sexist dress codes in the restaurant industry
sexist dress codes
A Shoeless Joes employee (Image: @ShoelessJoesSpadina)

It’s not unusual to see females in the service industry dressed in low-cut tops, tight dresses and skirts. What’s unusual is the fact that, more than often, they’re not given any other options. Women in the restaurant industry are increasingly speaking out against sexist workwear, so why aren’t restaurants changing it?

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was first elected, he was asked about the gender parity of his office and he frankly (without pause) responded, “because it’s 2015.” It has become the resounding question and answer to a lot of things, which leaves folks puzzled. Case in point: sexist dress codes for women in the restaurant industry. Ah yes, just when you think, “but it’s 2015 2016,” cases like this happen.

You may not even think about or notice it, but many female employees at restaurants – fine dining or otherwise – are mandated by employers to wear skimpy clothing, heavy makeup or high heels as part of their mandatory dress code. While the uniforms may look “cute,” these marching orders create an unsafe work environment, day-in and day-out for women for a multitude of reasons. Last fall, two former servers at the Bier Markt in Toronto filed human rights complaints, after being fed up with harassment and undermining.  

“One man asked me if my carpet matched the drapes in front of what I thought was his female companion… Another man asked how much he had to pay me to sleep with him.”

Beth A., a server from Toronto who has worked in a variety of beer bars chatted with me about her experiences, telling me, “having a sexualized uniform can contribute to making you feel physically and psychologically uncomfortable for being put on display in that manner.” At her workplace, she was forced to wear a short kilt. You can only guess that her male co-workers were not expected to wear the same thing. Throughout her tenureship at one beer bar, Beth explains to me that she experienced several types of sexual harassment that varied from gross and inappropriate (“one man asked me if my carpet matched the drapes in front of what I thought was his female companion”) to downright scary (“another man asked how much he had to pay me to sleep with him”). And we wonder why some women feel unsafe working in the restaurant industry. 

For many, being told to find work elsewhere just because they don’t like the dress code policy isn’t an option. In Beth’s case, she tells me “I didn’t have the luxury of just working somewhere else as I had been looking for a job for three months prior.” As of February, the unemployment rate hit 7.3%, a first in three years, with the service industry losing 44,500 positions. It’s a fairly privileged statement and continues to demonstrate how the industry often makes women choose between making money to survive and their right to wear clothing that makes them feel safe and protected. Why do men get this right and not women?

The industry often makes women choose between making money to live and their right to wear clothes that make them feel safe and protected.

In March of 2016, the Globe and Mail released a piece on how Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit, membership-based organization, has remained mum and quiet on the issue of sexist dress codes even though it should be in their best interest. This issue affects their membership and is an issue they should be championing to do something about, alongside the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. So why haven’t they done anything? For starters, there is no gender parity in the committee. Their entire executive committee and board of directors is made of men who own some of the largest chains being called into question for these human rights violations – where are the unbiased opinions? Finally, Donna Dooher, CEO of Restaurants Canada has been called out previously by former line cook and Toronto food writer, Ivy Knight, for ignoring allegations of physical abuse in the restaurant. It doesn’t sound like Restaurants Canada is the best champion for women, let alone the everyday restaurant worker.

Beth tells me that “You will still get harassed no matter what you wear. Basically when misogynists dine out, they are total assholes.” But the fact remains, we need to do something to try and make women feel safe in the workplace. Whether it’s defending their honour in sticky situations to deter future harassment or providing non-gendered work wear, we need to ensure more regulations are in place that continue to allow women to feel safe in their chosen industry.

RELATED LINK: Professional Feminism: Social Movements Just Got Trendy

What are your thoughts on sexist dress codes in the restaurant industry? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.