The Vagenda

The Sexist Nightmare That is Being a “Barmaid”

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What a wonderful world we now live in. The death of the barmaid – or, at least, the terminology; it’s “bartender” now please, people – should really have put the nail in the coffin for all bar-based sexism. That’s wishful thinking. But at least a woman behind a bar these days is regarded as more than a Medieval, mead- furnishing service wench. Or is she? 

Whilst use of the term “barmaid” seems to have thankfully subsided, the attitudes it sprung from are as prevalent as ever. It’s not just leering drunks, either. Work as a “barmaid” for more than half a shift and you’ll realise some institutional sexism is at work.

After 12 years of working and eventually managing within the hospitality sector, I’ve become almost accustomed to the everyday nature of derogatory” banter”. ‘I’d like to speak to a manager, is he here?’ is a phrase barked at me on a fairly regular and predictable basis. I don’t mean to stereotype, but this request has yet to be made by a woman. I’ve started attaching a set of bulky keys to myself in a bid to combat any confusion, but in the hospitality industry, it’s not hard to see why every tradesman and delivery guy might confuse your vagina with a lack of managerial competency.

Women account for a large percentage of service industry workers, yet their management positions are often limited to that of head waitress or floor manager. In a pre-determined lad culture, the more senior roles are a male domain. I’m not claiming that all bars promote men; I’m simply stating that before my current working environment, I spent the previous 10 years working solely under men. We did have an occasion when a female general manager was drafted in for temporary cover. On her arrival the first question was: ‘would you bang her?’. The second: ‘how long until she cries?’ The answer: three days exactly. Not only did she feel the need to compensate for her sex by doing a Thatcher and being the biggest lad around, she also dished out more insults than the kitchen banter collective. However, on day three, when they’d finally ‘broken her’, I wondered into the stock room only to find her crying on a box and rightfully claiming: ‘they’re all pricks’.

The ego of the barman is one of my favoured irritations. I don’t see women flaring very often. Perhaps this is the sort of showmanship reserved for the confident bartender, who most likely didn’t need to be asked to smile. Perhaps female bartenders have just realised that it’s inefficient and unnecessary. Blame the men, or blame the women who throw their numbers at barmen more readily than they once threw their pants at Tom Jones. Personally, I blame the classic 1980’s film Cocktail for every bar ego that has manifested itself since. Either way, men flare, men set things on fire and then men strut around behind the bar, much to the delight of the adoring crowd and the irritation of the sultry female co-worker, who perhaps at this moment has just learnt that she’s a solid 7 and that someone ‘definitely would’. When it comes to promotion, perhaps the men are just more affable than their scorned counterparts.

When a male, or in particular a group of men enter a bar, they seem to have either all watched Coyote Ugly prior to leaving the house, or work under the general assumption that the bar ‘maids’ have agreed to enter a beauty contest. Comments I’ve faced from said males feature the nightly ‘smile love’ to the more inventive ‘I’ll have a pint, my friend wants a blow job’. Obviously we have the incidents that involve inappropriate touching, harassing and groping, even from those that we know.

But it’s the daily nature of said sexism that is the most damaging. Enduring the endless array of ‘banter’ and watching those around you endure it is enough to turn any confident bartender into a sultry wench. I’m regularly asked if the girl I’m working with has a boyfriend/sex drive/bra size/inviting vagina/problem, or if she’s a go-er/slut/frigid bitch (delete as inappropriate).

Whilst researching for this article, I asked some other female bar workers about the sexism that we endure with tedious regularity. The stories shared ranged from a fear of bending over and reminders of sexual assaults gone by, to the continuously highlighted issue of simply being ignored. It’s a truth not universally acknowledged that often when serving a man, he will choose to direct his more serious questioning to the nearest male bartender: ‘what time are you open ‘til mate/where’s good to go/what would you recommend?’

Arse slapping aside, another pressing concern was the lack of transportation provided by establishments when finishing work at 3am. Having just survived the onslaught, you’re left to either use your low wage to get home safely, or risk walking amongst the aforementioned males, hoping their ‘what I’d do to you’ claims were mainly for the amusement of their mates.

