It’s Time to 86 Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

by Audrey Cerchiara

When I was still in high school, I showed up to my first day of my first ever job so nervous that I promptly threw up in the bathroom and went home. Stories of my mother’s salad days at the Magic Pan had, for me, gilded black aprons and slip resistant shoes; there was no higher grace than that of a good waitress. With agility, speed, control, and a bit of prescience and good humor, she is universally capable (in cases of zombie attacks or overcooked patties). That first afternoon, lost in the chaos of an average lunch rush at a dive diner, I was overwhelmed with the desire to prove myself as a good waitress.

Six years later, I was still hustling apps and pre-bussing tables, but I could upsell margs, memorize orders, and let the chaos of a good rush roll off me like water off a duck – I was swimming in it. So, after having been well-molded by this industry, it saddens but does not shock me that a recent report found disgustingly rampant rates of sexual harassment in the restaurant workplace.

princess frog gif

How do we prove ourselves as good waitresses? A good server has tact and timing, strength for lifting heavy trays and hot plates, coordination for ducking unexpected expeditors, foresight to efficiently deliver drinks, lost forks, and extra sour cream without wasting a step, but most importantly, a good server caters to the whims of a customer on whom he or she depends for a tip. And by tip, I mean living wage.

In The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) with Forward Together report that a “sexualized environment” affects every relationship in a restaurant: regardless of gender, restaurant workers experience high levels of harassment from supervisors (66 percent), co-workers (80 percent), and customers (78 percent). Women, who make up more than two-thirds of all tipped restaurant workers, are particularly vulnerable to enduring harassment. They are forced to tolerate it because they depend on a customer for their income, instead of an employer.

Worse, this is the environment in which countless women “learn their worth as workers.” High school and college-aged women often enter the workforce through the doors of a diner or bistro. But according the the report, “…a negative first experience in the restaurant increases the likelihood that women will come to expect sexual harassment in other work environments.” Women are practically being groomed to tolerate pinching and crude language by being primed in the restaurant industry where those behaviors are considered “kitchen talk.”

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Full disclosure: as much as everyone, including myself, says that they are not surprised that 37 percent of all sexual harassment reports are restaurant-born, the truth is I was not surprised that it happened to other people, but I was surprised that, while reading through the report, I kept coming across vignettes from my time waitressing. These scenes that I had, in fact, accepted as part of the job; The Glass Floor codifies all of the nefarious but unassuming ways in which a restaurant becomes a “sexualized environment.” 

At one restaurant I worked at, the entire waitstaff were almost identical looking young white women with clear skin, smallish waists, and long hair (tied back for hygiene). Behold, this has a name:

Aesthetic labor [is] the desire of employers to hire workers who look or act a particular way. In the restaurant industry this often translates into women who are ‘good-looking’ or sexually available […] Employer’s expectations commodify women’s bodies, contributing to a workplace culture in which sexual harassment of women staff becomes normalized and commonplace.

To wit, while all of the waitstaff were female, the owner, manager, and shift supervisors were all dudes. This common division of labor only exacerbates the social division between genders in the workplace.


It is time to take sexual harassment off the menu in the restaurant industry. How? ROC United found that instances of sexual harassment were significantly higher in states with sub-minimum wage. Because, folks, in some states, tipped professionals are paid as little as $2.31 an hour – they make the “rest” of their wage in tips. Supposedly, workers are compensated by employers if they do not meet minimum wage requirements post-ti — a supposition that has a lot of over-worked, under-paid servers reading this rolling their eyes.

The most radical proposition made by The Glass Floor is that in order to end the outrageous incidence of sexual harassment in restaurant workplace, sub-minimum wage must cease to be an option. Restaurant workers need to have the security of a fair living wage if they are going to be able to feel comfortable and confident reporting sexual harassment. Until then, that lovely woman refilling your coffee for the third time will continue to tolerate inappropriate behavior from her boss, her co-workers, and her customers, and when her high school daughter starts hostessing on the weekends, she will encounter a work environment that could put her at risk for accepting sexual harassment for the rest of her life.

In order to raise awareness, ROC United has helped to launch a story collection project – a crowd-sourced internet anthology of the shitty side work our servers tolerate daily. To donate your story, go to or post them on social media with the tag #NotOnTheMenu. Then join the first #NotOnTheMenu National Day of Action to take a stand against sexual harassment in the restaurant industry on October 14!

Images and video via Twin Peaks, 23-Hour-Party-People.tumblr, The Glass Floor, HumorInRecovery.tumblr, The Blues Brothers, ROC United

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