as possible so as to disrupt their workplace as little as necessary. And above all, leave guilt at the curb. There’s an enormous pressure in our country to be the “perfect mother,” “perfect daughter,” or “perfect employee.” Do your best, lean on those willing to support you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Challenging Customer Service
When so much of your job is dealing with customers directly, it’s practically unavoidable that most women in the front of house will experience additional challenges from guests. No amount of in-house training can stop a customer walking in off the street from being condescending or suggestive, but smart training can suggest ways for servers and hosts to handle and diffuse the situation.
Staff needs to know it’s ok to stand up for themselves when necessary, and that includes talking to a manager about incidents that make them uncomfortable. Don’t wave off customers being inappropriate, especially since some men can choose to see a polite smile as an excuse to push even more.
If a customer continues to make an employee uncomfortable and won’t take the hint, see if a co-worker of the opposite gender can take over the table while the server goes “on break.”; if things get really serious, especially in a bar setting, do not be afraid to ask security staff for assistance. And be certain your managers are ready to back their employees up, as well. The best policies are those enacted all the way from the top to the bottom and back again.
Ultimately, don’t let tips decide your behavior. It can be frustrating, but physical safety and self-worth are more important than those dollars. If you’re afraid for your or your server’s safety, it’s always better to have a manager intervene, even if it means a customer leaves without tipping.
Sexual Harassment from Management or Co-Workers
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature … [and] offensive remarks about a person’s sex.”
The EEOC goes on to say that “Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in … the victim being fired or demoted.”
While 90 percent of women working in restaurants have experienced sexual harassment on the job, it’s not always from a boss. To wit, according to the 2014 report on Sexual Harassment funded by the advocacy organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, women in the restaurant field identified being targeted at these percentages overall:
- 67 percent experienced harassment from managers
- 69 percent from co-workers
- 78 percent from customers
In short, harassers can be anyone from a restaurant owner present on a daily basis to a visiting vendor who shows up once a month for a delivery.
And the lowest paid employees (those making the tipped sub-minimum wage set at $2.13 per hour — plus tips — since 1991) are traditionally the ones most at risk of experiencing sexual harassment.
It’s important for restaurant owners and managers to consult their corporate attorney in establishing a thorough sexual harassment policy, as well as a set of ongoing training for all employees that supports openness and prevents repercussions for those who report incidents of harassment. With two-thirds of women restaurant workers surveyed by ROC United feeling they would face negative repercussions if they reported sexual harassment by their manager, it’s important for managers to put that fear to rest if female employees are truly going to feel safe and respected in the workplace.
Your restaurant has an important role to play in reaching gender equality, and everyone benefits when you succeed. A fairer, more inclusive work environment will lead to more engaged employees, which we know results in a successful business that attracts more engaged customers. Gender equality is good for your restaurant, your employees, and for all of us.
Want an overview on other workplace challenges in regard to pay and benefits for women in the restaurant industry?
Rewards Network® does not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors before engaging in any transaction.
The National Restaurant Association also provides educational opportunities on a variety of these topics, including through training DVDs focused on harassment, social media use, and customer service. These can be found here.