There is no escape. The perpetrators pay the wages and their custom is there to be retained. I can’t think of many other environments in which intoxicated leering men can stand or stagger for so long unchallenged. The transformation in regard to social norms and the degree of acceptance is astounding. In other customer facing roles, dealings with difficult customers are kept to a minimum, and any altercation of a sexist nature need not be tolerated. Sandwiched between the insults and the flaring barmen, it’s not hard to see why we can’t always muster service with a ‘smile love’.

Here’s a half apologetic truth: not all men are like this. In fact, the males who work alongside me wouldn’t dream of entering an establishment and behaving in the ways described above. They endure abuse from both sexes, but it’s the women who are immersed in a workplace culture that accepts sexist degradation as a norm. It forces you into forming very misleading notions of what your workplace should be and invites a gradual grinding down of confidence, both in yourself and in the public at large.

The ultimate irony amidst this sea of sexism is that due to low wages and lack of transportation provided, the women I work with face a dilemma: do they dress down to make their nights easier, or do they dress up, in a bid to generate tips (it works) and subsidise their taxis home, avoiding a 3am stroll? Particularly in that attire, they may just be “asking for it.”

- Joanna Highfield

23 thoughts on “The Sexist Nightmare That is Being a “Barmaid”

  1. This sounds all too familiar. I’ve worked bars for 3 years since I was 18 and even when I was that young was given responsibility to lock up the place on my own. The pub being a quiet one, I dreaded being alone there and customers walking in on their own, because the formula of harassment was too predictable. God forbid I turn around to pour spirits, lest some customers use it as a barely concealed opportunity to take notes on my bum. Once I was closing down in the evening with a few younger guys in the bar. One of them was really insistent on taking my number, quite drunk, and saying things like “I would literally kill for you” among other things, which was hardly conducive to making me feel safe. I can’t believe how long I put up with blatant sexual harassment for the sake of extra pocket money. I was expected to entertain, be jovial, indulge punters in their opinions, accept ‘compliments’, and generally fulfill the role of the ‘barmaid’, which quickly became tiresome and depressing. I now work at a bar where I feel confident (/hope) the managers would take any inappropriate customer comments or gestures seriously rather than just imply I should accept it as part and parcel of the job. Staff also all get taxis home on a close shift, which makes a huge difference.

  2. I loved this piece. After having spent 3 years working in High End Hospitality I know all too well the sexism that comes with it. If it isn’t leering lads at the bar, business men on a Friday lunch trying to cop a feel, its the misogynistic GM who tells you to wear a ‘sexier’ dress on a Saturday to generate more tips.
    I recall being told one shift, after a long day in the uni library completing a 4000 word essay then getting two buses and walking in the rain to work, my boss telling me ‘you look different, go and put some make-up on or don’t bother working your shift’. On another time I wore my hair in a bun and was told ‘don’t wear your hair like that again, we hired you when your hair was down. That’s how you have to have it’
    Yes my male colleagues could rock up to work with one eyebrow shaved off after a ‘dare with the lads’ and he’s get a slap on the back and a free pint after his shift.
    So happy that it is not only me here fighting to be heard in male dominant industry.

    • What a fucker. Telling you how you should look all the time. I’ve never heard such bollocks, put some makeup on or don’t work. Such idiocy we have to work under

  3. All of this is spot on. I could fill several books with the amount of sexist shit I had to ensure working in a bar.
    The worst for me was when a (male) manager was fired for stealing and I was asked to take on ‘supervisor’ responsibilites (basically his job but less money). They realised I was doing the job well but for half of the money so didn’t actually advertise the role of manager for about 6 months. When they did I was told by other staff and regulars that a woman couldn’t be manager because of working alone late at night and moving heavy deliveries – both of which I had been doing for the last 6 months. I left soon after that.

  4. ‘I’ll have a pint, my friend wants a blow job’.

