Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Sexism in the Bartending World Is Real. Here Are Some Ways to Handle It.

Image: Maddy Peters

If you’re a woman who has worked in bars for any length of time, chances are you’ve experienced some form of sexism. Chances are also good that you didn’t tell anyone about it.

“For so long, this industry has thrived on women keeping quiet for fear of reprisal,” says Jenn Tosatto, the bar manager at Kansas City, Mo.’s Mission Taco Joint. But by failing to speak up, you perpetuate a culture of gender bias. And though real change won’t happen overnight, there are things you can do right now to address the problem. These are seven tips for dealing with sexism at your bar job.

1. Get Educated

“Arm yourself with knowledge, language, friends—anything to help you defend your humanity,” says Mary Palac of Paper Plane in San Jose, Calif. “Knowledge gives you courage, and courage helps you communicate clearly and effectively.”

Effectively being the operative word, according to Kaleena Goldsworthy, the owner of The Bitter Bottle in Chattanooga, Tenn. She stresses the importance of being smart in your delivery (no matter how scalding your blood’s boiling temperature might be). “It’s important to not just be angry about it but to explain the reasons why,” she says.

An offender, whether conscious of the offense or not, is much more likely to listen and absorb the information contained in your response than they would an angry rebuttal. A smart response also provides less ammo for someone to possibly use your anger or emotion to discredit or undermine you—the oldest sexist trick in the book.

2. Form an Alliance

“Strength in numbers does matter. It makes people have to answer to you and to others,” says Portland, Maine, bar owner Briana Volk. This goes both ways: Establish a network to turn to when you need help or guidance, but also be ready to provide that support yourself when a fellow colleague needs reinforcement.

“Find a circle of women to vent with,” says New York City bartender Dorothy Elizabeth. “I have my own ‘cocktail coven’ of like-minded women who get how terrible it is being the only girl behind a bar. Find a support network that gives you every avenue to succeed. Also, it helps to work in an establishment with women in leadership who proactively hire other women. You can seek it out or, if you’re like me, create it.”

3. Point Out Subtle Offenses

Not all sexist remarks or actions are obvious. Because of the internalized nature of many types of misogyny, some offenses are quite veiled, making them difficult for most to detect (especially the offender).

“While internalized sexism is challenging to call out in your coworkers, because we all ‘just want to get along,’ gently repeating their statements back to them when they’re mansplaining [for example] can help show them that they’re behaving inappropriately,” says New York City bartender Amanda Whitt. And if it’s coming from a guest, says Whitt, find a way to make it a teaching moment. “Point out sexism when it happens to you from across the bar to your male colleagues so they can start to notice it themselves.”

“We need to remind ourselves that sometimes people say things or act a certain way without realizing that it may offend the other person and come off as sexist,” says Goldsworthy. “This is not to say we should allow for this, but we should aid in being part of the solution by speaking up.”

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

Even when you’re the one in charge of a business, you’re still subject to constant reminders of sexism in the industry. Effie Panagopoulos, the founder of the Greek liqueur company Kleos Mastiha, found herself faced with an investor who attempted to incorporate a pregnancy clause in an operating agreement, stating that if she were to get pregnant she could be removed from the company as CEO.

“I said no to a $1.5 million seed investment,” says Panagopoulos. “It took me another eight years to launch Kleos on my own (and on my own terms), with angel investors who signed the operating agreement my lawyers crafted, not one of their own design. I also raised less money but own a huge majority of my company and am true acting CEO. Stand your ground. The only way things change is if we refuse to accept the hand dealt to us and become the dealers.”

5. Document Everything

“Write [everything] down and keep a safe record of it,” says Volk. “Document and share with a superior. Make it official. If your employer doesn’t do anything or is your harasser, report them to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission].”

If it gets serious, Elizabeth recommends lawyering up. “There’s a fine line between sexism and sexual harassment. Sometimes you don’t know it’s happening until it’s too late. I’ve had an owner cut my hours to almost zero after I filed a harassment complaint. I was the only woman on staff, and it was soul-crushing.”

6. Make a Team Game Plan

Sexism can also come from the other side of the bar. Goldsworthy has a piece of advice for such instances. “I feel it’s very important to have your establishment on your side and on the same page,” she says. “Having your staff know that your establishment has a zero-tolerance policy for sexism and racism is very important and makes everyone working in your establishment be heard and valued.”

7. Remember It’s OK to Be Emotional

We can express our emotions in different ways, and any one of those ways is decidedly better than keeping it bottled up. “If you still need to run to the walk-in to cry, do it and know you’re not alone,” says Palac. “I still want to scream and [go on a] rampage when someone looks past me to ask for whiskey advice from my male barback. Our strength does not come from our resilience alone but from our recognition and acceptance of our vulnerability, as well.”