Being a 19 year old female working in a pub can be a strange experience. And no, I’m not talking about a trendy bar in a city centre crawling with hipsters, or even a local that is frequented by ‘those’ types of students looking for real ale. My pub is a fairly typical, Northern affair – the kind you could comfortably refer to as an ‘old man’s’ pub. It has been my local ever since I have lived on the road around the corner – that is, my whole life. My parents are good friends with the current and previous landlords, and are known there by name, as are many of the regulars.
What makes my pub different to many other pubs in that it still has a vault, which used to be a male-only section of the pub. Nowadays, women can, and do go in, although it basically remains the men’s domain. And, perhaps predictably, it is in this vault that I experience the most trouble.
The role of the barmaid is such that male customers tend to simultaneously compliment and patronise you; simultaneously admire you and look down on you. The men who go into the vault that I’m talking about tend to see barmaids as one-dimensional cartoons, who are there solely to laugh at their rubbish jokes and flirt. These are the men who, when I was crossing the car park on my way home, shouted, ‘get in the van!’ at me; who shout crude comments about me while I’m serving other customers; and shouted ‘ooft, Jenny!’ at a female colleague of mine when she bent over to get something off the floor. I’ve no doubt that for some readers, this will remind them of street harassment, things that men shout out from cars and vans when walking down the street, and undoubtedly it’s the same flippant remarks that can leave you shaken. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the usual case of street harassment, those men are gone in a flash.
In a pub, the barmaid still has to serve these men, and smile at them. I’m sure many of you would advise me to speak up to my landlord – and I have after the worst instances – but usually these kinds of complaints would be met with, ‘That’s just something you have to deal with’ and/or, ‘It’s part of the job.’ Some people might imply that if I came to work in different clothing, or without make-up on, then this ‘part of the job’ might diminish slightly. But the fact of the matter is that, like with street harassment, it is not the clothes you are wearing or the shade of mascara you dare to flaunt that makes men shout at you: it is because you dare to be there.
Women have a strange relationship with pubs. In some ways, they are very much a female-dominated arena: most of the bar staff in my pub are women, and you only have to look at soap operas to see the ubiquitous ‘strong woman’ that rules the pub roost. Despite this, it still doesn’t feel as our positions are entirely comfortable, even when attending as customers – there are still assumptions that women will want a half pint and not a full one, for instance. My mum and her friend were delighted one evening that my friend on the bar assumed they wanted pints, not halves; yet another female customer looked shocked when I did the same thing – as if it was perfectly obvious she would want a half instead. A friend of mine at university says her mum has a pint, but has it in two half pint glasses. Why do women still feel like they have to act like the dainty, restrained customers when most of the men they come with show no such restraint? It’s as if they themselves still believe in the pub being a man’s domain, there to facilitate their after-work escape from the ‘old ball and chain’, and if we continue to believe it, then maybe it’ll stay that way.
It would be a lie to say that I don’t enjoy my work: most customers are kind and funny, if patronising and old-fashioned. There are situations that are patently not ideal – right down to the different glasses we serve to men and women – but in general, I have a good time. Perhaps that is enough, for now. And while I can’t speak for anywhere but my ‘old man’ pub on the corner, I’d be interested to hear if urban hipster bars have really moved on from these attitudes, or if they just conceal them better. Is it still, after all, a universal British truth that the watering hole is the stamping ground of the male?