    My answer to that will always be along the lines of ‘there’s a quiet corner over there, I won’t tell anyone what you guys get up to together. Go on then, give him what he wants’

  5. A strong, intelligent, independent, and confident person, no matter their gender, will not succumb to the opinions, banter, judgement, or ridicule of another individual, be bullied by political correctness, or fall into “society standards” simply because they already know who and what they are made of and do not need the acceptance of another to prove their worth. They value themselves simply because they are who they are. That is true empowerment and mastery over one’s destiny. I, myself, am The God of the arena that is my life. I also give respect and reverence to those women, who are themselves, Goddesses of their own lives. However, far too often do I witness in both genders, weakness and codependency and an overall lack of respect for one’s self for the flawed acceptance of another’s judgement and approval, be it positive or negative. The truth of the matter is you can only rely on yourself in this life. No one owes you anything regardless your gender, or any other trait you may possess, or lack for that matter. Life only has one guarantee, that you will eventually die. It is your choices, and how you account for the consequences of your choices, that shape your destiny. If you are a Master then be a Master. If you are a slave then be a slave. Do not try to be someone you are not. Do not blame others for your failings in life or for your feelings being hurt. Those were your choices that you made for yourself. Live with those consequences, be they positive or negative, but, stop playing the “victim” because in order to be a victim you must first victimize yourself before any other individual can do so; by allowing yourself to be vulnerable to any given situation, and therefore, losing mastery over yourself. If one gives into such behavior then they deserve to suffer whatever outcome is handed to them for their weakness and codependency. To become a God(dess) one must stand a Master to them-self, and not be upon bent knee to others. No one is ever worthy of such privilege, unless you first decide to give it to them. That is your choice to make. Do so at your own risk, but prepare to account in full, the consequences of such a choice, and you will be fully to blame.

    • You’ve been watching far too many movies.

      We all depend on each other. We are social beings. It’s the single most definitive festure of humanity, and the reason we have thrived as a species.

      You are not a god. You are a person who (apparently unwittingly) depends on the kindness and ability of others. As am I. As is everyone.
      The only reason that any of us can ‘be our own master’ is through a series of social adjustments in the last century in the west whereby people were given a much longer leash on liberties. In exactly zero societies were the rules such as you could decide to do what you wanted without reaching consensus with the group. It sounds archaic, but it’s why we organize to get things changed.
      You, as an individual, do not matter, and are ‘master’ of nothing. Least of all your own destiny.

      My point is that, although I see what you mean by owning up to your choices, this article is much more about the limits on those choices.
      “Wear a seductive outfit for the job for tips, or risk a walk home.”
      The problems put forth are not ones of nature overcoming a woman, or destiny, but of man overcoming woman. This is a social reality, a societal problem, and something flowery prose without any substance will do nothing to address.

    • WTF, InfernalStryfe? One of the most bizarre attempts at victim-blaming I’ve ever read. It doesn’t even follow on its own idiotic terms. It sounds like your view of life is derived entirely from some really bad self-help books, and has never developed with any reference to reality.

  6. Thank you for this.
    I remember the first time I shook two cocktail shakers at the same time and every male in the bar acted like I lifted a truck over my head. Its like time never progressed and men still don’t realize boobs and brains can exist simultaneously. I love the men I work with, don’t get me wrong, but I can tell they view me as an inferior sex object.

    The worst interactions happened quickly after I came out. I would have to argue my sexuality daily, always being told my dick lust would return repeatedly. It was like they were counting down the days for me to give up or something. Those conversations were just with my coworkers, who I sadly consider friends. The customers were a new level of disgusting.

    I had one guy ask me if I had ever fucked a guy, and could tell he was about to offer his services. I didn’t reply so he followed that up with asking me to explain lesbian sex in detail. He was completely belligerent, but really? REALLY??

    At some point I realized how much control I can have over the situation, and instead of being honest I just lead them on. I look at my job as one level under an escort, with the added challenge of ambidexterity…

  7. I worked in a bar over 20 years ago when I was studying but this has brought back so many memories. This particularly stands out: ‘When a male, or in particular a group of men enter a bar, they seem to have either all watched Coyote Ugly prior to leaving the house, or work under the general assumption that the bar ‘maids’ have agreed to enter a beauty contest.’ Now I remember why I hated working in the hospitality industry so much!

