Analysis Human Rights

Why Women and People of Color Keep Getting Shafted in the Growing Restaurant Industry

Sheila Bapat

As of 2011, 1 in 12 private-sector workers was employed in the restaurant industry. But women, especially women of color, face a variety of struggles in this growing field.

Although the restaurant industry is rapidly growing, women, especially women of color, are too often denied the opportunities that many of their white and male counterparts enjoy.

As of 2011, 1 in 12 private-sector workers was employed in the restaurant industry, and the industry shows signs of continued growth. But women face a variety of struggles in this growing field. In her book Behind the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and a lifelong union organizer, tells the economic and cultural tales of women hosts, servers, chefs, and managers throughout the United States. Weekly wages for women in the restaurant industry are on average about $36 less than men’s, and women of color in the restaurant industry earn on average $4.50 per hour less than other workers.

Jayaraman identifies specific reasons for the wage gap, which reflect both longstanding minimum wage laws in the United States as well as restaurant hiring practices. First, 66 percent of tipped workers are women, and minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 under federal law. Second, women are concentrated in the lowest paying segments of the restaurant industry, such as fast food; women of color are also overrepresented in these segments. Third, Jayaraman’s book notes that even in identical positions, women tend to earn less than men, an issue policymakers have attempted to address through the Paycheck Fairness Act. Finally, women who do work in higher-paying fine dining establishments tend to be ghettoized in specific roles such as pastry and salad, which pay less than hot food service typically pays.

Emily Matchar echoes a few of these concerns in her recent book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. In an excerpt published in Salon, Matchar writes that cooking continues to be a woman-dominated activity, particularly in sustainable food circles, but that men tend to dominate when it comes to restaurant kitchens.

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The struggles women face trying to climb to the top in the restaurant sector have everything to do with practices at the bottom, including wage disparities and the intersection of gender and race. Economically speaking, restaurants are a tough business for both women and men. Earlier this month, data from the Department of Labor revealed that of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America, all but three are in the food industry, and six of those seven are specifically restaurant jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the median wage for food preparation and serving jobs was $9.02 per hour, including tips.

Within this pool of low-wage jobs, the wage and opportunity barriers in the restaurant sector are far worse for women, especially women of color. While wages, benefits, and other conditions in the restaurant industry have been discussed a fair amount this year, gender and race disparities in this sector have not received quite as much scrutiny, even though the three are intertwined and reinforce each other.

Rewire recently spoke to Alicia, an African-American pastry chef, who spoke candidly about her decade of restaurant experience in major cities around the country. A warm and lively woman, Alicia (a pseudonym) is not optimistic about the notion of becoming an executive chef, despite her breadth of experience. When I asked her why, she said without skipping a beat, “Because I am Black.”

Alicia has been one of the few women to ascend in restaurant management. “Out of all 14 restaurants I’ve worked in, I am one of only five women who were in kitchen management,” she told me. “If a woman does get an executive chef position, she is most likely white and blonde.”

Jayaraman’s book corroborates Alicia’s experience that women in restaurants are far less likely to ever ascend to executive chef or manager in fine dining establishments, a trend that takes root in entry-level restaurant positions. (Alicia was also interviewed for the book.) Behind the Kitchen Door reveals damning stories of women hosts and servers being forced to flash or kiss their managers before clocking in to work or even before they could get paid, women being demoted for fighting off repeated sexual advances for their bosses, and women being fired for refusing to engage in any of the above. Women restaurant workers made up 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011.

And these problems persist in a rapidly growing sector. From a broader economic standpoint, it is concerning that one of the deepest pools of job opportunities lies in a sector that both offers low pay and is steeped in race and gender barriers. Ultimately women’s status in the restaurant sector is the result of cultural, racial, and economic trends, which have lasted far too long. “There has been no progress in ten years,” Alicia said. “Things are exactly the same.”

Culture & Conversation Media

‘Winning Lies Not in a Single Victory,’ Writes Author of Buoyant New Book on Activism

Eleanor J. Bader

An inspiring—if perhaps overly optimistic—book, When We Fight We Win!: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World, showcases six areas in which progressive shifts have already happened or are possible thanks to long-range activism and political vision.

On any given day, all it takes is a quick look at the headlines to see the sorry state of world politics: Hunger, poverty, war, environmental degradation, campus shootings and stabbings, child abuse and neglect, and police brutality are just some of the atrocities that make the future seem bleak, if not hopeless.

But not everyone is filled with despair.

