Saturday, August 21, 2010

Customer Service Representative

I am consistently reminded of sexism's presence most often when working behind the counter at the cafe. Not to detract from the many wonderful patrons that I come across daily, but I can't help but note the difference in treatment that I receive in comparison to my male co-workers. The expectations for women in the service industry to wear plastered smiles, laugh at jokes-especially the sexist ones, and to flirt with any male patron that walks through the door are oppressive, saddening, and infuriating. This is especially troubling considering jobs that involve tips, where making money from male patrons often depends on employing one of these gendered expectations.

1.) The Suspicious Stranger
Perhaps the most interesting reaction to my refusal to play the flirtatious card is an immediate distrust of my presence. I wish that I could do this particular phenomenon justice with the written word, but I can summon this all up with a single look-furrowed brow, grimace, and a wide eyed stare. My refusal to perform normative feminine behavior throws men off their tracks. If we meet again, I am usually met with coldness, lack of eye contact, and mumbling.

2.) The Apparel Commentator
And what perfect timing for this one seeing as it just happened as I write this blog. I don't care what a woman wears, she is NOT asking for it. I am wearing shorts today-it's hot and I like the way I look in them. I don't need to know from strangers that they like it too. The "I like your shorts, skirt, sexy pin up girl tattoo" all fall into this category. I understand the true implications of such statements, and I do not see them as compliments. I am being reduced to body parts and nonreciprocating sexual desire. Not to mention the presumption that I am heterosexual and would be attracted to men in the first place or attracted to heterosexist male performance!!

3.) Beautiful, Honey, Darling, Sweetheart, Sugar
Perhaps one of the most overlooked but most frequently utilized, the usage of pet names makes me furious. Whether with good intentions or bad, this tactic is undeniably sexist. Rarely if ever directed towards male employees by male patrons (which warrants another discussion on the role of homophobia in the service industry), I am frequently greeted with "Hey beautiful....sugar....darling." I find this one of the easiest for me to resist and here's how. When a male patron announces their presence this way, I simply treat it as if they have mistaken me for someone else, holding out my hand and introducing myself: "Actually, my name is Crystal. Nice to meet you." Unfortunately not every circumstance lends itself to this conversational progression, but I have found this response on my part humanizes me and leads to a better interaction with this customer in the future.

4.) Don't Be So Sensitive...Can't You Take a Joke?
I have one instance in particular that I will never forget because the comment was so explicitly offensive. A year or two ago, Danielle and I were enjoying one of our many Sunday morning shifts together. Two men come in and order a coffee. Simple enough. No big deal. After about 20 minutes or so, one of them approaches the counter and matter-of-factly states, "Since you ladies don't have your aprons on, I suppose I'm going to have to ask for a refill myself." Such a foolish and dated comment that I nearly scoffed out loud. Sensing my disgust, he retorts, "Oh don't be so uptight. It was just a joke." The "oh, you're just an overemotional, too sensitive female" cop out response. Truly one of the oldest tricks in the book! It shuts down any chance for him to take responsibility for his sexism and places the blame onto the female.

5.) Downright Sexual Harassment
This one has kept me emotionally charged for several weeks now, seeing as I faced my first experience with severe sexual harassment by an employee at the business right next to mine. My experience began with an unwanted pick up line or two, but when no obviously did not mean no to him, things began to escalate. Explicit sexual comments about my appearance and unwanted physical contact followed my consistent reiteration of "I am not interested". He stressed that he didn't like rejection and that because I was so beautiful, he just couldn't help himself. I escaped physically unscathed, but the emotional detriment of sexual harassment and borderline assault can leave an indelible scar. It threw me off of my power so significantly that I was not able to react in a way that may have shut down his further advances. This feeling of guilt and searching for ways I could have altered my behavior to have prevented it is the result of improper social messages that places prevention responsibility onto the woman. The only positivity I can glean from this experience lies in having a first hand experience in the oppressive and frightening ways sexual harassment and assault function.
***This just in: he got fired for what happened. Apparently I wasn't the only one harassed by this creep. Not that this gets to the root cause of his behavior, but at least he faced some sort of repercussion, and I don't have to worry about him while working.

These examples of sexist behavior, not limited to the workplace, permeate the many spaces of a woman's life. My professor Dr. Kubala, made an interesting point in class the other day, in the context of street harassment, that many acts of sexism, racism, classism, ect.. serve as punishment for women and other marginalized groups'(relegated to private realms of the home) increased presence in the public realm. I would extend this argument to the workplace, especially the service industry; however, I do not intend to suggest that misogyny does not occur within the home in epidemic proportions. The service industry represents one of the many precarious places for a female, having to constantly negotiate the male gaze and the actions that accompany it.

How have you experienced sexism, racism, classism, ableism in the workplace? My categories do not encompass the many ways one can experience misogyny. As a white woman, my racial privilege limits my full understanding of the ways this may function in a female's life.


  1. Sexism at work is the worst for me. I would like to respond as brashly as they do to me, but I always think of the potential negative consequences on my part because I'm "on the clock". And even if I am in the right, I'll still be wrong for talking to customers that way. So, I silently brood about it until I get home. It's a pretty compromising situation: Your livelihood or your self-respect.

    Good call on firing that guy though!

    About your question of race, as a black woman, I feel like some of the men of my race are more comfortable disrespecting me, because we share that "special bond" of being black. It's pretty disheartening, because some would think there would be solidarity and respect in like cultures, but there definitely is not.

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