Ms. Opinionated: How Can I Combat Sexism in My Service Industry Job?

Nicole Georges
View profile »
Nicole J. Georges is an illustrator, pet portrait artist, and zine teacher living in Portland, Oregon.

ms opinionated logo

Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Nicole Georges takes on a question from a server who has to deal with a big ol’ pile of sexism at her job. Nicole responds with a comic!

Hi all,

I am a server at a chain steakhouse restaurant. I’m wondering what kind of advice or suggestions you might have regarding sexist comments that customers make. I’ve heard it all: getting back to my woman’s work in the kitchen, being thanked for being some thing pretty to look at, inappropriate comments about a ‘time of the month.’ Obviously, calling them out on it would not be acceptable and would probably get me fired (and not to mention a bad tip). I feel guilty when I just laugh it off with a huge smile on my face. Is there any other polite way to handle this without making me feel like I’m just reinforcing bad female stereotypes? 



a comic of advice from nicole georges

In case you’re unable to read this comic, here’s the same advice in writing:

Dear Outback, 

I’m so sorry you have to deal with any of this, especially when you’re just trying to do your job. At the tender age of 19, I got a job at a coffeeshop. This seemed luxurious after years of slinging Subway, Pizza Hut, and phone surveys. My coffeeshop was right down the street from a facility that housed men who hadn’t seen a woman in a long, long time. Ours was the only place they were permitted to visit and we lady baristas were their target practice. I dodged poorly aimed requests for dates.

“Hi, can I help you?” “I bet you can, sweetheart.”

“Can I take you for a drive in two weeks?”

“Do you like to dance?” “Sure.” “Do you ever dance barefoot?” “Oh.”

I avoided uncomfortable questions and swallowed down irritations as men commented on every stitch of clothing I owned.

“That’s my favorite dress on you.” “I’ll burn it.”

As I tried to pull the one million shots needed for their giant, iced mocha depth-charge drink requests.

“Hey, can you make that a breve, honey?” “Sure. Barf.”

I should mention one female customer who inquired, “Does someone have her grumpy pants on today?” (which made me feel murderous, but I abstained, as one does.)

 Anyway, Outback, I couldn’t afford to lose that job or tips any more than you can. So I staged a casual revenge. On April Fools Day of the year 2000, I served decaf to every customer I disliked. The men commenting on my body? Decaf. The assholes who never tipped? Decaf. The fucking “Irish Cream Latte Guy” who couldn’t force himself to thank me, even if it killed him? Irish cream decaf. Decaf Americanos, decaf quad mocha depth charges. It felt good. It was the little thing that helped me get through the day and the nugget of memory gold I could revisit when April 2nd rolled around.

I recommend revenge. Not revenge that will injure your customers or get you fired, but some way to entertain yourself, pass the time, and feel some sense of minor justice. I couldn’t change the people being a-holes, but I could change my perception and how I responded to their antics.

A few more ideas, as told to me by two of my experts:

1)   A-Hole tagging. When Natalie was a waitress, she would gift bad tables with something called “The Hate Kustard.” Hate Kustard = ketchup bottle with mustard lid on top. “It was a signifier to all the staff that those people suck.”

2)   Turn it into art. Keep a secret blog (change details to preserve your anonymity) or diary that you update whenever a customer is foul or sexist towards you. The worse the behavior, the funnier or more interesting the entry will be and the more delighted you may be to see your most unruly clients.

3)   Comebacks. Service wizard and feminist genius Matilda gets this a lot and recommends responding in a way that highlights the fact that you are at work, attempting to provide a service in exchange for money. You are not a volunteer target for their shenanigans. “Haw, women’s work!” “I take pride in my work, and in serving you. By the way, did you know there are male waitresses? They’re called waiters, I heard they’re all over.”

Good luck, Outback! I hope you dose all the jerks with decaf. 

Do you have a question for advice columnists Andi ZeislerSydette Harry, or Nicole GeorgesSend it in! All questions will remain anonymous. Read previous installments of our feminist advice column


Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

10 Comments Have Been Posted

This is simple, great and so

This is simple, great and so relatable. Sharing with my current service industry badasses, and emailing it to the people who helped me get through summers at Tim Hortons (on a military base...)

I look them right in the eye

I look them right in the eye with a straight face & my eyebrow raised, then repeat their "request" without the offensive word or words.
This at the very least makes them feel like they are talking to an authority figure, which changes the power structure.

Some sexism is unavoidable.

Some sexism is unavoidable. The old man who still thinks it's endearing to call you sweetie, or that it's ok to suggest you smile more… It's annoying, but you have to let that stuff go.
Perverts get ignored and passed off to male servers. But only after they get the long dead stare from me. Also, my first serving job was at the outback. It was the worst job of my life. I don't know what options you have, but try to get out. You should never work for people that will not have your back if your customers are being gross to you.

