For Women Restaurant Workers, Sexual Harassment Starts with the Day You’re Hired

Anyone who has ever scanned Craigslist for a restaurant job knows the boilerplate “will train the right person,” code for, among other things, “Be young and have a nice ass.” I have two (attractive, blonde) female colleagues who got their first serving jobs at 19 on the supposed basis of their scores on the restaurant giant Darden’s infamous personality test. The first guy who ever hired me to wait tables said he liked my writing in my personal statement.

No one is innately or instantly good at waiting tables. Training someone who has never worked in a restaurant involves several long weeks of physically and mentally exhausting serial humiliation during which time she is likely, perversely, to be the restaurant’s most expensive front-of house employee, since until she is eligible to earn tips she has to be paid the ghastly sum that is the full minimum wage. The “right person” is likely to be the target, until a new right person supplants her, of so much hostility and derision from the chefs and the cooks and the food runners and the bartenders and the managers who didn’t hire her, and the other waiters and waitresses forced to train her, that the sexual harassment that results inevitably from being hired for her looks/intangibles/etc. is likely to seem, at first anyway, like the least of her problems. At first.

The dress code at my first restaurant job consisted, for women, of a black miniskirt, ballet flats and neutral makeup during the week and black minidress, slouchy boots, red lipstick and “statement jewelry” on the weekends. For dudes, it was a black shirt and jeans at all times. None of the dudes had been hired on the basis of their potential to prove themselves “the right person”; they'd all been servers at big strip mall chains and, before that, food runners and bussers and barbacks. They had collective decades of advanced tray carrying experience on us: The youngest female server had just turned 19, the youngest male was 27, and that was a fairly standard state of affairs at restaurants willing to administer Remedial Restaurant 101 to “the right person.” It would be hard to design a context more conducive to being sexually harassed by co-workers, and indeed, like 80 percent of women restaurant workers in a 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) survey, we all were.