For one, Schott Foundation for Public Education Board Co-Chair Greg Jobin-Leeds, himself a seasoned Cambridge, Massachusetts-based community organizer, sees numerous possibilities in today’s political morass. Indeed, his inspiring—if perhaps overly optimistic—new book, When We Fight We Win!: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World, showcases six areas in which he believes progressive shifts have already happened or are possible thanks to long-range activism and political vision. These include campaigns for LGBTQ equality; efforts to preserve and defend public education; challenges to mass incarceration and prison privatization; immigrant rights; and the promotion of economic and environmental justice. Each section includes interviews and case studies, as well as illustrations by members of AgitArte, an activist art collective with chapters in Puerto Rico and Massachusetts, underscoring the role of visual culture in popularizing activism.

“I asked leaders of … thriving social movements, ‘What are the lessons you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to new activists?'” Jobin-Leeds writes in an introduction to the text. Eager to parse organizing strategies and better understand the incremental steps that lead to bigger, bolder victories, Jobin-Leeds interrogates what successful campaigners have done to increase the likelihood of victory, and questions how they remain upbeat despite working in a less-than-progressive political milieu. He was not looking for conformity, he writes: Instead, he was eager to capture a range of organizing experiences.

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In the book’s foreword, for example, Rinku Sen, publisher of Colorlines and president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, takes a measured approach when compared with Jobin-Leeds’ buoyant point of view. She notes the enormity of challenging the status quo, writing, “Whether or not we win will be based on many things other than our own strategy and strength. Even strong, huge movements sometimes fail.” She continues, “There is, however, no path to victory without trying.”

Tapping into the desire to push back rather than fold in the face of obstacles is at the heart of When We Fight We Win! and Jobin-Leeds spent years interviewing activists to try and determine why they feel compelled to do this work. He also wanted to better understand how movements can create real and enduring change; tease out strategies that are consistently successful; and find effective tools to deflect apathy. These in-depth interviews supplement Jobin-Leeds’ more general points and give a hands-on immediacy to the stories and research he presents.

His introduction sets the stage and posits the benefits gleaned from organizing:

When we fight—building an organization, joining a community of activists—we win not only communal victories but also our own personal transformation, enabling us to discover common root causes to problems that had seemed unconnected before. Understanding root causes can ally us with others—across issues, cultures, identities. This aggregates individual fights into broad movement struggles, and by working in solidarity together we can realize far-reaching, systemic change. Winning lies not in a single victory, but in many victories and the lifelong struggle to change injustice and create a future based on a bold, transformative vision.

This philosophy, of course, requires us to celebrate incremental wins, no matter how small. It also requires us to acknowledge the enormous rush that comes from disrupting business-as-usual and its powerful enforcers. After all, if fighting back is joyless, why do it?

Case in point: the movement for LGBTQ equality.

Jobin-Leeds reminds us that five decades ago, sodomy was a crime in every U.S. state and the idea of marriage equality was a pipe dream writ large. So what happened? In a word, he says, AIDS: an unanticipated health crisis and mass tragedy that gave the LGBTQ community new prominence in the public eye. Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, tells Jobin-Leeds that when people started becoming ill, “There were a lot of men—including men in urban areas who had some level of class or race privilege—who were being denied access to their partners as they were dying in hospitals because they weren’t ‘family.’” Their stories of emotional trauma were heartbreaking and led, years later, to a demand that their relationships be recognized and validated.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, agrees with Carey, adding, “AIDS broke the silence about gay people’s lives and really prompted non-gay people to think about gay people in a different way. It prompted gay people to embrace this language of inclusion, most preeminently marriage. That, in turn, accelerated our inclusion in society and the change in attitudes.”

AIDS’ public accounting of love and loss presaged a dramatic shift in assumptions and ideas about what it meant to be queer. It also went hand-in-hand with thrillingly defiant public actions in streets, pharmaceutical company boardrooms, and government offices throughout the country.

Of course, homophobia has not been eradicated; nor has AIDS stigma. But as a result of ACT UP and other queer-led organizations, access to life-changing drugs increased. In addition, as family and friends pushed their way into hospital rooms, the broadening of the definition of “kin” took root: Jobin-Leeds and his activist contacts theorize that this is part of what eventually led to marriage equality. All of this is surely worth celebrating; at the same time, progressives understand that the right to wed is but one demand on a long roster of LGBTQ needs.

As Carey explains, “We can’t ask someone to be an undocumented immigrant one day, a lesbian the next, and a mom on the third day … Our vision is about … transforming society so that she can be all of those things every single day and that there would be a connectedness among social justice workers and among the organizations and agendas, if you will, to make her life whole.”

