The Restaurant Industry Is Rife With Sexual Harassment

Unwanted comments and touching are all too common, and the root of the problem might surprise you.

(Photo: Neil Webb/Getty Images)

Oct 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

I have a friend who grew up working in the restaurant industry, and from a young age, she worked at a fine-dining place run by an iconoclastic restaurateur. She has stories about working there that sound terribly fun—like learning about wine (OK, as a minor, but still) in a cellar that could spark envy in the wealthiest of winos. Then there was the persistent, casual, and utterly normalized sexual harassment she experienced—again, as a minor.

This was your typical Mad Men–type of stuff—a steady, smiling barrage of inappropriate comments and unwanted touching. It was part of what the women at the restaurant, regardless of age, put up with to go to work and do the job that they were paid for.

Things aren’t that different for many of the nearly 6 million women working in the food service industry today—and they are often far worse, according to a new report from Restaurant Opportunities Center United. The study, The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry, suggests that sexual harassment and instances of outright assault are pervasive problems for women in food service. Working with Forward Together, a reproductive justice organization, ROC surveyed 688 current and former employees in 39 states—male and female—and found that 66 percent had experienced “high levels of harassing behaviors” from a manager, 80 percent from coworkers, and 78 percent from customers.

The report cites an MSNBC review of federal data that found that between January and November 2011, thirty-seven percent of sexual assault charges brought by women to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were from the restaurant industry.

But lest you confuse this with a women’s issue—female workers are the victims in a majority of these instances—Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and codirector of ROC, makes it clear that the root problem is one of wages.

“Women earning $2.13 an hour,” the federal tipped minimum wage, “is at the root of the problem of women being exposed to literally, statistically, the worst sexual harassment in any industry in the country,” she said on a press call Tuesday.

When workers are paid such a small amount by their employer—so little that it sometimes only covers taxes, according to Jayaraman—workers are left depending on their customers and the conventions of tipping to make their rent, bills, and other expenses. That can leave women particularly vulnerable when they’re worried about their livelihood and a male customer wants a sandwich and maybe a side of sexual affirmation. If a female employee is, as a matter of circumstance, sending subtle or overt cues to customers to earn more tips, then why not make that work for the restaurant too? That’s where uniform requirements come into play—and fewer official requests from managers for women to wear more provocative clothes, reveal more cleavage, or otherwise unwittingly put their bodies on display to more effectively push that night’s appetizer special.

These types of situation are exacerbated in the states where wages are the lowest, according to the report. “What we are finding through this research is, not only is there a high rate of sexual harassment in this industry, but that women are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in states that pay a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour,” Jayaraman said on the call. Even men earning the tipped minimum wage reported higher rates of sexual harassment.

There’s plenty to be done, politically and culturally, to address these problems. But short of banning tipping, a practice that’s deeply culturally entrenched, and paying workers a living wage, bringing servers' pay up to the federal minimum would be a start. The tipped minimum wage has been stuck since 1991, and thanks to inflation, its value has slipped over the last two decades—$2.13 in 1991 has the same buying power as $3.72 today.