by Jessica Knowler 

I feel a deep connection to the service industry, having worked as a server on and off for over five years at various types of establishments, ranging from cafés to gastro-pubs, and most recently a farm-to-table restaurant. Despite many positive experiences working as a server—a position that has afforded me the opportunity to attend post-secondary school, live independently, and travel—I have also dealt with the gender and sexual discrimination that is entrenched and normalized in the restaurant workplace. Whenever I meet young women, I frequently learn that they have also worked in the service industry at some point in their lives, and our stories of the all-too-commonplace gender discrimination are often an immediate point of connection and solidarity. These social interactions wherein other young women recount similar experiences to my own confirm that experiences of sexism and misogyny in the service industry are not unique or individualized. Their common occurrence reminds me of the importance of exposing such discrimination in order to put a stop to exploitative labour practices.

This article investigates the disturbing over-representation of self-identified female youth in front-of-house positions, and the ways in which the food service industry intensifies and reproduces gender inequality in the workforce. The degradation that servers experience in restaurants, cafés, clubs, and bars leaves young women at risk in the labour force. The service industry is caught in the overlapping structures of an increasingly neoliberal economic logic and an ingrained patriarchal culture. Oppression in serving occurs in two mutually reinforcing ways: Regulatory bodies and employers alike are indifferent to the labour standards that should ensure a safe and equitable work environment, and sexist industry practices are supported by the gendered performance of service.

Through anecdotal accounts and a feminist theoretical framework, I will demonstrate and critique the discriminatory and exploitative practices that lead to precarious labour for young women in Canada, whose viable financial options for employment are disproportionately limited to service positions. I aim to dispel the common justifications within public discourse for sexist behaviours and practices in the serving workplace—most significantly concerning the convention of tipping.

To begin, I recount the experience of gender discrimination in bars and restaurants where sexism is foundational to service and explain how these pervasive practices can follow you from job to job. I also discuss how difficult it can be to stand up to abuse, especially when regulatory bodies do not hold employers accountable, and when payment is dependent on friendly obliging service. Lastly, I describe the abuse from customers that young women often take the brunt of, even when they are in positions of authority.


In their study of women’s work, Canadian scholars Pat and Hugh Armstrong outline the traditional breadwinner/caretaker model, a gendered family dynamic that undervalues and conceals women’s work as caretakers in Canadian labour markets. Sales and service industries reproduce the breadwinner/caretaker model by underpaying, overworking, and asking workers to make themselves invisible until they are needed. A Statistics Canada report from 2009 shows that service remains one of the top five industries that employ women in Canada. When considering the prominence of young women in the service industry, it is crucial to remember that most service workers earn close to or below minimum wage. These are instances of what Armstrong calls “institutional and social arrangements,” which reveal the established gender order of Canada’s labour market, perpetuate systemic discrimination in the paid workforce, and make young women more vulnerable to economic downturns.

Feminist political economy scholar Leah F. Vosko identifies precarious labour as exhibiting high levels of insecurity, weak employment contracts, part-time/casual/temporary work, and minimum-wage work that usually includes “limited social benefits and statutory entitlements.” Those who assert the gender-neutrality of Canadian economic and labour policies—policies that support deregulation and increase the precarity of the labour market—ignore the substantively unequal effects these working conditions have upon women and other marginalized, equity-seeking groups. Jobs in sales and service industries are typically unregulated and often go without basic benefits and protections; the restaurant industry is particularly useful when exemplifying this precarity at work.

For young people in the industry, serving is an opportunity to work in fun, social environments alongside your peers and can involve flexible hours that are enviable when scheduling around classes or other jobs. However, the reverse is also true, because “fun” environments can also turn into ones fraught with substance abuse, and “flexible” hours can mean not being able to rely on a set number of work hours. Many of us who work in the food service industry have experienced precarious conditions, including but not limited to unstable and unguaranteed hours of work, rare opportunities for collective bargaining, and the consequent lack of social benefits or entitlements. Other normalized (but often illegal) practices include discriminatory hiring/firing/promotion of workers, forbidding workers from taking breaks during shifts, and failing to fairly compensate over-time work for both daily and weekly hours. Another common and illegal practice is when employers demand that servers make obligatory contributions to a “dine-and-dash” insurance fund. Some restaurant owners even expect their servers to cover the entirety of an unpaid bill. In many provinces across Canada, this type of deduction from earnings is illegal, yet it continues unabated.

