Waiting Tables and Waiting for a Big Break

Grace Bello
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On Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23, young barista and aspiring financial analyst June (Dreama Walker) tells her co-worker, "I want to succeed, but I want to be judged on the quality of my work, not who I know!" As a riposte, her coworker hands her a mop, ordering her to clean up the vomit on the sandwich case. Burn.

A humbling moment, sure, but we as audience members know that June will ultimately embark on her Wall Street career. Just as we knew that Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends would get to quit Central Perk, the title character of Felicity (Keri Russell) would depart Dean & Deluca, and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would leave the diner in the episode called "Anne." How do we know this? Because on TV, the café, the restaurant, the bar—these are just purgatory for ambitious young women, a stopgap until they unlock (or, in Buffy's case, reunite with) their destinies.

WomansWork_FriendsOffscreen, it's true that service jobs can bridge the gap between college and career for college-educated young women. I, too, worked as a restaurant hostess for part of my first couple of years in New York before landing a job in publishing in 2005. But server jobs are not the stepping stone that many young women would like them to be.

The economic downturn is delaying young, educated women's careers. In 2010, only four in ten Americans age 18-29 were working full-time, as opposed to one in two Americans of that age group back in 2006. That means a longer tenure behind the bar for not much more than minimum wage. And, according to The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) report Tipped Over The Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry, there's a stark gender pay gap in the service industry:

Within servers, the industry's largest occupational category, full time, year round, female servers are paid 68 percent of what their male counterparts are paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually). Black female servers are paid only 60 percent of what male servers overall are paid, costing them a deficit of more than $400,000 over a lifetime.

Moreover, the report says 90 percent of these employers don't provide health insurance. And if you think that labor inequality in this sector only impacts young women on an economic level, think again. According to the ROC-United report, "More than one in ten of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers ROC surveyed nationwide reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment in their restaurant."

In this industry, women experience low wages, a lack of health benefits, and the threat of sexual harassment. And we're spending a longer amount of time waiting tables, waiting for a big break that may never come.

I spoke to Emily, 23, of Murray, KY. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing. But she told me, "I know I'm not going to be able to find that job where I am now, and I know I'm not going to be able to move [to New York] for a while. I have to save first in order to not be in debt my entire life. I'm working in fast food right now."

Similarly, in he New York Times video "Graduating Into Debt," Brent McDonald and Matthew Orr's subject, Amanda, a recent SUNY New Paltz grad and cafe worker, said, "The economy went downhill. I've been working retail jobs ever since and trying here and there to pay off student loans. But I just keep on coming up against a wall where you're like, 'Well, I can pay off my student loans, but then I can't eat.'"


As for June of Don't Trust the B-----, she ultimately does get a job offer, with the help of her entertainingly manipulative roommate Chloe. But it's important to distinguish fiction from fact. Onscreen, the café is a backdrop that contrasts with our heroine's corner-office ambitions; there are no mentions of a hostile environment, low wages, or student debt. Instead, it's a barista-as-Cinderella myth that sets up the characters for eventual triumph.

Offscreen, service jobs are not just a trope. They are a fraught solution to economic problems that heavily impact young, college-educated, indebted women. However, these jobs stanch us against further debt. And while that is but incremental relief to young women such as Emily and Amanda, it's still a way of working toward their goals, ever so slowly.

In real life, we don't get rescued from it. It's up to us to rescue ourselves.


Read more of this guest blog Women's Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted


Not to be a nitpicking nerd, but I don't think Buffy belongs on this list at all. She works at that job to escape her "destiny" of being a vampire slayer, not as a stepping stone to something better or some ambitious ending. We know she'll go back to Sunnydale because the show takes place there and she has to face her "destiny", but it's somewhat begrudgingly that she does it. And later in the series she works in service jobs again and we're not really sure if she'll move on or continue there.

According to a NY Times poll

According to a NY Times poll in 2011 one in five women have been sexually harassed on the job. According to an NBC poll one in four women were sexually harassed in the same year and according to the AAUW fully two thirds of all female college students are sexually harassed on campus.

More importantly, as a college educated career server I am offended by your trivialization of the service industry. I'm not Buffy or Joan and i'm not waiting for a big break or someone to rescue me. I make significantly more than minimum wage. In fact, I raised and homeschooled two sons while waiting tables. I might be able to make more in another field but I'd also be giving up my flexible schedule, five hour shifts and Tuesday afternoons on the beach. Maybe next year.

according to a 2011 ny times

according to a 2011 ny times poll one in five women are sexually harassed at work. according to nbc its one in four. according to aauw fully two thirds of female college students are harassed on campus. the one in ten quoted here really doesn't look so bad when you put it into perspective.

Working alongside school?

I'm curious about where you would fit those characters (or people, like me) who work(ed) while studying. Joey Potter comes to mind, from Dawson's Creek, where she's from a working class family and can't afford to go to college without help, has to work at her family restaurant throughout high school, and it is forever unclear if her work simply contributes to the family business, or if she's making her own money for herself. Do you see this as the same as a stepping stone, even when the idea of having a career in the future is nebulous and unarticulated?

