Why Women and People of Color Keep Getting Shafted in the Growing Restaurant Industry

As of 2011, 1 in 12 private-sector workers was employed in the restaurant industry. But women, especially women of color, face a variety of struggles in this growing field.

As of 2011, 1 in 12 private-sector workers was employed in the restaurant industry. But women, especially women of color, face a variety of struggles in this growing field. Cleaning a wine glass via Shutterstock

Although the restaurant industry is rapidly growing, women, especially women of color, are too often denied the opportunities that many of their white and male counterparts enjoy.

As of 2011, 1 in 12 private-sector workers was employed in the restaurant industry, and the industry shows signs of continued growth. But women face a variety of struggles in this growing field. In her book Behind the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and a lifelong union organizer, tells the economic and cultural tales of women hosts, servers, chefs, and managers throughout the United States. Weekly wages for women in the restaurant industry are on average about $36 less than men’s, and women of color in the restaurant industry earn on average $4.50 per hour less than other workers.

Jayaraman identifies specific reasons for the wage gap, which reflect both longstanding minimum wage laws in the United States as well as restaurant hiring practices. First, 66 percent of tipped workers are women, and minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 under federal law. Second, women are concentrated in the lowest paying segments of the restaurant industry, such as fast food; women of color are also overrepresented in these segments. Third, Jayaraman’s book notes that even in identical positions, women tend to earn less than men, an issue policymakers have attempted to address through the Paycheck Fairness Act. Finally, women who do work in higher-paying fine dining establishments tend to be ghettoized in specific roles such as pastry and salad, which pay less than hot food service typically pays.

Emily Matchar echoes a few of these concerns in her recent book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. In an excerpt published in Salon, Matchar writes that cooking continues to be a woman-dominated activity, particularly in sustainable food circles, but that men tend to dominate when it comes to restaurant kitchens.

The struggles women face trying to climb to the top in the restaurant sector have everything to do with practices at the bottom, including wage disparities and the intersection of gender and race. Economically speaking, restaurants are a tough business for both women and men. Earlier this month, data from the Department of Labor revealed that of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America, all but three are in the food industry, and six of those seven are specifically restaurant jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the median wage for food preparation and serving jobs was $9.02 per hour, including tips.

Within this pool of low-wage jobs, the wage and opportunity barriers in the restaurant sector are far worse for women, especially women of color. While wages, benefits, and other conditions in the restaurant industry have been discussed a fair amount this year, gender and race disparities in this sector have not received quite as much scrutiny, even though the three are intertwined and reinforce each other.

Rewire recently spoke to Alicia, an African-American pastry chef, who spoke candidly about her decade of restaurant experience in major cities around the country. A warm and lively woman, Alicia (a pseudonym) is not optimistic about the notion of becoming an executive chef, despite her breadth of experience. When I asked her why, she said without skipping a beat, “Because I am Black.”

Alicia has been one of the few women to ascend in restaurant management. “Out of all 14 restaurants I’ve worked in, I am one of only five women who were in kitchen management,” she told me. “If a woman does get an executive chef position, she is most likely white and blonde.”

Jayaraman’s book corroborates Alicia’s experience that women in restaurants are far less likely to ever ascend to executive chef or manager in fine dining establishments, a trend that takes root in entry-level restaurant positions. (Alicia was also interviewed for the book.) Behind the Kitchen Door reveals damning stories of women hosts and servers being forced to flash or kiss their managers before clocking in to work or even before they could get paid, women being demoted for fighting off repeated sexual advances for their bosses, and women being fired for refusing to engage in any of the above. Women restaurant workers made up 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011.

And these problems persist in a rapidly growing sector. From a broader economic standpoint, it is concerning that one of the deepest pools of job opportunities lies in a sector that both offers low pay and is steeped in race and gender barriers. Ultimately women’s status in the restaurant sector is the result of cultural, racial, and economic trends, which have lasted far too long. “There has been no progress in ten years,” Alicia said. “Things are exactly the same.”