These linkages, Carey said, have led the Task Force to work on a range of issues, including criminal justice reform, liberalized immigration, public education, and economic justice—issues that, she says, the largely white male activists who founded the Task Force initially considered tangential to LGBTQ rights.

Still, both Carey and others stress that not every campaign will result in victory. Paulina Helm-Hernández of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) tells Jobin-Leeds about a 2012 campaign against a same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina, a battle she says the activists anticipated losing. Nonetheless, SONG committed itself to reaching one million people to discuss “the future of our state, and about the divisive tactics of the Right, and about the reality of how integrated LGBT communities in North Carolina actually are to immigrant communities, to other communities of color—it really just became a huge opportunity for us, and I would say a success in terms of helping not just amplify the grassroots organizing that makes moments like that possible, but to say it does matter.” In essence, despite losing the war, they won what they hope will be lasting personal connections with local residents.

What’s more, Helm-Hernández emphasizes another secondary gain: When other folks saw that it was possible for individuals and organizations to stand up and speak out, it empowered them to do likewise.

Among today’s most motivated activists, Jobin-Leeds writes, are the DREAMers, young immigrant women and men whose efforts have led many people to think differently about immigration policy. Although Jobin-Leeds concedes that the United States has still not enacted meaningful reform, he reports that hundreds of immigrant youth have bravely declared themselves not only undocumented, but unafraid. They’ve told their stories, and those of their parents and grandparents, to audiences throughout the country—as well as before Congress—and their efforts have begun to pay off. The New York Times, for one, has stopped using the term “illegal” to describe undocumented people, and several states now allow undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition rates, a change that has allowed many to enroll in two- and four-year degree programs.

“DREAMers from across the country have profoundly changed the national discourse and influenced organizing tactics around immigration—catapulting an issue forward,” Jobin-Leeds reports. “Storytelling combined with direct action transforms people into activists.”

And although obtaining citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented U.S residents is proving difficult in today’s political climate, Jobin-Leeds writes that it remains a long-term goal.

Like the DREAMers, activists working on other issues also sometimes set their sights on local gains—targeting a recalcitrant landlord or a bank that is threatening foreclosure, for example—rather than attempting to change national policy, and Jobin-Leeds chronicles the successful efforts of the Boston-based City Life/Vida Urbana to create eviction-free zones in low-income areas. Similarly, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United have driven companies like the Fireman Hospitality Group to settle claims for back wages and tips, and develop policies to curtail sexual harassment and discrimination. Equally significant, environmental groups such as have pushed colleges and philanthropies to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Drops in the bucket? Maybe. But as the organizers in When We Fight We Win! repeatedly remind readers, small changes often lead to bigger ones. Furthermore, organizing requires us to take a long view of history to forestall becoming demoralized. After all, given today’s Republican assault on reproductive justice; the overt expressions of racism and xenophobia by political office holders, presidential candidates, and everyday individuals; the non-stop push to privatize once-public services; and our seemingly endless involvement in numerous wars, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, angry, and powerless.

When We Fight We Win! admits this, albeit indirectly, and recognizes that there are no guaranteed victories. Nonetheless, the book enthusiastically celebrates activism as personally and politically invigorating. Indeed, when all is said and done, we have two choices: We can either accept the current state of affairs or try to foment change. If we opt for the latter, we may not win everything we dream of, but at least we’ll know we tried. Isn’t that better than languishing in grief and anger?

News Human Rights

Half of January Job Gains for Women Were in Low-Wage Industries

Emily Crockett

More women's job gains were in low-wage industries last month than in 2014 overall, and women already make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce.

Half of the new jobs gained by women in January were in low-wage industries, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).

The January jobs report was encouraging overall, with 257,000 new jobs added. Even if job growth continues at this rate, however, it will take until May 2017 for the labor market to get back to the pre-recession health it enjoyed in 2007.

Of those 257,000 new jobs, 39 percent, or 101,000, went to women. About half of those jobs were in the low-wage sectors of retail and leisure and hospitality.

That’s a bit worse for women than 2014 overall, when women gained about 45 percent of new jobs and 27 percent of those were in retail or hospitality.

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Just one-fifth of men’s job gains last month, and one-third of job gains overall, were in those same low-wage sectors.

Women make up a disproportionate number—two-thirds—of low-wage workers. Women working as home health aides, fast-food workers, maids, and other low-wage jobs tend to lack access to benefits, like paid sick leave or child care, that they need to take care of their families.

“The economy is moving in the right direction, but we need to step on the gas—not ease off,” said Joan Entmacher, NWLC’s vice president for family economic security. “Half of women’s job gains last month were in low-wage sectors that don’t pay enough to support a family.”