Re: Working alongside school?

I'm not sure about "Dawson's Creek" in particular because I haven't watched the show (yet), but I am thinking of exploring characters who have to work while in high school and college. Obviously, working while in school can negatively impact one's academic performance and relationships. But does TV depict that?

Stigmatization of the Service Industry

While not many a child may dream of securing a job in the service industry, it is a privileged perspective that stigmatizes a service industry job as a worst-case scenario or as a mere purgatory. Plenty of us are grateful to have a job and steady income and content. As mentioned, the economy and job market are tough. People end up working jobs in the service industry for all reasons. But, I think it a grave mistake to position such jobs as shameful, stigmatized, unfulfilling stepping stones or concessions. Also, the idea of womyn who are working in the service industry are there because of the economy's "delaying young, educated women's careers", implies a very narrow scope of what "career" is. Many individuals do consider the service industry a career. Many have worked their ways up from cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes, to serving, bartending, and management positions. They have worked on their craft. They have learned the industry inside and out. They have impressive resumes and know-how to boot. This is no small thing. Particularly not in such a rough economic climate. A decade of diverse and rigorous service industry experience can be more useful at securing some jobs than a CompLit degree and stacks of debt, in some instances. Also, many make ends meet through their service industry jobs and pursue a myriad of other interests which may constitute a career outside of financial-needs' bounds. Many choose to work in the service industry because of the limited responsibilities which call on them outside of their shift-hours, in that way they are able to preserve the rest of their time for their own interests and personal work. This article assuredly explores an important phenomena; especially in terms of conception and representation, but I ask that we take the extra step to consider our own situation and stigmatization of the service industry and those who work in it at large.

To clarify...

Hi readers,

Just to be clear, I don't intend to stigmatize the service industry. I'm looking at it through a cultural framework and seeing how TV producers choose to depict servers.

I agree...

Interesting, but I agree with anonymous that working in the service industry is not necessarily the last resort nor the least favorable option for college educated women. In Los Angeles, where I live, a great many college educated women (and men) work in the service industry while pursuing their career in the arts, the obvious one being acting. One can make a viable living at the right establishment and restaurants offer flexibility and the time to pursue other passions (although yes, often healthcare is not included and at the end of the day, your income relies on tips). Something to consider is perhaps that our country needs to value the arts as much as it values finance, and create programs that give women the freedom to pursue those interests.

Curiously, it seems to be

Curiously, it seems to be predominantly women who are being depicted as biding their time in a restaurant job, while in my (20-plus years') experience I have worked with almost as many men in the front of the house as women. I have also worked with many of both genders who consider the business to be a profession in and of itself, not a means to some other end. I've even seen servers turn down management jobs because they don't want to take a cut in pay!

The restaurant business can be a great refuge for a student- or a parent- who needs full-time money at part-time hours. Not being a TV watcher, I can't say for sure, but there seems to be a large bias towards showing women in these situations.

Chain vs. Independent Restaurants

Just want to throw out an opinion based on my own experiences with being a server. I felt like the atmosphere at my first chain restaurant was very collegial. We all wore white button down shirts with branded ties (and, if you had long hair, it was back in a ponytail). Half of our staff was men and half were women. Always. It never appeared to me, maybe as a result of this, that serving was in any way 'womens work' although I know the point of this blog is only to discuss the women doing this kind of work.

Anyway, there was a certain degree of professionalism set forth in the company manual and also from management. All of the managers had worked their way up from being on the floor at one point, and one of my fellow servers has actually become quite successful with the company some 8 years later. I'm not saying that path is right for everybody, but working directly with customers in a restaurant provides great insight for those who plan on a career in hospitality. And all in all, I liked the camaraderie that it offered, and for me, it taught me that I do not want to me in hospitality and provided me the opportunity to take unpaid student internships (I interned during the day and and needed more money, faster, than retail could have given me). Those internships are ultimately why I am employed with a great job now.

Lastly, I will mention a much more negative experience waiting in a higher-priced, fancier Italian restaurant. Sexual comments toward women staffers was common. One server ended up sleeping with the manager, and then suddenly got the best shifts. I kept my distance, but, the environment there was uncomfortable at times and certainly very different than the chain. Our head chef, who was very, very passionate and serious about his craft, was somewhat of a saving grace at times as he would make sure people were spending less time flirting and more time talking about the menu.

I think it is worth pointing

I think it is worth pointing out that in terms of class the "service industry" is certainly not homogeneous. There is a difference between fine dining and Denny's in terms of income, but also our ideas about who works these jobs and why. This thought repeatedly came up for me as I read comments about flexibility of scheduling and choice in employment, stigmatizing service workers and professionalism. Is the work dignified, and is the amount of work one has to do to "make ends meet" conducive to having a fulfilling life is a question we should ask about all of the work that is done in a society.

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