  8. This is the first time I’ve ever posted a comment on an article online. I am usually reluctant to do so because of the inevitable arguments that ensue. But in this case I just had to say something… you have so absolutely summed up everything I have been trying to articulate into an article myself. I am trying to change the small part of the industry that I can have an obvious affect on; my partner’s pub. I am extremely privileged to have been able to work with/for him and his father, because whenever a member of their staff tells them they have a problem, they listen to them. If men go too far and one of the female bartenders is uncomfortable then if we wish the owners of the business to intervene they will happily do so. If a female customer is inappropriate to a male bartender, the situation is the same. If someone is racist or discriminatory to a member of staff they are told, politely, to cut it out. If they refuse to do so or continually repeat the behaviour, they aren’t allowed to come back. We are so lucky, and this is only possible because we work in an independently owned Freehouse. If more establishments could adopt an ethos like that, it would really help. It’s not a perfect method and by all means we still have inappropriate behaviour and there are things that I, as a strident feminist (thanks Caitlin Moran!), would change which my partner and his father feel are appropriate and necessary for the business, but we are getting there.

    One man we kicked out for repeatedly being rude to female bartenders has a son who worked with one of the other members of staff here at a pensions company in the town. He emailed her (on her ‘day job’ works email address) to ask her why exactly his Dad had been banned because surely as barmaids we should just expect that men will banter with us and whether she could reverse the decision. She didn’t even know how to begin to respond, and decided that it would be unprofessional to do so on her work account and left the situation as it was. It just shows how ingrained this is; she wasn’t even working on the night that the decision to ban him was made but was expected to ask her boss to change it because it’s ‘just a bit of fun’.

    Prior to this job I worked in a 5* hotel as a waitress. When serving a pot of tea to a group of businessmen who regularly ate in the hotel restaurant (and therefore spend a lot of money in the establishment) as I leaned down to pour the tea one man felt it was appropriate to say ‘Ooooh, they’re nice’ in the direction of my breasts. His friends all laughed and I felt ashamed, guilty, disgusting, furious and devastated all at once. But not surprised. Surprise was the last thing I felt. I didn’t even bother to tell a senior member of staff because I felt I would be told that it was ‘my word against his’ or that they are ‘good paying customers’ and therefore must be entitled to make me feel inferior.

    Thank you for making me feel saner and less alone! Maybe one day people will read articles like this and protest in horror at the bizarre way some men treat women that they don’t know. I am still hopeful.

  9. Oh my god. All of this is so truthful. One time, a customer asked me to “get the bartender” because he thought I was just a lonely waitress standing behind the bar.

    The sexism from colleagues is even worse. How many times have I heard: “Ooh, what are you going to do with that cucumber??” *winkwink*

  10. I worked in a nightclub for years while at uni, in a city that had two universities. The club was really big and very popular and this whole article sounds all to familiar. I never could date any one while there for any period of time because I ended up hating all men having seen what the vast majority turn to when drunk, even though I know how ridiculous that is.

    What particularly shocked myself was when a female co-worker came to me outraged that she had been groped and my comments were how lucky she was to have worked there that long and for that to only just happen. The problem wasn’t the managers that were always on our side it was the bouncers, (all male ofcourse) who would ignore anything you told them about a costumers behavior, unless they were violent towards them, they would let them go back into the club.

    So women I have spoken to don’t think there is a need for feminism, let them work in a bar for long enough and that will change their minds.

  11. Yes, yes, yes. On one particularly bad night I had a crowd of suits in the bar I used to work in, what I’d describe as “part time drinkers”. They were getting a bit rowdy and laddish, and one of them knocked a full pint all over himself and then onto the table and floor beside him, smashing the glass in the process. I went over to start cleaning up the mess and sweeping up the broken glass and was asked “what are you going to do about this bit?” as he gestured to his now-beer-soaked crotch. I decided to ignore the subtext and politely directed him to the bathrooms and a hand dryer, at which point he grabbed my wrist and forced my hand into his crotch. His friends all sat there laughing, or at least until I got back up from security staff and chucked them out. I told my (male) manager what had happened later in the night and asked if he could be barred, and was told I was overreacting and the guy was “obviously just having a laugh”. To this day I still maintain that what that dude did was sexual assault, but it was brushed off as just one of those things that happens when you’re a girl in a bar.
    There was also a pretty horrific incident when I had brushed off a guy who had been hassling me for my phone number all night, eventually told him if he wouldn’t leave me alone I’d have him chucked out, and he grabbed me by the arm and bit me, broke the skin.
    There was also the time I had to call the police after a similar night (without biting, luckily) I had turfed a guy out of the pub for continually hassling me and another female staff member, asking for phone numbers, telling us all the ways he’d “destroy” us, asking us to “put on a show” for him etc etc, then after I finished locking up and left the building realised he had waited outside the back door of the bar for 4 HOURS for me to finish, grabbed me and shoved me against a wall. Utter, utter bullshit. Hospitality as a trade is much-maligned, and that’s bad enough, but when it’s downright unsafe for half its workers too, that’s just sad.

