Women Are The (Better) Future Of The Hospitality Industry. But Right Now, They’re Suffering

What if the loss of our labor force in the hospitality industry is more skewed than we think it is? What if we have lost more women in the industry than men? We know that sitting at home finally getting a break from one of the most physically exhausting and mentally degrading jobs in the country will make you reevaluate your life and where you want to spend your time. But I imagine for women, that evaluation was even more intense.

Women are the underdogs of most industries; we get paid less, we get fewer benefits, we don’t get allowances for choices we make or the choices our bodies make for us because we are women, i.e., menstruation-related issues, pregnancy and motherhood. Why would we want to reenter an industry wrought with misogyny, physical, sexual and verbal abuse, all to make less money with a fraction of the respect our male counterparts get? Surely this industry isn’t still sexist, you must be thinking to yourself. Isn’t it 2022? The future? Equal pay for equal work, isn’t that fair? Isn’t that what is happening? Maybe this is what you imagine is happening. Well, it just isn’t. Even though I myself am a woman, in the hospitality industry, who owns a bar and a cafe, and I have children and have plenty of opinions and stories about my own experiences, I decided I wanted to hear from other women in the industry. I created a survey of 10 questions and sent it off into the digital ether, and within 48 hours had responses that frankly left me feeling angry, flabbergasted, tearful, and also, hopeful.

Olivia Rose Griffin is the owner of The Limbo and Riot Cafe.

All of the women who took the survey have been or had been in hospitality between 10-35 years: 100% of the women have experienced sexual harassment by managers or coworkers as well as patrons; some answered casually that sexual harassment is just part of the job, whereas others had to endure stalking, had to make up fake boyfriends and even continued to take more damaging sexual and physical abuse just to keep their jobs. A resounding theme that arose from the survey (that I did not even have a specific question for) was that a majority of them have been expected to do more or do better than their male counterparts. While they may be getting paid the same, the expectations of the individuals are different. One woman responded that often women will take up more responsibilities and be given pet names like “bar mom” instead of actually just getting compensated for the extra work.

Almost all of the women said they have been promoted at least once (which is not surprising given my own track record of promoting almost every woman I have hired in the past four years), but the promotion either didn’t come with a pay increase, or the pay increase did not match the responsibility increase.

All of the women have never been offered paid maternity leave or child care assistance; one woman said that because child care is so expensive, every time she had a child she would stay home until they were old enough for school, which left big gaps in her employment history, and thus each time made it harder for her to get a job.

Here’s the biggest problem: with all of these terrible job conditions, 100% of the surveyed women have not felt comfortable openly communicating with their managers or owners (majority being male) for fear of losing their jobs, losing good shifts or even being physically assaulted. No wonder it feels like the hospitality industry is still stuck in a pre-women’s rights era. How can anything change if women feel like their voices won’t be heard, or in their own words “swept under a rug,”  and they just never complained because it was “part of the industry?” Male managers want people who “won’t cause waves” or “get hysterical.” A lot of these women wish there was a mediator, or HR department, but in some cases that isn’t always a good enough solution.

A lot of these women have left the industry now, they’ve stopped serving or bartending or cooking to move to a field where women are respected more, not abused, and are generally viewed as better than men in those fields: namely real estate, nursing, corporate management, social media and even picking purchases at an Amazon warehouse. All of these careers offer women much more than the hospitality industry without slugging it out against their glorified male counterparts.

Where does this leave us? As a bar and cafe owner flailing amongst the ruin the pandemic has brought upon us, I and many other owners and managers, need more staff. And not just anyone — we need reliable, trained, good people who are loyal and who will stick with us. And guess what: in my entire track record of running my two businesses, the people who are most loyal, most reliable, most capable of management, and best at multitasking, are women.

We need to be hiring more women in positions of power in the industry and giving them exactly what they are asking for and deserve: more money, more benefits, paid sick and family leave and paid vacation time. Do you know what most women want in a hospitality work environment even more than all of those things? They want to work around other women, NOT men, because they are sick of being talked down to, mansplained. They are tired of hearing the disgusting jokes and gross giggles of line cooks and chefs. They are exhausted by customers buying them shots and drinks and getting some kind of leeway to “acceptably” make advances, both verbal and physical.

Women know in their hearts they are not dispensable yet get treated as such by their male managers and owners. And if you’re a guy, and your immediate response is, “But not me!” “I’m not like that,”  it’s also likely you might not be part of actively solving these problems, changing the dialogue, and changing the culture, because you are in the position of power and these issues are still rampant. Women are so exhausted of being looked over for the promotion to beverage director or hospitality director or head chef.

They often like consistency and they like order, they like staying with a place they love and are loyal to, and will stay longer than they should without the pay or position they want and deserve. Most of them weren’t initially in it for the money, but if they land the right position, the golden handcuffs chain them to a hostile and toxic work environment that drags down their mental and physical health.

This must not continue. This is our plea, especially to the men who own and manage: Seek out and hire women in your restaurants and bars and cafes. If they need training or teaching, teach them or train them over hiring a man whose resume will most likely be more robust. And take it a step further: seek out and hire women of color to front of house positions. Teach them and train them without mansplaining. Women are the heart of the home. I guarantee from personal experience, all of the strong women I have ever hired have become the glow of the fire that is the business. Customers gravitate to them and come back.

Women develop the most loyal following of people because they come in and feel at home. Do the work. Be better. Hire better, hire harder. Don’t take the easy route.

Create diversity in your workplace. Make your workplace safer and more accepting. Create a culture centered around open communication. If you make this space, then you will automatically expand your customer base to people who previously didn’t feel comfortable ordering and interacting with your all-white male staff, namely, women and women of color. One woman responded to my survey that she was looked over as beverage director even though she had been somewhere for three years because she felt she was discriminated against because she was Black. Her ask of future employers: racial equality in leadership positions. Invest in your female employees: pay for them to learn and travel and grow. It will come back to you tenfold, if not in revenue, then in peace of mind.

We need to attract new people to our industry, and in my opinion we need to attract women back to it, and in order to do that, we need to make it worth it, and build a picture of a future in hospitality that appeals to the very people who have been most downtrodden by it. The top things that these women are asking for in this industry: better hourly and equal pay proportional to the amount of work and responsibility, paid maternity leave and child care support, health insurance, leadership positions and zero tolerance for bullying, sexual or physical harassment. These are things that should be basic human rights. These are things that should have been given over when we first demanded them so vocally in the 1920s. These are still things that most of these women don’t have currently, in 2022!

A small handful of the women I surveyed are now the owners of their own businesses. They gave me hope. They are individually within their own workplace culture changing the standards of the hospitality industry for women.

Sara Wood, owner of Girlsgirlsgirls Burritos in Lexington, wrote, “I now provide PTO (sick or vacation) to my current hospitality employees. We provide vegetarian shift meals, kids meals /elderly meals for any employee responsible for child / elderly care.” This right here, this is the future. All of the responses have made me evaluate what more I can do to create an even more supportive environment for my female employees. It will ultimately be us, the female owners and managers, who will start the clear-cut cultural shifts and environmental and monetary improvements to the hospitality industry for women. We must start this trend, and I believe, and know from experience, that it can be done even on the smallest budgets. Money can be shifted and rethought. Budgets can shrink in some departments and grow in order to help provide a better quality of life for the best assets you have in your restaurant: your employees. Food coming from the heart to connect with other human beings is what most of these women said they love about working in this industry. This starts with women, and it needs to get better, and better fast, starting with female owners and managers and the men will, eventually, follow suit. The [better] future of hospitality is female.

Olivia Rose Griffin is the owner of The Limbo, Riot Cafe and The Mysterious Rack.

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