I work at a typical St. Laurent bar. Dingy and dim, it’s filled with tepid regulars during the day and packed with students taking shooters after midnight. The beer is cheap, the music is loud, and we only accept cash. As a waitress, I skirt around the crowds of people and dodge rogue pool cues to deliver pitcher upon pitcher of watery beer and sticky Sambuca shots. Although minimum wage in Quebec is higher than it is in most of America, tips on orders compose most of my income. Interactions with customers determine my tip out at the end of the night; a fact that both I and the patrons are well aware of. My financial dependence on customers creates a disturbing power dynamic unique to the service industry. The relationship between men and women in the workplace is fraught with imbalance and sexism (as most people know), which is amplified when the link between money and acquiescence becomes direct. Women must do more to appease men and keep silent for fear of losing money or their job.
Acquiescence to male attention is the most common characterization of the power dynamic in a bar. The attention varies, but must always be received in a willing manner to gain compensation from the individual. Often, attention is expressed through flirting. The flirting is mostly benign on the surface, but represents the core issue with forced acquiescence. Should the woman refuse attention or brush it off as unwanted, her earnings would be negatively impacted. The flirtation is no longer benign because it is never consensual; permanently linked to a monetary value that the male customer dictates. Another expression of objectification is the emotional labor that women engage in for compensation. Emotional labor describes the maintenance of emotion within the service industry (or other professions that require constant public relations) to the employer’s satisfaction and to increase monetary intake. Gendered interactions add another dimension to emotional labor. The appearance of happiness to customers must be constant despite persistent sexualization by the customer. Invasive questions are common, ranging from “are you single?” to “you’re a freak in bed, aren’t you?” Reactions to these questions are limited by constraints of emotional work, as a response deviating from a complacent attitude would negatively affect earnings. Women in the service industry constantly field objectifying comments and sexual advances with a smile to ensure a two-dollar tip on a thirteen-dollar bill.
But perhaps the most frightening aspect of the power dynamic is its normalization. The objectification of women in the service industry is so commonplace that refusing male attention risks a woman’s employment. An incident earlier this year at the establishment I work at involved a young man being cut off from the bar. He inappropriately touched a waitress who voiced her discomfort. The man complained to the manager, who then accused the female waitress of being crazy and to expect such attention if she wanted to continue working in the bar. The waitress was later fired, to no one’s surprise. Her harassment was trivialized and her job thrown in jeopardy for refusing to acquiesce.
Not all experiences are the same. Not every woman who works in the service industry must cater to male dominance to sustain earnings. Although my evidence is anecdotal, I don’t doubt that other women echo it. Whenever I tell stories about men I encounter at the bar, I am usually told to quit. That has obviously crossed my mind. But after a lot of thought, I concluded that quitting would be losing; acquiescing to a system that I must navigate my whole life. Why quit now?