More than half of those who work in food service are women, but the unfortunate truth is that jobs in the restaurant industry are often riddled with conditions that make them especially tough for female workers. Women Employed has fought for over 40 years for all working women to have access to good jobs with fair wages, decent benefits, respect, freedom from discrimination, and opportunities to advance. We’ve made a lot of headway, but far too many women are still struggling.

Businesses have a vital role to play in making jobs fair and decent. For the restaurant industry, this is doubly important. Patrons are increasingly loath to spend their money at establishments that fail to reflect their own values, which include treating everyone—including all employees –fairly and with respect. The consistently high turnover rate in the food service sector also indicates that more needs to be done to retain workers and mitigate against understaffing, decreased productivity, and loss of potential profits.

Here’s how you can start making your restaurant a better workplace for women:

  • Address Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is rife in the restaurant industry—the clear majority of the sexual harassment claims that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) receives come from restaurant workers.

80 percent of female restaurant staffers say they have experienced harassment from coworkers and customers. That disturbingly high number makes it clear that this is an industry problem, and a message from the top that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated from anyone is a good way to start addressing it. For employees to feel safe in your workplace, there also must be a clear and accountable process for harassment complaints. Many women refrain from reporting sexual harassment due to a fear of retaliation or the possibility that they’ll be named and ostracized by fellow coworkers. No one should feel forced to stay silent and endure unwelcome behavior for fear of losing their hours or their job. Make sure you are intentional about ensuring this is not the case with the staff in your restaurant.

  • Pay a Fair Wage1

Women Employed believes every woman deserves a fair wage so they can support themselves and their families. But this is unfortunately out of reach for many restaurant servers, who have to rely on tips to make up the $2.13 an hour federal tipped minimum wage. Over 70 percent of servers are women; without a guaranteed living wage, these women often have to endure inappropriate sexual behavior from customers in the hopes of making enough money to pay bills and put food on the table. When the tips servers do receive fail to make up to the standard minimum wage, employers frequently fail to meet their obligation to pay out the difference. Workers are left to struggle financially, and many turn to food stamps just to survive.

The sub-minimum wage system for restaurant workers is not working, and hasn’t for a long time. Pay all your restaurant workers at least the standard minimum wage so that frontline employees can be better able to support themselves and their families.

  • Change unfair scheduling practices

Unpredictable pay is bad enough—but when coupled with unpredictable work schedules, women in the restaurant industry are often left with no clear idea of what their income will be for a given month, and no ability to make arrangements for anything else in their lives.

A recent study of workers in Washington, DC found that a third of restaurant staff got less than 24-hours’ notice of their schedules. For low-income working women, short notice like that can be devastating to their efforts to go to school, visit the doctor, or even secure childcare. On top of that hardship, unstable work hours leave them in a constant state of economic insecurity.

Erratic scheduling practices are bad for businesses too—they result in higher staff turnover, more absenteeism, and a less productive workforce. Strategies to voluntarily address unpredictable scheduling in your restaurant include setting a minimum number of hours for employees each week, and/or compensating your workers for when they report to work and are sent home, since they will have already incurred costs like paying for transportation.

  • Provide paid sick days2 2

Most restaurant workers are not afforded the basic right of paid sick time, except for those lucky enough to be based in the growing number of U.S. cities where it is required by law. Those workers who aren’t so fortunate are routinely left with no choice but to show up to work and handle food while sick, putting both customers and coworkers at risk. Indeed, surveys have shown that two out of three restaurant workers have cooked, prepared, or served food while sick.

For women, who are more likely than men to be responsible for the care for an ill child or an elder family member, the stakes are even higher. Business owners have traditionally pushed back against providing paid sick time due to stated fears of a financial burden. But earned sick time laws have been passed in places like San Francisco, New York City, and Massachusetts, and their restaurant industries are still thriving. The actual consequence? Restaurants are safer and fairer for the workers who keep customers fed and happy.

  • Open leadership positions to women

This piece discusses how to make restaurants better workplaces for women in large part by addressing issues of low-pay. That’s no coincidence. In the industry, women are largely clustered in low-paid positions as servers, line-cooks, and bartenders, and are still a minority in leadership positions like chef and manager. The glass ceiling in the restaurant industry is less apparent than it was 20 years ago, through the work of groups like the Women’s Foodservice Forum, but there’s still more to be done to shatter it completely.

Are competent and capable women able to move up the ladder in your restaurant as easily as a man can? Commit to ensuring an equitable workplace where—in a sometimes-hyper-masculine industry—all employees feel valued and know they can grow and advance professionally, regardless of their gender.


Ishena Robinson is Marketing Communications Coordinator at Women Employed, a Chicago-based non-profit that mobilizes people and organizations to expand educational and employment opportunities for America’s working women. Founded in 1973, Women Employed has spent four decades opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women.