Service with a smile: Sexualization in the restaurant industry

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By Sofia Vavaroutsos

“Honey, you’re going to need to get a skirt before your next shift if you want to make any money,” said my co-worker Catherine, right before introducing herself. 

It was my first day of work at the private golf club in my neighbourhood as a high schooler. By my third shift, I knew how to speak in a sing-songy voice, how much the members liked it when I wore my hair down and that I should never tell anyone if I was dating someone. 

By the end of the season, I knew which cooks to flirt with so I’d have fresh muffins to serve in the morning, which members would yell, “good morning, beautiful,” as I drove past in my golf cart and that if I lightly brushed a customer’s arm as I served them their beer, my tip would increase exponentially. 

The whole season I grew to normalize the idea that sexuality was a tool—something I was able to strategically use—until customers got hold of it and used it against me. 

“Manipulate or be manipulated” was the mentality my girl gang at work and I shared. I soon laughed at the shocked faces of friends who I didn’t work with when I told them what my job was really like. 

Soon after starting at Ryerson, I learned that the experiences of women at my workplace wasn’t unique. As it turned out, the restaurant industry itself is a toxic one for women. Especially for university-age-I-really-need-this-job-because-students-have-to-pay-so-much women. 

I spoke to other university students working in restaurants to find out how harassment and the need for tips adds an extra weight on servers, especially those who are hyper-sexualized. The problem is amplified for women of colour and trans women. 

According to a 2015 Statistics Canada report, 71.3 per cent of food and beverage servers are women and women made up 58.5 per cent of employees in the accommodation and food services sector. 

The same report noted that the results are specifically related to the traditional gender role of women as caretakers. “What is typically designated as ‘women’s work’ in the private sphere tends to be designated as such in the public sphere.”

According to a 2015 report for the Trans PULSE project, 13 per cent of trans Ontarians were fired for being trans and 18 per cent were turned down for a job because they were trans.

For trans women, interacting with customers in a restaurant environment can cause trauma and anxiety, especially when it comes to being misgendered. 

In an article from VICE UK, bar employee Jade Jones said she felt anxiety concerning the gendered language that’s popular in serving because it increases the likelihood of being misgendered compared to other jobs. 

Trans servers, particularly trans women, also face greater risk for aggressive customer encounters. Jones said a customer tried to punch her in the face because she refused to serve him while he was drunk, “I’m on the frontline—nobody else.”

The face-to-face interaction between servers and customers in restaurants adds potential for tense situations that the server usually deals with first-hand on their own.

Zeynab Isse, a first-year behavioural science student at Seneca College and a barista at a coffee shop in Woodbridge, Ont. shared an experience where she was sexualized because she’s Black. 

A customer in the drive-thru asked about what kinds of hot chocolate the shop had. 

“I said ‘We have regular hot chocolate, dark hot chocolate and white hot chocolate.’ And he just said ‘Oh I love dark hot chocolate… I love dark stuff.’ He goes to the window and he sees that I’m Black and he said ‘See, I told you I love dark stuff, dark chocolate.’” 

She had to remove herself from the situation and have a coworker take over the service. 

Kennedy Snaith, a second-year arts and contemporary studies student, was sexualized by a customer and was discouraged from writing a report on it. 

“I was about 16 at the time. An old man told me he didn’t have a very good day, and I was currently serving him in the restaurant. He asked me if he could have a hug and I was very taken aback by that. I didn’t know what to do in that situation,” said Snaith. 

At the time, Snaith felt pressured and gave the man a hug. “However, this man was old enough to be my grandfather,” said Snaith. “I did not know him whatsoever, so it was very uncomfortable.” 

Snaith said despite being disturbed by the customer’s behaviour, the restaurant’s small-town location was the main reason she didn’t report it.

“There was no HR or anything I could report to and it was a small town where everyone kinda knew everyone,” she said. 

“The feeling like I could report it was lessened because, ‘You’re targeting someone who’s well-known in the community, how could you do that?’”

Servers depend heavily on tips, being paid $12.20 per hour rather than the $14 minimum wage and are expected to make enough in tips to account for the difference, according to the Employment Standards Act.

“You had to always have that smile though, even though you felt uncomfortable,” said Snaith. “You had to have that awkward laugh and nod along and say, ‘Yes, of course,’ because otherwise your tips might suffer, and that’s most of your pay.”

Valeria Villalba, a second-year biomedical science student, who worked as a server throughout her first-year and the past summer, said the circumstances of whether she reported inappropriate behaviour in diners depended on how big the table was and how much the customers ordered. 

“Sometimes a couple guys will come in with their buddies for lunch, and there’s a lot of them. In that situation, I’d be more hesitant [to report inappropriate behaviour], because that tip is like an hour of work…Honestly, I felt like it was going to happen whether I put up with it or not, so I just figured I’d allow it for tips.”

The fact that serving is an entry-level job means that the restaurant industry is filled with younger people who are pressed for income. 

“I was just having a hard time finding a job, because I also hadn’t had much experience,” said Villalba.

Villalba said she believed this is part of the reason why she got hired as a server in the first place. “I think the reason that so many waitresses are female is because people see [women] as, ‘Oh, they’re helpful! They’re nurturing!’” 

Guinevere MacLeod, a second-year film student, who has been a server at three different restaurants since she was 14-years-old, said she had a toxic experience at a small restaurant in Northern Ontario. 

MacLeod said she had to change how she acted with her boyfriend because of her job.

“I was working one of my first days at this place, and my boyfriend came in. I can’t remember who, but someone I worked with asked me who it was. I said ‘Oh, that’s my boyfriend,’ and they said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t let people see him. You need to let the customers think that they have a chance with you,’” said MacLeod. 

MacLeod said waitors have to take on a completely different persona walking into work every day. 

“It’s a weird industry, because your job is to bring food to people, but it’s almost like you yourself are a service,” said MacLeod. 

“You’re expected to be charismatic and friendly because that’s part of the job, sure. But then, you’re also expected to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny or act like you’re not going to be offended and just go with the flow.” 

For post-secondary students, serving is one of the first available jobs. Previous experience is not always required. Currently, 97 serving jobs are available on the job site for servers who don’t have prior experience. 

The fact that it’s easier to get into a service job for students just means more students likely have to deal with the harassment that comes with it.   

For some servers, the accessibility of the job outweighs the negative parts when it comes to a paycheque.

“I like serving for the money. It’s nice not having to live paycheque to paycheque. Especially being in university, there’s so much we have to pay for,” said MacLeod. “The money in serving is really good, so I stay even if the environment isn’t always the best.” 


  1. An excellent and accurate article on the restaurant business! I can certainly attest to the experiences shared.

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