Service Sector

The service sector, including restaurants and retailing, is a place where most of the front-line jobs are filled by women and most of the management jobs are held by men. That, and so many other reasons, account for the fact that the service sector is the source of so many complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission every year. (Canada doesn’t appear to keep such statistics.) Let’s put it another way: the service sector is the quagmire of the workplace when it comes to sexual harassment.  

As a study of the Canadian retail sector noted:

This paper examines customer sexual harassment in the Canadian context, drawing on a study of 63 female retail service workers and 20 security workers. It focuses on the nature, prevalence, and consequences of this form of harassment for women who work in various jobs in retail sales (e.g. flower shops, book shops). Findings from the study suggest that customer sexual harassment is a significant problem. Not only have a majority of women been sexually harassed by customers in their current job, but they appear to be highly constrained in dealing with such behaviour. 

Power imbalances like those found in this sector often see women capsizing into the stormy waters of sexual misconduct reprisals — or losing their jobs altogether. There’s not a lot of money left over at the end of the week to hire a lawyer, which, according to a number of victims, has turned out to be more expensive in the long run than having no lawyer at all. Contingency lawyers are reluctant to take up the cause of low-income wage earners because, even in the best of circumstances where there is a settlement by the company or business responsible, the amount settled for often doesn’t even come close to covering the lawyer’s time.

The EEOC says that service sector (retailing, restaurant, fast food) complaints about sexual harassment make up about 25 percent of all complaints received. The sector is also dominated by women.

Faced with these realities, many women would rather quit and find another job waiting tables, selling shoes or cleaning hotel rooms than file a sexual misconduct complaint or go to the police over a serious sexual assault incident.  Statistics show that it’s the immediate supervisor who is most often the source of the improper conduct in the first place. On top of that, turnover in these jobs is high.  

Then there is the problem of whom do you complain to if you’re the victim of sexual misconduct? Most service sector organizations just haven’t bothered to put the mechanisms in place, or the training, to make reporting easy or to give employees any confidence that, if they do complain, the outcome will be fair.  Many already know the system is rigged against them.  And, because of what we call the Garrison Keillor loophole, women in the United States who work through employment agencies, as many in the service sector do, don’t fall under EEOC jurisdiction.  They are considered self-employed. The class that is supposed to be protected from gender discrimination, including sexual misconduct, under Title VII Civil Rights Act, are, in fact, the unprotected class.

Add to this the daily worries that come with trying to live from paycheck to paycheck. Women in low-wage, low-skill jobs can find themselves hostage to a boss who’s causing trouble, because he’s also the one signing the paychecks. For single mothers and women who are their family’s only earner, the fear of losing that source of income is always with them.

We have tremendous concern for the women who remain so unprotected in the service sector and who don’t have CNN or the CBC to come along and help them out when bosses turn the tables on them and become monsters. We have been advocating for changes in U.S. laws and EEOC regulations to address this shortcoming for some time. Frankly, U.S. lawmakers don’t seem to get it.

Isabel Escobar used to clean houses for clients. One afternoon, when she was alone in the house with the homeowners’ son, he called her to come upstairs, where she found he was standing in the doorway naked. She was going to have to pass him to clean the upstairs bathroom. Terrified that he was going to rape her, she ran out of the house. He called her and told her to come back, but she refused. She didn’t report him, and never got paid for the job. “I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone—I was scared, isolated, and alone,” she told me. “This happens not just to famous or well-known people,” she said. — from The Atlantic.

All this would be bad enough, but from the horror stories we hear from service sector survivors, customers in hotels, restaurants, bars and retail stores can be a big source of the problem, too. Restaurant and hospitality industry workers who are dependent on tips for as much as three-quarters of their pay, are especially vulnerable. Those tips, as so many horror stories reveal and can be heard in the accompanying video from The New York Times, frequently come at a huge cost to a woman’s dignity, self-esteem and health. Managers are often afraid of offending paying clientele and, frankly, many hire women in these sectors for their appearance which they know is an important draw to a certain kind of male customer.  We said this was a quagmire.  Maybe we should have called it a swamp

Service sector industries clearly need to do a whole lot better job of training staff on how to protect women in their workplaces. Until that happens, The Zero Now Campaign™ can try to help.


If you are a woman experiencing problems in this sector and want some advice, you can reach us here. If you are a bystander or employee who has concerns about what you see and hear, and want to use our confidential Whistleblower resource, it can be accessed here.