Is the restaurant industry more sexist now? In short, I think so.

Restaurant waitressThe restaurant dress code has made the news once again and it is shocking that in 2016 this is even an issue.

This is a bit of a personal issue for me and here is why. While I was in college, I worked as a server for several years at a few independent and chain restaurants and bars. It’s always going to be murky waters when you couple a largely male dominated industry with alcohol and the general public. Lucky for me, I worked for some really great owners, who had in place a set of practices that protected me (for the most part) against harassment. The difficulty arose when the owners and operators themselves behaved badly.

I had my armour about me at all times. It took me some time to build it up, though. At the beginning, when I was young and somewhat “innocent”, I’d left myself vulnerable in a loose and sexually suggestive culture. As I started to see the way things were, I eventually guarded myself from guests (that’s what we called them) and management. Sadly, I’d learned my lesson the hard way: I’d encountered a few aggressive customers that harassed me at work and I was blamed for leading on the customers, suggesting that by serving them food, I somehow wanted more. I’d even had a couple of ugly encounters with a few regulars (a pseudonym for alcoholics).

So my coping mechanism was to develop a policy that stated I would not date customers. It made it easy to let a customer down without coming across as mean spirited. How could they, anyone,  argue with my policy when it seemed so reasonable and well thought out? Some bars actually had their own policy of staff not fraternizing with the customers or drinking after work. At the time I might have found it harsh, but looking back it might have been a good one.

In the end, what I thought was unfair is that I had to have a policy to begin with. Shouldn’t customers know that just because I was smiling while slinging beer, it didn’t mean that I wanted their phone number? I’d even had my share of being chased around the desk and inappropriate comments from management (sometimes even from woman) about my appearance. It made me feel like shit.

There has been a pervasive and sexist nature in this industry for decades and likely it has failed to get with the times. I suppose it hearkens back to the days of gentlemen clubs with their dimly lit smoky rooms and leather studded wing-back chairs. A place for men to discuss business over cigars and neat scotch. A place unsuitable for women.

My father brought me to one of these clubs back in the seventies. I was allowed to enter in his company, just a peek through the curtain. In the stuffy club dining room, the all male staff, from what I remember, were dressed in neatly pressed black and white uniforms, like a valet or a butler of sorts. The dress code tradition remains.

The one tool I had in my kit of protection was the dress code. It was always reasonable and also flexible. It was usually something like this: Dress shirt, staff shirt or staff t-shirt, jeans or black pants or black dress pants OR skirt OR shorts (for summer), and black non-slip, closed toed shoes or boots and apron and hair up if below the shoulders (for hygiene reasons and never in any suggested style). The host/hostess had a similar dress code.

What this meant is that I could dress for the most part from my closet and for comfort, especially on the days when I was working a 12 hour split-shift. It also meant easy turn-around for the days that I worked back-to-back shifts. But the most important aspect is that I could dress without being sexualized and(in most cases)no different from the male servers. (There were only two instances when it was a set uniform that was different from the men, but in that case they were merely ugly).

So how is it that in our current year, that in service environments like Moxie’s, Earls, Jack Astor’s, Bier Market and Joey Restaurants, they have a dress code that is sexually explicit and demeaning – high heels, low cut dresses, and short skirts? This dress code has nothing to do with doing one’s job and everything about titillating the male clientele. In other words, more bucks.

In a recent case where an employee’s feet were left bleeding after a training session that involved her wearing high heels, as stated in their dress code, the restaurant Joey’s went on the defensive arguing that it wasn’t actually their policy after being called out on social media. Meanwhile, the CBC obtained a copy of the training manual stating that female employees must wear 1” heels but no higher than 3”. This was a complete contradiction to their own statement (and manual) claiming the employee could wear flats or wedges.

Earls did agree to change their dress code policy after a recent CBC’s Marketplace investigation highlighting their sexist practice. Meanwhile, Joey didn’t, even though they are both owned by the Vancouver based Fuller family business. I honestly cannot fathom why the other chain restaurants have not fallen on their own swords, backed down from their outdated policies and apologized already. You can’t tell me that these forced dress codes can possibly be worth the boycotts and bad publicity, not to mention the many human rights complaints they are facing at the moment from former staff. I haven’t even touched on the rumour of their hiring practices, which if they are true are equally egregious and sexist.

A restaurant dystopia. A restaurant culture in the spirit of Mad Men, except without the irony.