Meanwhile, the convention of tipping, a practice that allows most servers to bridge the minimum-wage gap, makes restaurant workers even more vulnerable to poor working conditions. Tips are problematic because they tie the server’s wages to the restaurant’s success, the justification being that the quality of service will be better if a portion of the server’s earnings is dependent upon customer satisfaction and retention. When an employee’s wage is supplemented by her tips, however, she is more likely to be taken advantage of by the employer: being called in to work at random is permitted, as is being sent home early without proper compensation when customers don’t show up. It’s clear, moreover, that tipping cannot make up for the difference in income between unstable part-time work in the service industry and the regular full-time labour available to young men—especially in the construction or resource-extraction industries from which women are largely excluded. As a result, the industry’s flexible hours and labour regulations only subject workers to further financial insecurity and, in my own and other servers’ experiences, gender discrimination.

The unregulated nature of the restaurant industry in its current form allows institutionalized precarity to be further reproduced through sexist and outright misogynistic behaviour. Ashley, who held a managerial position at a restaurant in Alberta, was encouraged by the male owner to hire “ugly girls, because they worked harder,” as well as fire female (but never male) employees for being involved in work relationships or for defending themselves against rude customers. The owner, who was notoriously ill tempered and verbally abusive, would regularly, and often arbitrarily, fire staff without proper notice or compensation in a publically humiliating and aggressive manner. When female staff made complaints about their working conditions or mistreatment from customers, the owner chalked up the problem to female “hysteria” and instructed Ashley to either ignore or fire them. While male employees were sometimes fired, Ashley observed favourable treatment towards the young men who worked there, especially when it came to promoting employees to supervising and bartending positions.

The owner also had a habit of making illegal deductions from employee paychecks. In the owner’s words, these deductions, which are illegal according to Alberta employment standards, were needed to “cover cash-out discrepancies.” The provincial labour laws clearly state that this practice is illegal, “even if [employers] have the employee personally authorize the deduction in writing.” When several of the current and former employees wrote to Alberta Employment Standards, outlining the very obvious and traceable illegal deductions within a period of roughly one month, nothing was done. No fines, compensation, investigations, or audits occurred.

When those who are supposed to administer the already inadequate standards and rules fail to take action, employers have limited accountability, leaving employees of restaurants—and, in this case, the female manager—with little to no control over their own labour.


Due to the unstable financial nature of serving work, workers often hesitate to complain about unfair working conditions to employers or regulatory bodies, such as the ministry of labour. They rightly fear that whistle blowing may cost them their job. I experienced this vulnerability while working simultaneous part-time jobs at a café and a restaurant. The male employer of the café, Frank, encouraged me to find a second job because he couldn’t offer me full-time hours. Like many of my co-workers at the café, I applied to other restaurants and was hired at a local establishment within the same community.

After a few weeks of working both jobs, my friend Janine, who also worked at Frank’s café, informed me that all employees were being secretly recorded behind the counter without their knowledge or permission. This type of undisclosed audio recording of employees, intended to monitor general behaviour, violates the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, regulated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and is potentially prosecutable under the Criminal Code. Frank admitted that the recording existed to Janine. When she told him it was illegal, he threatened to fire her. He then told her that he found out about my second employment through the recordings and was furious about it, rescinding his earlier suggestion that I find another job. He instructed Janine to fire me on his behalf because I was “working for the competition.” What made this even more malicious was that Janine, my friend, was forced to deliver the message, even though she had never had a supervisory role or firing privileges.

