Catcalls & Cleavage

New fun thing! My husband, the lovely T. Cole Newton, also writes about his business--a killer cocktail dive bar in NOLA called Twelve Mile Limit. After I shared this viral post from Indiana pub owner Jordan Gleason on the objectification of women in the service industry, we decided to each write on it from our perspective in our respective industries. I’ll go first.

Lelia's Reflections

As I was talking about this post with a female friend, we got cat called by a man in a large white van with heavily tinted windows. Irony and car creep factor aside, it perfectly represented the distracting emotional work women are constantly dealing with about their appearances and sexuality.  

Seriously? I can’t even chat with a girlfriend about the objectification of women without getting objectified?

Part of the reason Jordan’s post has nearly 40,000 shares is because he’s advocating for men to be better allies on this issue, which is powerful. More on that in a future post and in Cole’s post below. For me, what also drew me to the piece is that it's a man acknowledging the way that the focus on women’s appearances simply makes it harder for us to do our jobs.

Story Time

A man I was working with introduced me to our client for the first time by saying, "Clearly she's the brains; I'm the beauty." simultaneously devaluing my intelligence and contribution to the project while pseudo hitting on me. Jokes!

That night, in three of the four conversations I had when I first walked into the cocktail party (a potentially fraught scenario to begin with), my appearance was among the first things discussed.

In writing this, I can't help but want to defensively share that I’d been really intentional in how I was dressed (though I would’ve been completely justified to wear any professional attire). I was well covered because I'd recognized I had to prove myself in a male-dominated space, and I didn’t want my appearance to be the focus. So before I’d even gotten there, I had done all this mental gymnastics of selecting

  1. Clothes that weren’t “too sexy” but that I still felt attractive and confident in
  2. How to wear my hair--if I was going to have a nametag, my hair would invariably get caught in it
  3. Shoes that sufficiently increased my 5’2’’ stature so I could easily make eye contact--but wouldn’t have me walking like a baby giraffe

But all that work managing my appearance wasn't enough. Immediately, my colleague’s comments served as a not-so-subtle message that I was there to be sexy not substantive.

On the other end of the spectrum, a colleague I admire tremendously recently celebrated a major professional accomplishment. In the facebook post that had her pictured at the event, the only comments on her facebook feed were about how pretty she looked.  Mind you, she’d gotten up an hour and a half early so as to be put together and confident for this milestone, and she appreciated the affirmation.  That said, her appearance was not what this day was about.

Recognizing the Impact of Language

It’s easy to say, “These were compliments,” or “She did look pretty.” These were respectful compliments in an appropriate setting from people who love her, which are great. The issue she lamented was the way we give praise to women vs. men, and in this instance, it was appearance vs. professional accomplishment.

Going back to my experience, we’ve all heard men (and women alike) dismiss potentially offensive comments, saying,"Relax, it was just a joke,” or in Jordan’s customer’s particularly gross depiction of sexism, “But we're men and they're females. Is cleavage just not a thing anymore?".

Regardless of what any of these comments are intended to be, they represent one of those ways that women are navigating a more complex environment while they're making decisions about their career.

I work with women in male-dominated industries, entrepreneurs seeking investors, women who are new to the workforce, and everything in between. Sexual harassment and a focus on appearance/how we’re perceived is one of those issues that transcends all kinds of working environments. They can be exhausting at best and highly destabilizing at worst.

My background in sociology and public policy trained to think about the systems that impact women's lived experiences in the workplace. This is a big’un. And it's a tough one to discuss, because there aren't easy pat answers. My Facebook feed isn't filled with listicles that share 8 Ways to Deal with Awkward or Offensive Undermining Comments. You could laugh it off, report it, attempt to shut it down, or have any number of reactions, but there’s no simple best practice that’ll work in every setting for every person.  It’s deeply personal, and there’s no right answer.

So with that, I don’t have the answers. Frankly, I was apprehensive about writing on this topic. Then I remembered that I am Not a Unicorn and that I committed to writing about what I saw clients and friends working on, as well as what I’m working on in my own life. I remembered that one of the most important things to come out of Jordan’s post is the way it has people talking. I’m happy to contribute to this conversation and continue to talk about this with my clients, my friends, and my husband.

I'd love to hear from you as well, so please post in the comments!  Keep reading for Cole’s perspective on the subject.


Cole's Reflections

Hi hon! Thanks for being my wife! And thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts on (mansplain?) workplace harassment in the service industry. I want to start by applauding Jordan for his post, and for standing firm against the harassment of his staff. Telling guests they’re wrong or aren’t welcome, that isn’t easy, even when said guest’s villainy is almost moustache-twirlingly obvious. Usually this is not the case.

