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Why Sexual Harassment Rates Are So High in the Restaurant Industry

Where working for tips means the customer is always right, waitresses, bartenders, and other tipped-wage workers endure stunning rates of sexual harassment.
Tipped-wage workers such as waitresses endure much higher levels of sexual harassment than other workers, often for poverty-level wages.
Tipped-wage workers such as waitresses endure much higher levels of sexual harassment than other workers, often for poverty-level wages.David Zalubowski/AP

In 2009, Michael Lynn, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University, published a study that found that waitresses in the U.S. with blond hair, smaller waists, and larger breasts received higher tips than women without those traits. His findings circulated among restaurant hiring teams and managers eager to jack up sales in the $799 billion restaurant industry. Perhaps no other industry rivals Hollywood in profits made by men off of women’s beauty, charm, and sex appeal—and the ramifications should be obvious to anyone keeping up with the current news cycle.

Like Hollywood actresses, but considerably worse off financially, waitresses endure rampant sexual harassment with impunity. A whopping 90 percent of women in the U.S. restaurant industry report being subject to unwanted sexual advances at work, and more than half of women say these interactions occur weekly, according to a Restaurant Opportunities Center report from 2014. For the restaurant industry—which employs 10 percent of the overall U.S. workforce and where women outnumber men by two to one—the magnitude of sexual harassment is difficult to fathom.