After I left the café, Frank made gendered discriminatory remarks concerning his hiring practices to Janine, which included his exclusive hiring of “pretty girls” because they “sold more.” He conceded that attractiveness was not a consideration when hiring men. His treatment of female employees was also erratic; he once fired a female employee for not showing up to a shift that she wasn’t scheduled for—and then demanded that Janine cover for her.  But when Frank caught the male night-manager stealing, he decided to let him keep his job. After two years of employment at the café, Janine now concludes that Frank’s hiring and firing appeared to have specific ties to an employee’s gender.

The situation escalated further when the manager at my second restaurant job told me that Frank was sharing recordings of me at the café with my new employer, Dan, in an attempt to get me fired—again, an illegal act and potentially a criminal offence. I struggled to decide whether I should file a complaint with the Privacy Commission. Unable to do so anonymously and unsure of how Dan would react, I decided against it, out of fear that I would lose my new job.

Considering my employment was still within the institutionalized probationary period (employers can fire you without proper notice for up to three months), I was left in a powerless position. Going ahead with the complaint would have meant me having to search for new employment and forfeiting full-time hours, good relationships with co-workers, the possibility of a good reference, and the coveted experience of working at a busy and local establishment. Servers and bartenders vied for positions at this restaurant because the atmosphere and dress code were more casual and less overtly sexualized than at many other local establishments. Further, the potential for tips was also relatively high for local industry norms—another draw, since this was at a time when I was paying off my student loan.

Given that Frank’s plans to illegally contact Dan to try to convince him to fire me, it stands to reason that I could have been shunned from the industry altogether if I had decided to go through with the complaint—with very real consequences for my financial future. I would have had to risk my reputation as a trustworthy and valuable asset to the café and could have forever been known as someone disinterested in the success of the business as a whole. Because I already had full-time employment, searching for new employment where I knew the pay would be less than what I stood to make in tips at Dan’s restaurant seemed impractical. It is for these reasons and strong external pressures that I chose to keep my second job at Dan’s restaurant and not make a formal complaint.


Since tips are a worker’s bread and butter in the restaurant business, performance is arguably the most important aspect of serving. A server’s financial stability relies on the customers’ view of what is acceptable or good service, and these perceptions are often imbued with patriarchal assumptions about young women. Tipping relies on the customer’s perception of the employee’s ability to serve in a manner that is personable and efficient. The customers’ expectations, however, are inextricably tied to a server’s successful adoption of the gendered norms of service. Recent policy changes that have decreased the minimum wage for those who serve alcohol forces servers to be even more dependent on tips, once again exemplifying how insufficient labour standards disproportionately affect women, both socially and economically. As a server’s hourly wage decreases, her reliance upon tips becomes greater; the service worker’s livelihood becomes more dependent on customer satisfaction than when she was making minimum wage. Consequently, young women, who make up the greater share of this targeted group, become increasingly vulnerable to the pressures to cater to expectations regarding appearance and behaviour in the workplace. This allows for a scenario where restaurant employers are profiting from the institutionalized exploitation of feminized gender performance.

Lower wages and poor working conditions are invariably justified through the convention of tipping. Bars and nightclubs are where young women are most visibly exploited by this practice. The financial pressure to appeal to gendered expectations of female service workers appears in these environments in both direct and insidious ways. During a summer break between school semesters, Melissa worked as a shooter girl at a local nightclub in a small Ontario city. This establishment had a promotional team called the “Party Patrol,” which required shooter girls to walk down the street before the nightclub opened, wearing revealing clothing and handing out drink coupons to primarily young men. The women were expected to flirt with the men in order to generate business for the bar, a strategy that hinged on the possibility of male clients hanging out with the Party Patrollers in the nightclub that evening. Melissa explained that shooter girls were obligated to dress up in a fashion that perpetuated a glossed and glittered version of sexiness. She credited a fellow Party Patroller’s tips to her extensive grooming and accessorizing routine that included butt pads, breast pads, and fake eyelashes.

(To be clear, I have no intention of shaming young women for how they choose to dress, accessorize, or act both publically and privately. I simply want to elucidate the role gender performance plays in an industry where young women depend on tips to supplement their wages.)

