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U.S. restaurant culture inadvertently leads to sexual harassment

Anywhere between 70% and 90% of restaurant servers and bartenders have likely been subjected to sexual harassment—from unwanted comments and looks, requests for dates, to physical touching—by customers. There are also many anecdotal indications that the behavior has heightened during the pandemic, with wait staff reporting what’s come to be known as “maskual harassment”: servers being asked to remove their masks and show their faces for the gratification of customers.

A new study aims to get to the reason behind sexual harassment in hospitality, and results point to an answer rooted in the combination of two common staples of the industry in America: workers’ reliance on tips, and expectations to give cheerful “service with a smile” at all times. Both these elements together—financial dependence on and emotional deference to customers—create a power dynamic that puts customers in a comfortable position to make sexualized gestures toward their servers. The researchers suggest that employers could significantly drive down instances of this behavior by eliminating just one of the two factors.

The study, carried out by professors from Penn State, Notre Dame, and Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France, was based on a theory proposed by a 2015 study which suggested that examples of structural power—like dependence on tipping—only activate a feeling of dominance among individuals when an element of “deferential behavior” is added to the mix. In the service industry, that deference can come in the form of smiling, says Tim Kundro, assistant professor of management and organization at Notre Dame. “Smiling is really just an explicit form of deference,” he says. The researchers replicated the model to test whether, in a service context, smiling would activate a switch that made customers feel a sense of control over the server, which could increase the chances of sexual harassment.

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