The 2006 Census showed 76.5 per cent of all serving positions in Canada were held by women and 77.6 per cent of all servers were between the ages of 15 and 44 years. So, it is fair to say that the average server in Canada is a young woman — a young woman who is very likely to earn around $9 per hour (the minimum wage for liquor servers in B.C.) and to be employed part time — only 29.3 per cent of all servers were working full time and full year in 2005.
This young woman’s $9-per-hour job might require her to wear a short skirt or high-heeled shoes — a dress code common in the restaurant industry.
“Not all of the places where I have worked had a particular ‘sexy’ dress code. But in one restaurant where I was hired as hostess when I was 18 years old, I was instructed by a manager that I was to dress in all black clothes and — to use their exact wording — in a ‘sexy business-casual’ manner,” says Kaitlyn Matulewicz, a UVic PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law and former worker in the restaurant industry. This was not the only time she would run into a sexualized dress code. “I felt uneasy because I was told that as part of my job, to work as a hostess or waitress, I had to present myself in a certain ‘sexy’ or ‘classy-provocative’ way.”
Matulewicz’s seven years of experience as a server, bartender and hostess inspired her research topic. She’s currently looking into the restaurant sector with a focus on the wide array of unwanted sexual experiences women face in their line of work.
“Throughout the years, there were times when I encountered sexual advances: touching, sexual talk, or sexist jokes from customers, co-workers and even some managers,” says Matulewicz. She believes such experiences are common in the restaurant industry. However, she can’t recall any attempt at a formal discussion on how to handle sexual harassment in the restaurants where she worked.
Recently, an especially revealing dress code has been on the rise: in so-called “breastaurants,” female servers not only serve drinks and food, but are integral to the restaurant’s concept. One of the most famous examples of this trend is Twin Peaks in the U.S. Its slogan is “Eats. Drinks. And Scenic Views.” Twin Peaks is currently thinking about expanding to Canada and is open to offers from serious franchisee candidates — but only those from Alberta.
The female servers working in “breastaurants” wear extra-short, revealing uniforms, usually accentuating their breasts, and are often instructed to engage with the customers using language predetermined by the company. “We have a certain language and we train that among our waitstaff,” Randy DeWitt, founder of Twin Peaks, told Entrepreneur magazine in 2011. “If you ask for a beer, the waitress will ask ‘Do you want the man size or the girl size?’ ”
Designed mostly for a male target audience, these establishments nonetheless also cater to families.
However, cracks are forming in the facade of the happy, sexy, uniform-clad server displayed in the merchandise calendars. Last year, 19 servers from a Chicago branch of Tilted Kilt, another well-known example of the breastaurant trend, sued the company for creating a work environment that was sexually offensive and degrading. Tilted Kilt reacted by firing the manager in question and pointed out that it does not tolerate sexual harassment within the company.
Despite uproar from employees and related interest groups, this restaurant concept has boomed in recent years. According to Technomic, a food industry research firm, the top three breastaurant chains behind Hooters each had sales growth of 30 per cent or more in 2011.
“The days where restaurants were remembered by the quality of food, knowledge of servers and overall experience of the night is being trampled on by low-standard restaurants that exploit women’s features. I think it’s unbecoming and inappropriate,” says Christopher Trumper, a college student from Ontario with six years of work experience as a server, who thinks that female servers are far more sexualized than male servers.
Anne Rodewald, a German student who worked for nine years in the hospitality sector in Austria and Germany, is shocked by the breastaurant trend. “[These restaurants] build a new image of women . . . certain ideologies are built because only certain women with an ideal proportion are probably hired.”
Rodewald also thinks that this sexy dress code can set the stage for inappropriate sexual behaviour towards female servers. “Women [in breastaurants] are only valued as sexual objects and not as human beings,” she says.
Breastaurants are still a rare and new concept in Europe, where servers usually have to dress more conservatively. Many breastaurant franchise chains start out in the U.S. With a federal minimum wage for gratuity-earning employees as low as US$2.13 per hour — frozen for the last 20 years — one reason for women to work in such restaurants is the prospect of higher tips. While many states have already taken matters into their own hands and imposed a higher minimum wage, there are still several that stick to this hourly wage.
Even though employers are required to make sure that their servers earn enough tips to reach an hourly wage of US$7.25 — the federal minimum — or to make up for the difference, this requirement is often ignored. This leads to underpaid servers according to the report Tipped over the edge: Gender inequity in the restaurant industry by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United).
The same report states 37 per cent of all sexual harassment charges filed by women in the U.S. with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) happen in the restaurant industry. This rate is five times higher than the rate for the general female workforce.
But filing a sexual harassment complaint is often the exception. “I’ve also been told of occasions where women have gone to their supervisors or management after being faced with sexual comments, requests, grabbing, etc., and the experiences are not taken seriously,” says Matulewicz.
For Chelsea Thompson, a UVic student and full-time server at a family restaurant who has five years of work experience in the restaurant industry, it is important that the management stands behind its staff in these situations. “When incidents of inappropriate sexual advances have been made towards our staff from customers, [those customers] have been ejected. All in all, management wants us to feel safe and comfortable at work,” she says. Thompson feels lucky in that regard. “I won’t say that I haven’t been objectified while serving, but I know that my manager or the male staff members would have my back if a situation got out of hand. It’s hard to control who walks into your restaurant, but you can control how they are dealt with.”
According to Matulewicz’s research, women who experience inappropriate behaviour often laugh off the incidents or try to ignore the person harassing them. They may also share their experience with co-workers or confront the person who is harassing them. In more serious scenarios, some turn towards alcohol consumption while working to handle rude and inappropriate customers.
Matulewicz hopes her research will provide concrete suggestions on how to improve the working conditions in restaurants.
“I don’t think anyone should ever have to endure unwanted sexual experiences,” she says, “including in a place of work.”