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