A Stained Work Experience


(Carley Lehman)

Many women have stories of harassment, whether they are personal or one of a friend’s. 

Blatant displays of harassment have likely occurred in her life: a harrowing unwanted compliment from a stranger, or a dubious-looking person following too close behind on a city block. A study conducted by the One Fair Wage program at UC Berkeley reports that 70 percent of female restaurant workers are harassed in the workplace. This unfortunate truth is, and has, been seemingly normalized in many working environments. 

Female and gender non-conforming students at Tamalpais High School are at the age where they are subject to being sexualized.  Many students at Tam become employed immediately after reaching the legal working age. 

As COVID-19 regulations dwindled and restaurants began to open for business again, students were drawn to them as an introductory job. 

“Although it is known that sexual harassment runs rampage in the restaurant industry, I wasn’t really aware of this until I experienced it myself,” Tam senior and waitress Sofia Igoe said. Female students who spoke on this reported being hit on, feeling looked down upon, feeling disrespected, and fearing what would happen each workday.

“It’s difficult being a teenager in the workplace, I often find myself being ‘hit on’ and made uncomfortable by the older people there. It’s distracting when I’m trying to do my job and not what I want to encounter when I step in the workplace,” Tam junior and hostess Ruby Kavanagh said. 

As she highlights, minors often encounter inappropriate, suggestive, and intimidating behaviors initiated by adults. When this kind of behavior is left unacknowledged by customers and coworkers, it often leaves the unprepared adolescent to deal with it themselves, not always aware of what to do.

Harassment complaints come to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from the restaurant industry more often than any other sector. In an acute investigation as to why this statistic may be, the EEOC derived that tipped employees rely heavily on tips to supplement their modest income. They are driven to be friendly and pleasant to guarantee reasonable tips. 

“I feel like I’m constantly people pleasing just so I can get at least a five percent tip,” Igoe said. 

This dynamic establishes a cultural norm in the industry that can diminish a woman’s self-worth, as women are reportedly two-thirds of tipped workers in the restaurant industry. Long-term effects of this forced cycle carry throughout a lifetime of jobs.

I guess it’s just hard to work and focus on work when you’re not seen as an employee the same way everyone else is. Especially as a minor, it just feels really uncomfortable when people make comments or like grab you in a weird way that just feels like you’re the odd one out and then especially when you get yelled at for distracting other people,” Tam junior and food runner Gabby Brandt said. “Overall I think that workplaces just need boundaries and to be a little more professional, especially with minors who are trying to get work experience.” 

As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for a year, Brandt shows up every day to work as a demonstration of her commitment. Her coworkers do the same, yet, as men, she said they are not as often accused of the same things that she reported getting yelled at for, such as distracting other people. Brandt highlighted how exhausting it is to have to work twice as hard to be taken as seriously as her men coworkers.

The US Department of Labor reports that workplace discrimination by gender is illegal, in the form of treating one worker more favorably than the other. Although this law has been established, women report a 53 percent higher prevalence of discrimination, compared with men, according to the EEOC

Another study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Employment Equity shows that approximately 99 percent of all these incidents go unreported.

Not only does harassment hurt people individually, but it also damages companies as a whole. Workplace harassment has been established by the US Department of Labor to take away from valuable work. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found in a certain study that as a consequence of harassment in the workplace, $22,500 per person was lost. 

“Most of my coworkers were really kind, but they all treated me like I was really young and always needed help carrying things or like I couldn’t do my job. The kitchen staff was pretty creepy, especially one chef who would always make me give him [a] hug every shift. I would just walk away and he’d chase me and say, ‘where’s my hug at,’ not even joking,” Tam junior and hostess Hannah Christensen said.  

This kind of disrespect and harassment causes major psychological issues, particularly in adolescents. The National Institute of Health concluded after a study that sexual harassment was significantly associated with substance abuse, self-harm, and depressive symptoms in adolescent girls. 

“I’ve never been physically harassed, but it’s kind of more about the fear that something might happen. I’ve been at the same restaurant for over a year now, and I’ve had plenty of creepy employees come onto me, even after I tell them my age, and that I am still in high school,” Tam junior and hostess, Avi Perl, said.

“I’ve been conditioned to act a certain way whenever I meet a new male employee. I can’t be too friendly, too talkative, and I always mention I’m in high school from the start. I get the same reaction every time I say I’m in high school: ‘Oh wow! You’re still in high school? I thought you were much older.’ It seems like a harmless comment but it always comes off pervy,” she said. 

The US Department of the Interior claims that “‘Sexual’ harassment is a particular type of harassment that includes unwelcome conduct such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or dates, remarks about an individual’s appearance, discussions, remarks or jokes of a sexual nature, and/or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

“I’ve never reported any of my older coworkers for harassing me or my other coworkers because my manager also harasses us. It’s scary knowing no one in power is on your side especially because they told me when I first started working there that they had a zero-tolerance policy for harassment but when people got harassed they allowed it to continue. It made me feel alone and powerless as a teenage girl,” Brandt said. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, one of the best protections employers can provide against workplace harassment is a clear statement of their zero-tolerance policy. Whether it be through programs or an employee handbook, this is found to reduce the incidents in private and federal sectors. When harassment is observed and complaints are filed, the harasser must be investigated and held liable to have a safe work environment. Zero-tolerance policy for harassment is only effective if it is enforced, as the fear of retaliation stops women from filing reports, as stated in the Harvard Business Review

“As an inclusive Tam community, we cannot be bystanders to this societal fault,” Igoe said