Melissa explained that Party Patrollers experienced humiliating and sexualized verbal abuse on the street, which would sometimes continue in the club at night. Occasionally, there were actual threats of harm or violence from young male customers, who would frequently wait after hours for female staff members to finish working and threaten to follow them home. Policies were, however, set in place by the female nightclub manager to try to ensure the safety of the young women who worked there. Safety precautions included a zero-tolerance policy on harassment and abuse inside the establishment (the female workers could ask bouncers to escort inappropriate customers from the premises), and an after-work buddy system ensured that the servers would get home safely.

Despite the challenges of harassment, Melissa admitted that the main reason for working the Party Patrol was the twenty dollars an hour wage. While she conceded that the work at the nightclub involved the voluntary sexualization of her body, she clarified that the good pay, the staff solidarity, and comforting sense of community (informed by her female manager who was once herself a shooter girl) was reason enough at the time to stay.

Jill, another service worker, was also made aware of the pressures to participate in sexist social relations when seeking employment in the restaurant industry, where similar expectations manifested themselves in nebulous ways. Jill’s story exemplifies, yet again, the restaurant industry’s tendency to exploit women’s sexuality in order to capitalize on the exchange of service for money.

During a job interview at a “family-oriented” restaurant, a male hiring manager did nothing to engage Jill in conversation except to ask about the things she enjoyed doing in her spare time. His disinterest in her past work experience was accompanied by an unsettling, surveying gaze of her body. She was then told to, “Go home and put on something tight and black,” and return to the restaurant that evening for a shift, without considering her availability or questioning her want of the job.

Jill did not show up for the shift. Instead, she went to a job interview at another restaurant, where she made clear that she did not want to wear tight or revealing clothes at work. Pleased that the owner seemed respectful of her wishes, she decided to mention the other restaurant that had expected her to dress provocatively. As it turned out, the restaurants shared an owner and the inappropriate hiring manager from the first interview was reprimanded for his behaviour. Jill, however, was still taken to task for whistleblowing. The young female serving staff from the first restaurant began to verbally harass her, sending mean texts and showing up at the new restaurant to bully her for her actions. Jill was left feeling humiliated and unnerved by the public shaming; she was ostracized simply because she had refused to accept employment from someone who treated women like physical objects. Jill went on to explain to me that the gendered treatment of servers was still commonplace in her new workplace, where customers continued to employ hyper-sexualized language and her male co-workers would needlessly touch her back.

The pressure to accept and participate in such gendered interactions is very strong in front-of-house labour, and women often experience a double-bind when negotiating harassment in the workplace. Condemning objectifying behaviour can mean being snubbed by co-workers, forfeiting tables and tips, and even being fired. On the other hand, participation can be viewed as condoning and possibly encouraging hyper-sexualized and sometimes inappropriate behaviours that put female workers at risk. The social pressure to maintain positive relationships with co-workers through participation in the sexualized work environment is often overwhelming. To refuse to engage on this level with the staff can lead to alienation in the work place, or as seen in Jill’s case, hostility among co-workers.

Even those working in the most sought-after positions in the restaurant industry are not free of outright gender discrimination and sexist behaviour from customers or employers. My most recent service job was at a farm-to-table restaurant that uses seasonal and ethical ingredients and sells an extensive selection of craft beers, cocktails, and whiskeys. I held the sole full-time server position at the establishment. Because I had worked with the owners of another restaurant with a similarly extensive list, I know that my product knowledge played a significant role in my hiring. Despite my experience curating wine and beer lists, there were many instances when older male customers would ask me whether I knew, or would care to learn, anything about the beer list. One particularly memorable incident involved a gentleman proclaiming that because I was a “girl”—ignoring the fact that I am actually an adult woman—I probably couldn’t tell him anything about the beers. I assured him I could speak about any of the beers on the list, but I was still forced to put up with harassing comments about my gender and supposed lack of ability for the remainder of the evening.

On another night at the same establishment, a male customer screamed and cursed at me because he thought his Cornish game hen was too big to actually be a Cornish game hen. I calmly assured him that it was indeed a hen, offered to bring him something else free of charge if he was displeased with its quality, and made clear that he was welcome to speak to the kitchen staff about the issue. The male busser didn’t escape the customer’s wrath and was also aggressively asked if it looked like a Cornish game hen. The customer’s language, more strongly worded towards me, subsequently included, “DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A F*@#ING CORNISH GAME HEN TO YOU?” He was considerably more polite (his language curse-free) to the male kitchen staff who showed him some packaging to resolve his doubt. Because I was a new employee and the owner was not there to intervene in the situation, I continued to serve the man until he and his partner finished and removed the item from the bill. I kept working for the remainder of the evening even though I was emotionally shaken. I was fortunate enough to have support from the owners after they learned about the event.

Though I had executive decision-making duties while on-shift, customers often questioned my authority, believing that the male bussers were the owners of the restaurant. I knew that this distinction—that I was somehow subordinate to the male employees—was determined by my gender.

From the nightclub to the farm-to-table restaurant, customers and employers negatively influence women’s roles in the service industry. Instances of gender discrimination and exploitation, like those depicted above, can be both explicit and amorphous, but are undoubtedly sustained by patriarchal norms and an abusive system of exchange justified by and reliant on the practice of tipping. For those of us who continue to work in the industry, resistance to discriminatory, abusive, and illegal practices is crucial if we are to demand better working conditions.


Nearly everyone who contributed a story to this article has moved on to more desirable employment with union support or public funding in respectable and non-abusive environments. All of us realize that we are privileged to have had the opportunity to do so. While some facets of our new work are still “precarious,” many women working in the service industry will not be afforded the same opportunity to secure employment with basic workplace protection and regulations.

Although pervasive patriarchal attitudes are difficult to dispel in the industry, there are ways that service work could be improved to reduce the discrimination, exploitation, and victimization of women who work front-of-house jobs. For instance, it is imperative that the government takes action to enforce the existing labour laws. While processes exist for employees to make complaints about their employers, there is little evidence that these regulations actually protect workers from abuse. In fact, these measures often discourage positive or empowering action from those most in need of labour protection. These laws must enable employees to speak up about gender discrimination in the workplace.

Ultimately, women working in the service industry need to have access to the same job security and protection made available to men working in manual labour or in the natural resource extraction industry. It is inexcusable that tipping continues to allow for abusive and precarious work environments. Tipping should not preclude an equitable and safe workplace. While the stories in this article expose the pervasiveness of sexist and misogynistic attitudes in the serving industry, more work needs to be done to expose them for what they are—unacceptable and oppressive labour practices. Labour boards across Canada have an obligation to protect precarious workers, but we all share a responsibility to resist the social and economic relations that make these kinds of inherently sexist work environments possible. A positive shift in this direction will contribute greatly to improving conditions for women in the service industry and in the Canadian workforce more generally. ♦

“Cashing Out” is from our spring 2014 issue, Women’s Work


My experiences and those of my interviewees are a limited sub-sample from young women who work in front-of-house service positions and from young Canadian women more generally. There are certain privileges that are afforded to us on account of occupying middle-class, white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied positionalities alongside the circumstances of having citizenship, post-secondary educations, and no dependents. Further intersectional analysis should be carried out because there are other marginalized subjectivities within food service labour whose mistreatment needs to be exposed, accounted for, and resisted. The treatment of immigrant workers in kitchens can be especially grievous and unregulated, and I have myself witnessed racist and illegal acts—however, keeping in mind my own positionality, I do not think that I can or should begin to speak on behalf of those workers.
This Statistics Canada report from 2009 was based on their Labour Force Survey.
I have changed the names of all interviewees and will not be including the names of the establishments that are discussed in order to prevent backlash from former employers who may still be references.
Again, in no way do I want to perpetuate victim-blaming, slut-shaming or limiting/misandrist understandings of male sexuality through this article, because it is my feminist-informed belief that those attitudes are grounded in an oppressive patriarchal cultural schema. Instead, I merely wish to recount the anecdotes that I believe demonstrate the exploitative and repressive consequences of gender performance in the service environment.


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