One of the most important points that Jordan makes is that as a male manager of female employees you probably only hear about harassment when it’s way over the line. He writes, “... countless times they just deal with it before it even gets to me.” Men in the service industry, especially those in a position of management, need to realize the degree to which most harassment goes unreported. It’s SO common, SO pervasive, that unless the comments are unusually egregious or the harassment becomes physical, women usually soak it up or shut it down, and you most likely will never hear about it.

A few months ago one of my bartenders, Shae, got a new haircut with bangs. One of our regulars, a would-be cocktail aficionado in his fifties frequently in the company of his ill-tempered poodle, was sitting at the bar when I arrived that afternoon, and as soon as I got there, he said, “Did you see? Shae got banged!”

“That’s not appropriate,” I replied matter-of-factly. Then I noticed that he had written on the chalk board by the front door: SHAE GOT BANGED. He was so proud of himself for this witticism that he just had to share it with everyone who walked in. I promptly erased it, of course. This guest is a regular, visiting the bar several times a week, so I asked Shae if this was unusual behavior. Nope! This was all pretty much on par with their usual interactions, she told me. I never would have found out about it, though, if I hadn’t walked into that specific situation.  

I’d like to believe that, despite what Shae claimed, this was at least a little more egregious than this guest’s usual low-level shitheadery, that Shae had perhaps fallen into a “frog soup” situation. To paraphrase the old adage, if you want to boil a live frog, don’t put the frog into boiling water, because it will leap out. Put the frog into room temperature water and then slowly turn up the heat. By the time the frog realizes that something is wrong, it’ll be too late.

Maybe Shae had gotten so used to this guy’s usual baseline level of harassment, the type that is a kind of constant background noise for women in our society at large and the service industry especially, that when he turned up the heat she barely noticed. That alone would be bad enough.  But, more likely (and even more terrifying), this is exactly on par with his usual behavior, and what seemed egregious and over the line to me IS Shae’s baseline level of harassment.

This guest has not, as of yet, been banned from my bar. His ill-tempered dog is no longer welcome, though, which has significantly reduced the rate at which he visits. I completely trust the judgment of my employees, so if any of them told me that it was time, I would stand behind them 100%.

As troubling as it is, though, I personally spend more emotional energy thinking not about the harassment of my employees by guests, but about harassment and sexist behavior between coworkers and within the industry more broadly.

When I first started working behind bars I was shocked at the level of misogyny and abuse heaped on female bartenders not by guests, but by male coworkers. The back of every restaurant I’ve worked in has a level of discourse on par with an episode of Mad Men, except significantly less clever. Almost all of my professional experience has been in the service industry, so admittedly my perspective is narrow, but my impression is that this persists in the service industry to a greater degree than in other fields.

Maybe the fact that employees in many bars are encouraged to drink on the job plays a role. Maybe dealing with the same behavior from guests all the time makes us numb. Maybe the perceived requirement to be flirtatious and playful with guests bleeds into interactions with coworkers. I’d like to think that, but I think that it’s more likely that harassment happens more in the service industry because men can still get away with it.

While this is probably obvious to female readers, my impression is that it’s significantly trickier for a woman in the service industry to manage workplace harassment when it comes from a coworker than it is when it comes from a guest, and while Jordan’s rant is about a specific incident, it runs the risk of framing the struggle in a way that is reductive. How different would his response have been if the waitress in question was complaining not about a guest, but about a male coworker? With a guest, he is likely to be an ally. You’re both on the same team, after all.

But reporting the same kind of behavior from a coworker is a much more delicate situation. Nobody wants to be the person to ruin everyone’s good time, and the service industry is all about creating and facilitating good times. The victim here runs a real risk of being ostracized by her peers, left out of workplace social functions, and ruled out of opportunities for advancement for not being a “team player”. None of this is unique to the service industry, of course, but when you stack the harassment from coworkers on top of the abuse commonly received from guests, it paints a clear picture of pitfalls that men in the industry don’t have to manage.

Workplace harassment is just one of the obstacles facing women in the industry. There is also serious, entrenched sexism in hiring, and the major reason I hear is that “women are too dramatic”. When men say this, what I hear is, “women complain too much about the way they’re treated”. Their solution? Don’t hire women, unless it’s for a low-level sales position where conventional good looks are considered a prerequisite.

This is a whole other can of worms, though, and unless we’re prepared for this post to become a dissertation, we may have to leave that conversation for another time. Thanks again, Lelia, for inviting me to jump in on this conversation about workplace harassment with your readers!

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes