Raising the bar

Honi explores one industry where sexism is still alive and well.

After just three months working at a bar, Emma* decided to quit her job. Despite a generous pay packet, Emma swore her nights of hearing constant lewd jokes about being “bent over” and demands for “sexual favours” and “dates” by both customers and her co-workers were over.

“It was actually a difficult decision, which may seem surprising to some given the circumstances,” said Emma. “But ultimately the money and flexibility of the hours just didn’t cut it for me anymore when I started to be harassed by my boss too.”

In pubs and clubs around Australia, Emma’s experience is not an isolated one. A 2017 survey conducted by trade union United Voice found that nine out of 10 female hospitality workers had experienced some form of sexual harassment while at work. These instances ranged from sexist comments, to bullying and sexual assault. While sexism is yet to be eradicated in society, there seems to be an industry-specific ‘culture’ that is responsible for such high incidences of harassment.

Jordana* started working at an RSL when she had just turned 18. She says she was “very innocent and … took many months to adjust to the world of bar work”.

Australian pubs have historically been sites of sexist abuse towards female workers, once called “barmaids”. While the application of the gender-neutral term “bar attendant” has been implemented across the board, the possibility that reality does not reflect this change is rarely discussed.

Smiling, flirting, and playing to old stereotypes of women not liking beer feature as part of this new reality, according to Rebecca*, a full-time student and casual bartender. Financial incentives and job security are factors that influence her decision to continue taking part in this façade or “act”, as she describes it.

“I know that when I’m in a cheerier mood and therefore come across as flirtier, I’ll get tipped better, which ultimately works in my favour,” said Rebecca.

When alcohol is in the mix, this playful act could easily become dangerous, according to Rebecca. When things go wrong after a couple of pints, female bar attendants are in many cases left with little training or support to deal with the abuse.

Jordana learnt this one Tuesday evening when she was left tending the bar alone. “I decided to pick up some empty glasses on a table where a group of tradies were sitting. As I bent down to pick them up a few made some derogatory comments but one tradie decided to stand up from his seat, press his erect penis into my leg and whisper in my ear how ‘my tight pants were turning him on’.”

New and afraid of causing a fuss, Jordana never reported the incident to her manager.

On reflection, Jordana believes alerting the security guards who help monitor the bar’s more unruly patrons, rather than management, is the only effective way to deal with these kinds of assaults.

She wasn’t alone in expressing this. According to the United Voice survey,  48 per cent of female employees found their employers didn’t take their workplace harassment seriously.
When faced with the difficult decision to report the case of sexual harassment to upper management, Emma decided to do so, but no one listened.

“The manager just joked with me, and called me a ‘princess’, he acted like I had made-up the problem. I started to almost believe him,” she said.

In these cases, the responsibility for a safe environment for all bar attendants seems to fall squarely on women’s ability to know if who they are serving will take their friendliness as a sign of warranted sexual advancement or whether they are ordinary patrons not looking for trouble.

Rebecca said that she wishes her male co-workers would sometimes help to alleviate this burden.

“I feel like if I complain, my friend who I work with he’s like ‘just deal with it,” she said.

Often male co-workers like to be rostered on with women because they are likely to be tipped more, Rebecca explains. When this is the understanding, it seems unlikely that male co-workers would step up to interfere.

When raising the bar across the board, management should be on the receiving end of criticism. The implementation of training programs for bar attendants on how to deal with these situations would create a system of support that would make sexual assault less common. Awareness and harsher protocols might help us bid good-bye to outdated sexist attitudes. I’ll drink to that!

*Names have been changed.