By Katie Rosengren
Managing Editor, Of Juliet
On Tuesday, November 21, Juliet hosted a salon on sexual harassment, the first in a series to discuss issues in the restaurant industry. Since these salons will tackle some broad topics- and not everything can be said in 2 hours -our hope is to continue the conversation here.
Since the news of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke, it seems like the floodgates have opened for people, particularly women, to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment. As the #metoo campaign gained traction and prominent men were being called to task, it seemed the pervasive monster lurking in the shadows that we’ve always seen and mostly ignored had been thrust into the spotlight. When the allegations moved from one industry to the next, we in the restaurant world knew it was only a matter of time before our reckoning would come. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, we have the highest reported rate of sexual assault and harassment of any industry. So it was no surprise when the names of chefs and restaurateurs were added to the growing list of Hollywood producers, actors, and politicians.
While sexual assault and harassment are often taken for granted as just part of the job in the restaurant industry, the abuses don’t end there. As a restaurant employee, you are expected to push yourself to your physical and mental limits, most of the time, without healthcare. Your worth as an employee is judged by how many doubles in a row you can pull without complaining. Battle scars are hard earned and well respected. The emotional scars from the abuse at the hands of your superiors or guests, sure, but also the physical scars from working in an environment with hot and sharp things in constant orbit around your body. You are more respected when you work through sickness and injury. You will tell yourself you earned those several beers you enjoy late night after all the guests have gone. Not just anyone can do this job, you’ll say. Fighting through your 12 hour shift the next day while you battle a hangover will only prove it once more.
Because so many of us get pushed through this machine, get our battle scars so early, a cycle of abuse occurs. Sexual abuse or harassment - as well as any other abuse - is so difficult to report in the restaurant industry because the person you would report it to is your harasser and he or she is taking advantage of the accepted culture. Or the person has gone through it him or herself and continue to normalize the behavior.
I wish I could say I’ve never bought into this culture, or perpetuated it as a manager. I’ve put up with sexual harassment on a near daily basis because I was young and I didn’t know any better and no one showed me otherwise. I’ve pushed myself to exhaustion and near mental breakdown because saying I needed support would mean proving I was not fit for this job. I’ve yelled at employees, expected too much, pushed them too far because that’s what was being expected of me.
What I see now is we need to look to our owners and managers for meaningful changes that can impact their workers’ lives. Paying a living wage, providing health insurance and paid sick leave, and taking strong action against sexual harassment and abuse are just some of the ways in which we protect the most vulnerable among us. While I’m happy to see some of the bad actors in our industry answer for their behavior - and I look forward to more - just punishing these people (men) does not solve the root of this problem. Until we start treating restaurant work like a dignified career and not a trial where only the strong survive, we can’t expect our culture to change.