Every week we comb through the news to find employment trends affecting the hospitality industry so you don’t have to. This week’s Hospitality in the News topic: supporting women in the restaurant industry.

Supporting Women in the Restaurant Industry

Women in the restaurant industry play a significant role, filling jobs from servers to chefs and owners, and are increasing their sphere of influence. Yet, they continue to face significant sexual harassment, wage disparity and discrimination.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, women made up a majority of the industry’s workforce, accounting for 56% of jobs in the industry, compared with 47% of jobs in the overall economy, according to the US Department Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Women have an ownership role in half of the country’s restaurants while 46% are in management positions, according to the BLS. And female-owned restaurant businesses were growing at a rate more than three times faster than the overall restaurant industry in recent years.

Women of all ages and in all stages of their careers find opportunities in the restaurant industry. About 61% of adult women have worked in a restaurant and some point in their life and 37% had their first job in a restaurant.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, now is an excellent time to highlight a few ways we can and should be supporting women in the restaurant industry year-round. Supporting women in small and large ways will ensure that they maintain and grow their important role in the industry.

Sexual harassment

One of the biggest issues facing women in the restaurant industry is sexual harassment. About 90% of women (and 70% of men) report experiencing some type of sexual harassment. Men make up a large portion of management and higher-paying roles while women are more likely in lower-paying roles, which creates a difference in power, according to Harvard Business Review. This creates an environment where harassment is tolerated, ignored or normalized because employees are fearful of confronting others.

Some ways to address this include:

  1. Implement and enforce sexual harassment policies. Restaurants must make it clear to all employees and managers that sexual harassment will not be allowed. Creating anti-sexual harassment policies is a good start, but procedures should also be established for filing complaints and the addressing of complaints. Personnel websites should include online forms for reporting sexual harassment to the human resources department. This is especially important if the harassment is coming from a manager who would normally handle the complaint. A “secret shopper” type of model could be used where human resource specialists make site visits and interviews employees, Harvard Business Review suggested.
  2. Provide management training on sexual harassment. Policies don’t mean anything if managers won’t implement them. They should be trained to recognize different forms of sexual harassment, understand the legal requirements and learn the steps to address complaints.
  3. Require employee training. All employees should take bystander intervention training so if they witness harassment, they know how to identify it and how to help the women experiencing it.
  4. Protect employees from harassment by customers. Restaurant culture supports the notion that the customer is always right. This means employees often face harassment and mistreatment from customers but say nothing, typically because a significant portion of their wage comes from tips. When they do speak up, managers often ignore it. Studies have shown that managers are more forgiving of sexual harassment from customers.

Restaurant policy should ensure managers protect their employees from unwanted behavior from customers, and it should mandate training on how to deal with such customers. Restaurants should also be more proactive in communicating with customers that harassment will not be tolerated. Harvard Business Review suggested posting a statement prohibiting sexual harassment of staff on menus, front doors, tables and other places where they have signs about the right to refuse service.

Family/work balance

Many women in any industry face the struggle of balancing family life with their careers. This is particularly true of the 24/7, 365 restaurant industry where shifts are long and frequently include late nights, weekends and holidays, when traditional childcare options aren’t usually available.

Surveys have shown that an overload of work and family responsibilities causes women to lose sleep or reduce their energy levels. It also leads to burnout, employees dissatisfaction, resentment and high turnover.

Some ways to support women in this regard include:

  1. Provide flexible work arrangements. This could mean adjusting hours of work and work schedules without penalizing the employee, or simply providing two consecutive days off to give a women in the restaurant industry the chance to recharge.
  2. Offer paid maternity leave and support women during their pregnancy. Faced with labor shortages post-pandemic, paid leave is becoming more common in the restaurant industry. Family or elder care leave increased from 2% of restaurants to 29%, according to an October 2021 survey by Black Box Intelligence.
  3. Offer work reintegration measures such as training, retraining and skills upgrading for women after leave periods (such as Family Medical Leave). These types of programs are offered in other fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics because of difficulties in retaining women in these fields following career breaks.
  4. Provide support for childcare. Women are often still the primary caregiver for children and can have difficulty finding childcare that matches the hours of a restaurant industry employee. Even if they can find childcare, the costs are staggering. The average American household with children under 5 spends 10% of monthly income on childcare. Childcare support could include providing financial assistance or help in locating available services.
Wage disparity/career advancement

Women in the restaurant industry on average make about $4,000 less than their male counterparts. They are concentrated in lower paying segments like quick-serve and they have difficulty accessing the highest-paying positions in the industry. Women are less likely to have management or ownership positions than men.

Some suggestions for addressing these issues include:

  1. Adopt a clear system for fair hiring and promotion practices. Have clear and explicit criteria and uniform tools for interviewing, protocols for current workers to find out about open positions and performance evaluations to encourage women to advance.
  2. Increase wages and benefits.
  3. Provide unconscious-bias training. This will ensure that bias doesn’t influence hiring and decisions on promotions.
  4. Encourage women at lower levels to work toward higher positions. Lack of confidence is a key factor that stops women from moving up. Men assume they are ready for a leadership role when they have 25% of the necessary skills but women think they need to reach 80%, studies show.

Having women in the restaurant industry (and every industry) is essential and should be treated as such. They need our support so they can enjoy a work environment free of harassment, that offers a balance between work life and family life and that pays a wage equal to that of their male counterparts. Some of these suggestions for support are significant, like wage increases, but even the smallest shifts in behavior can have ripple effects that make the industry more fair for the women who work in it. Even as Women’s History Month comes to an end, it’s important to remember to continue supporting women in the restaurant industry for as long as necessary.