Sexual harassment in hospitality: Where should we draw the line?

“The manager picked me up in front of all the staff in the restaurant and didn’t let me go until he unclasped my bra. Everyone laughed. No one did anything.” Kirsten McIntosh, a 21-year-old business student in Strathclyde University, recalls many more incidents like this one, while working in hospitality.

The fact that no one called him out for it makes me wonder the extent to which sexual harassment is so embedded in society that people are unable to identify the gravity of the problem.

Where should we draw the line between sexual harassment and overly friendly jokes? Is this comment just part of the work banter or should we complain? Drawing the line can be incredibly hard as sexual harassment becomes a routine, everyday experience for many women in the hospitality industry.

On the 17th of November, The Economist published an enlightening report showing what different people considered being sexual harassment.  The chart is based on age and gender, with the orange lines showing the female results and the blue lines showing the male results.          

There seems to be no clear consensus on some aspects, especially on making sexual jokes or looking at breasts. Nevertheless, many women do not stand up for themselves or complain since they are unsure of the definition of sexual misconducts. The fact that there are several different definitions for it accentuates the problem.

Sexual harassment is still trivialised and dismissed by the media, which explains why so many young girls are afraid of “exaggerating the issue” or “making a big deal out of a simple joke”.  

Tina Tokusheva, a fourth-year politics student at Strathclyde, says that she has grown to accept the inappropriate behaviour from managers and members of staff.

“Sexual harassment is accepted nowadays. I don’t feel uncomfortable anymore, I see it as men being men,” Tokusheva said. “I know it’s not right for me to feel that way though.”

Kerri, a Strathclyde student who doesn’t want her full name used, recently quit her waitressing job. The indecent remarks on her body and the unwanted physical contact from customers and members of staff were overwhelming.

Listening to McIntosh’s and Kerri’s experiences in hospitality makes me wonder how this type of behaviour can just be accepted.  

Kerri recalls customers pulling her skirt up and grabbing her ass. She also remembers another customer licking her boob when she was leaving food on his table. Surprisingly enough, Kerri’s unpleasant experience in hospitality doesn’t end here.

“I’ve had a supervisor stick their head between my boobs and say they wanted to fuck me,” Kerri said. “I’ve had the 80-year-old owner of the restaurant tell me I have an amazing figure and kiss my cheek.”  

McIntosh recounts similar stories about her experience working in Cosmo, a buffet in Silverburn. Her nickname in Cosmo was ‘Ms Squat’ since the manager told her she had to do squats to ‘have that body’.

The situation aggravates. The restaurant was quite spacious, so all the members of staff were required to wear earpieces, to communicate with each other. Every time her manager asked for her through the earpieces, he would address her as Ms Squat, instigating male members of staff to do the same.

“Once, I was walking past a row of table when the manager squeezed behind me and grazed my bum with his hand. He quickly apologized, saying it was an accident,” McIntosh said. “But then he looked me dead in the eyes and said: I actually did mean it.”

McIntosh’s former manager, as many other managers in hospitality can get away with this, knowing there will be no ramifications. They can always play the card of “it was only a joke.”

Many of the chefs and one member of staff tried to physically touch Ms. McIntosh and kiss her. When she rejected them, one co-worker threatened to get her fired, reminding her of his close relationship with the manager. McIntosh admits being too scared to stay for staff drinks.

The fact that so many young girls accept sexist and denigrating behaviour from men in their workplace shows how sexist attitudes and inequalities of power are still very much present in our society.

For centuries, women have been the passive recipient of actions perpetrated against them. Grammatically speaking, they have consistently been the subject of passive structures: they have been raped, harassed, assaulted, sexually attacked, or even stoned to death. Using the passive voice has a political effect, relocating the focus off men and onto women. However, despite some minimisation, young women should continue to speak out against sexual harassment and hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

By Laura Cortijo Martinez