  12. I worked briefly in a city centre chain bar and it was an appalling experience. The male clientele seemed to have some weird sense of entitlement in terms being able to make sexual comments to me under the guise of ‘banter’. I really needed the money but I left after about 3 weeks as it made me profoundly uncomfortable.

  13. I completely identify with all of this… I’ve been working in hospitality for years and its frightening to think of all the behaviour you are required to ‘accept’. Out of work if someone grabbed my bum my gut reaction would be to lash out. At work its not so simple. Gritted teeth and complaining to my coworkers is about as good as it gets. Not to mention the casual sexist comments thrown around daily. By customers, that is, not staff. I actually enjoy my job for the most part. The issue is that women shouldn’t be subject to this unwanted attention. Regardless of job role.

  14. This is all too accurate, regarding both the inappropriate behavior and the lack of female management. The club I used to work in had absolutely no female management when I left and refused my very hard-working, capable friend a supervisor position based on the fact she isn’t ‘tough enough’. (She’s nearly 6 foot and will fight grown ass men for reference)
    I’ve heard too many stories about female bar staff being harassed by custom, from comments on their ‘tits’ to coming behind the bar to touch them up. The fact this is just accepted is a joke. It’s awful.

  15. Really interesting article. I only ever worked in bars for a few months (cafes are less threatening!) and remember one incident where one of the co-owners of the bar wanted me to pour him a Guinness. He insisted on showing me how to do it, and then proceeded to say ‘it’s like giving a blow job. Not that you’d know what that was like!’

    I was mortified, and stuck in that can’t win situation where anything you say is going to be mocked. What 50 year old man should be able to make remarks like that to anyone, let alone a 20 year old?!

  16. This is by no means limited to the hospitality industry.

    Between the ages of 16 and 18 I had a weekend job in a newsagents in a seaside tourist town, which opened really early in the morning when it was still dark. Many of the customers were tourists, who would leave their hotels to buy newspapers early in the morning. I was quite naive at that age, and can’t honestly say that I understood all of the comments made to me whilst I was working on my own in those early hours. The most frequent comment was “while you’re down there, love…” said to me multiple times on my shift by 40-60 year old men stopping by alone for an early morning paper – I would often be kneeling to restock shelves in-between customers. Another amusing “joke” for them would be to open up a copy of the newspaper they had bought to page three and deliberately show me the picture of the naked girl, either watching for a reaction or telling me “you’re much better” – or in one case, “you should give that a go, I’d buy it”. Some even liked to pick a porn mag off the top shelf to buy with their paper and make lewd jokes or tell me “this is between me and you, don’t let the wife know”. When I think that I was quite obviously 16 it makes me so mad for my younger self.

  17. The worst part for me was being mocked by my co-workers (both male and female) for daring to be offended when sexually harassed. A good friend of mine even said ‘I would take what I could get if I were you.’ She later explained that she meant she wished she got as many compliments on her tits as I did, which I’m not sure makes it any better. My boss once reprimanded me for not immediately forgiving and ‘having a laugh’ with a guy who wanted to apologise to me after I had called him out for his disgusting comments. It became exhausting to always be accused of being ‘too sensitive’ because I didn’t believe working as a bartender (which I loved, by the way) should include me changing my values and standards for how I should be treated. I only lasted about a year….

  18. personally, i would get at least double the tips each night than any of my male counterparts. for all the rubbish i put up with, i could double, sometimes triple my wage whilst the barmen would rejoice if they got a fiver.. it’s swings and roundabouts.

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