I worked a call centre job

I worked a call centre job for three years and men often found it appropriate to call me sweetie, dear, or love over the phone or in person. By the end I developed the tactic of calling them the same word right back, as in "Thanks Sweetie." "You're welcome Sweetie." Usually right before hanging up.
I hope this showed just how ridiculous the words were to use with complete strangers, but for all I know they took it as a come on. Siiigh.

revenge calls

I worked at a call center and did something similar except I used even more ridiculous diminutives in response with a disgustingly saccharine intonation: "Sure thing, sugarbottoms!" "Okay -- all done -- loveymuffin!" This tactic got back dead silences (those guys got the point) or sometimes laughter, which at least broke up the tension a little (and I think they also got the point.) My delivery was so ridiculous that it helped, and even if it went over their head, I sure had a good time being so absurdly fake. I got a few apologies, too, even if some of the apologies sounded a little staged and annoyed: "Alright, sweetheart, I geddit, I geddit: Don't call you 'sweetheart' grumble grumble women's libbers grumble." I know QA could have been listening in on the call, but it was never a problem, and if anyone heard me they never said anything to me about it. Anyhow, I was still doing my job correctly.

At one call center that received a high amount of "pervert" calls (heavy breathing, and worse) -- I was working the late 3am shift, as well-- I started taking extra revenge. Our company was having a promotion where if you sold enough stuff, you won free phone cards. I had a huge stack of them. And there was a pay phone in the back of the center next to the restrooms. So during this phone-card month, I started calling our "perverts" back, during my pitiful 15 minute breaks. See, the thing is, these guys never realized how powerful our databases were. They always thought they were dialing and harassing with impunity. Our call center database was *way* better than Caller ID!! -- tons of "unlisted" and private numbers were listed-- with the owner's full name (usually), and full street address. And sometimes their age.
On my breaks, I'd call them and then breathe heavily into the phone when they answered, in a weird rather than sexy way (Though who thinks that could be sexy anyway?!) But I mean I would wheeze and hack like I had emphysema, or whatever I found amusing to perform that day. This would be sometimes 2-4 hrs after the offending call that the guy had placed to me. And every time, I swear, they would get all upset: "Who is this?!! WHO is this??!!!" Like they didn't remember calling me and doing the same exact thing. And yes, it was men and was almost always the same person that had called me. I could tell, usually, and if someone else picked up (other than who I thought to be the harasser) I would just hang up. Sometimes I would break character and laugh and then just go back to the weird breathing. But mostly I would get mean: "Listen, Mike, (or whatever their name was)" I would say in my best knife-wielding voice, " I know where you live. I can see your house from where I am on ___________ (the name of their street). Stop calling and harassing women. We all know it's you and we're not too happy about it either. ...And Mike, EVERYONE knows where you live." That would usually get 'em. It was pure revenge. Not saying it changed anything, but it sure felt good and empowering.
Other times, I tried a different (but still similarly sinister, at least in delivery) tactic : "Mike, do you have a (wife/girlfriend/mother/sister)? Does she know about your ugly habit of harassing women? I hope not, because it's disgusting, Mike. It's disgusting and women don't like it, Mike. Not one bit. And I know you live at (house number and street name of his address). Stop harassing women, Mike." Then I'd hang up on them. Of course they couldn't trace the call or call me back because it was a calling card and pay phone and I never identified the company i worked for. I assumed that they harassed multiple call centers, not just ours.
Besides the customer's sexism and unwanted sexual advances, I had to deal with similarly shitty workplace conditions (unofficial "company party/wet t-shirt contest" at a nearby hotel) and unsolicited comments from disgusting managers ("I really like your tights. Those look good on you. Hey, if you want a raise, you know there's a spot opening up in my staff.") Seriously. I complained about those guys to HR but it was all bullshit. ...The revenge calls really fed me, though. At least for a little while (shrug).

This is beautiful. I am SO

This is beautiful. I am SO going to do the cutesy-nickname-comeback next time someone calls me "sweetheart" at work.
You, madame, are a genius.

when i worked in the

when i worked in the industry, most of the time i was able to fend off the perverts with the tactics mentioned above. but once every few months i would get one of the truly out-of-this-world revolting perverts saying completely inappropriate things, rather than the usual borderline statements made creepily.

for those guys i would wipe the smile off my face, make long, sustained eye contact, and in a low, slow, loud voice say "I hardly think that is dinner time conversation, sir. excuse me."

then i would stare at him for another moment with the most severe look i could muster. then i would walk away.

got some of the best tips of my life off that tactic.

This is so fantastic! While

This is so fantastic! While I'm no longer in the service industry but instead in the Navy, who can't learn something from this delightful comic about dealing with customers (or in my case, civilians!)

After my first job which saw

After my first job which saw me earning $2500 a month I thought it was all over for me and that my life has come to an end. That was what I thought with an age d mother and my wife dying of cancer and 3 kids all I could said to myself was how was I going to take care of them. That was when I was introduce to Dr abgbodospell home when I contacted him and told he all I have been facing in my life. He said he was going to make me smile and he actually did because he made me got my job back and companies I did not applied for begging for my service. That is not all he also cure my wife cancer and my 2 years weak erection problem. You can get to him at or call +2348169591194 and for any of the following
Weak erection
Quick job
Promotion at work
How to get your back
And any spiritual problems please get to him or call +2348169591194

In my first professional job,

In my first professional job, a broker I worked with kissed me. I was 23 and single. He was my dad's age and married. I was not hitting on him. I didn't even know how to hit on someone and I sure was not interested in 1. married men or 2. men my dad's age.

So I stole his biggest account. I had already met the decision maker at the account and had established an independent relationship with her, so when she put the account out to bid and came to me directly, I didn't bother to tell him or bid through him.

I sold the account and he lost probably a few thousand dollars a year in commissions.


Add new comment