Why It’s So Hard To Be A Woman Bartender

It’s a man’s world

by Marianne Eloise

Servers get treated like shit. All servers, regardless of their gender or position, get abuse hurled at them at some point. They do exhausting work to which people feel entitled and thus don't get requisite gratitude. But beyond the baseline level of disrespect that so many service workers receive, the mistreatment and harassment that female bartenders experience is particularly brutal and, more often than not, sexual in nature; in part, this is because bar environments encourage drinking and other behaviors that make abuse and assault less noticeable and sometimes even encourage it. In the eyes of the establishment, the desire to get the cash of sometimes dangerous regulars often overtakes the desire to protect female staff.

It’s hard for me to remember every single hurtful or dangerous thing that I experienced as a bartender, because after a certain point, it became normal, or at least expected. I came home every night exhausted, with yet more stories to tell of all the men who had called me a c***. That isn’t to say I didn’t have good times; I made some of my closest friends in the years I worked in the industry, and the solidarity with women I worked with is incomparable. But I was also left with indelible scars. 

One evening, when I was 19, I had to walk through a group of men while carrying a tray. My hands were entirely occupied; seeing this, one man felt up my entire body as I walked past, reaching to the front from behind, then sliding his hands down my entire back before grabbing my ass. I said, “Do not fucking touch me.” He laughed, and then went to my boss and reported me for swearing. Thankfully, my boss was furious and got the bouncer to throw him out. His friends told me he was just joking.

This kind of degradation is a daily occurrence for a female bartender, but most of us have experienced things that stick with us forever. I spoke to Sophie, who told me that when she was 18 and simply attempting to clean the tables at her bar, a man in his mid-40s said, "Here, I've got something you can wipe down," and unzipped his trousers in front of her. His friends just laughed.

I have seen women suffer a great deal of abuse at the hands of drunk customers. But it's not just the men in front of the bar who are a danger; I have also found my male coworkers to be just as threatening. The only difference is they can’t be kicked out. At one job, a coworker developed a crush on me which I initially brushed off. However, after a few weeks of inappropriate behavior, his "crush" culminated in a sexual assault that left me scarred. I went to work the next day devastated and told my boss. She told me there was nothing she could do and asked me whether I was sure I didn’t just have sex with him and regret it? He never even came back to pick up his wages, but I left shortly after, unable to face the people who had made me feel completely worthless.

I didn’t work again for a while, but I soon needed money. At a bar in a new city, another male coworker developed a crush on me. After my previous experience, I made it extremely clear that I wasn’t interested, but he texted me regularly anyway. On our shifts together, he would grab me, pick me up, say sexual things to me. When I asked him not to,or spoke to other male customers, he called me a bitch. I told my bosses, and they told me I was exaggerating, but then demoted me when he told them out of spite that I was behaving badly.

Cramming drunk men into a room and having girls serve them is a recipe for assault, and bars need to create an environment where the staff can feel safe. Many places have an unwritten policy of ignoring bad behavior, which only makes men feel as if they can continue behaving in an inappropriate way. When I was 19, a customer called me a bitch in front of everyone, including my boss. Nobody spoke up, and I was later told that he was a “valuable customer;” this was the simplest way ever of letting me know that I was disposable. I spoke to Sophie, who told me, “I've had coworkers turning a blind eye a lot, they'll tell me I'm overreacting. In the past, when I've told my manager about it, he's promised to do something and then bottled it up.”

The reasons for the continuation of this type of atmosphere are simple: No matter how drunk they are, it's the patrons who pay the bills and who are seen as less disposable than the staff. Beyond that, there need to be better systems in place for reporting harassment and for getting women home at the end of the night. I’ve had my body violated more times than I can count at work in bars, and I've been told over and over again that it's normal. This is not to say that there isn't support within these working environments: My female coworkers have laughed with me, they have cried with me, they have expressed their solidarity—but they have never been shocked. They have had their own stories to tell, and we need to do everything we can to change that.