For young women in the restaurant industry, making money comes with a price

Sydney Liebhauser

For confidentiality purposes, the three young women who shared their experiences working in the restaurant industry for this story wish to remain anonymous. Instead of using their real names, they are written with the aliases of Amy, Maddie and Olivia.

When Amy was 17, she spent about a year working at a restaurant in the Village Corte Madera as a waitress and hostess before graduating from high school. On an evening shift, as Amy was washing dishes at the bar, she turned around to see an older male bartender crouched on the ground looking at her body. He shouted, “Damn Amy!” to which she responded, “Excuse me?” He then replied, “Oh no, I didn’t see anything.”

Incidents like Amy’s are far too common in the food service industry, where, according to a 2018 report from the Harvard Business Review, 90 percent of women have experienced a form of sexual harassment.

Illustration by Cate Sullivan

For high school students, the prospect of working at a restaurant is often appealing. It is lucrative, social and entertaining, attracting many teenagers to the position of a waiter, host or hostess or expeditor. 

Maddie, a junior who has been working at a family-friendly restaurant in Mill Valley for a little over a year, finds that her work as a hostess has its benefits.

“I like to talk, and I’m very social. Hosting for me [means] I get paid to do those things. I [also] get discounts for food and I get to work with my friends. I think [having a job at a restaurant] teaches you life skills, and it’s nice to have the freedom to spend my own gas money without having to ask my parents,” Maddie said. 

But, Maddie has also experienced the downfalls of working in the service industry. At Maddie’s place of work, it took nine years for one of her coworkers, a food runner in his 50s, to finally get fired after he persistently sexually harassed and assaulted hostesses.

 “He would give us the food, and when we said thank you, he would go in for a hug and stroke our bare shoulders, put his head in our breast area or grab our butt. We didn’t want to yell at him because he gave us food — he was abusing his power in that way. When it happened to me, I switched my shifts so I wasn’t working with him, but then when new girls came in, he did the same thing to them. Eventually, it got to the point where he would force girls to make out with him in the backroom. That’s when [the group of hostesses] ended up filing a report,” Maddie said.

It took years of silence before two of Maddie’s coworkers, also young hostesses, finally shared their experiences. This eventually led more workers to report the harassment. For many hostesses, including Maddie, immense pressure came with speaking up against colleagues.

Illustration by Cate Sullivan

“Individually it felt like, ‘This is happening but is it wrong? He’s so nice to me, he brings me food and I don’t want to ruin things because he’s been working here for so long.’ He was the manager’s favorite and I didn’t want to ruin his life.

I was also really afraid to use my voice to speak up, because everybody really liked him. But once [the hostesses] came together, our experiences were validated,” Maddie said.


A young man working as a busser at the same restaurant also came forward to the manager after the same runner told him, “Once you’re 18 and old enough, you can do anything you want to women and get away with it.”

Olivia, a 2021 Redwood graduate, experienced the negative ramifications of her coworkers acting on that belief. When she was a senior, Olivia was hired at a restaurant in Town Center Corte Madera. There, she worked as an expeditor for about a year.

Early in her career as an expeditor, Olivia received a request on Instagram from one of her coworkers, a middle-aged man. After she declined, he added her on Snapchat. In that same timeframe, Olivia was beginning to face sexual harassment from other male coworkers.

“I was crying to my mom because I was so scared. I was embarrassed, which, in my opinion, is ridiculous, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Olivia said.

As a result, Olivia told her manager about the unprofessional behavior her coworkers were exhibiting.

“He said he was going to talk to [my coworkers] and talk to [human resources] about it. Apparently, he did, but none of it stopped. I just felt kind of helpless at that point,” Olivia said.

When Olivia was 17, the adult men on staff would often touch her waist to get her attention, give her unwanted gifts, make sexual remarks to her and ask her out on dates. Then when Olivia turned 18, she noticed an unsettling shift. Among other instances, a 30-year-old male coworker displayed his excitement that she was no longer a minor. 

Illustration by Cate Sullivan

“He gave me his number, and I looked up at him and [said,] ‘Do you really expect me to call you?’ He [said], ‘Yeah, we have so much fun here.’[I said,]  ‘We’re literally coworkers.’ I threw it away in front of him,” Olivia said.

Eventually, Olivia became so accustomed to the maltreatment she received daily that learning to ignore sexual harassment became a part of the job.

“It definitely could have been worse, but you also grow to adapt to it and learn that there are certain ways to avoid it. [Sexual harassment is] just such a normalized thing now, which sucks,” Olivia said.

  Before working in the restaurant at The Village, Amy worked at a restaurant in Novato. There, one of her male coworkers would make persistent comments about her body and her weight. Due to the harassment, Amy eventually quit. She did not reveal her motives for leaving, instead telling management she was moving on to begin working full time at another restaurant.

“Most of the time, women don’t say anything because we don’t feel like we have any power. A lot of the girls need the money and don’t want to get fired, because they get called liars,” Amy said.

While speaking up is not always a comfortable option for young women experiencing sexual harassment or assault, the California legal system often works in favor of those who do. 

Liana Thomas spends her career amplifying the voices of young women experiencing sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and also protecting them. Thomas was previously an employee at a legal services nonprofit in Washington DC, advising young women in the restaurant industry to exercise their legal rights.

Illustration by Cate Sullivan

“It’s not your fault,” Thomas said. “Nobody asks to be sexually harassed. It doesn’t matter what you said, what outfit you were wearing, if they think you led them on. It’s not your fault that you were sexually harassed and the law is on your side.”

Speaking up starts with putting the restaurant on notice. By speaking to anyone in a supervisory role in the workplace, the company is then required by the law to take action in support of the victim. It is illegal for the restaurant to take retaliatory action against the victim, such as switching them to a less desirable shift or to a new job in the restaurant that pays less. In those cases, Thomas recommends that the victim goes to an outside regulatory agency to take legal action against the company.

After working in legal services two years ago, Thomas is currently employed at Shalom Bayit, a domestic violence organization that uses a feminist empowerment model to end abuse and return power to those who are survivors. One of Thomas’ coworkers, Yael Platt, specializes in sexual harassment prevention, where she leads workshops on consent, relationships, boundaries and more. While Platt encourages young women facing harassment to speak to management, she wants to ensure that, above all else, the victim feels safe.

“In any situation where there’s power, there’s the potential for someone to abuse it, which is of course really disturbing,” Platt said. “We definitely see that a lot in workplaces, especially workplaces like the food industry, where sometimes the policies might not be good or maybe the work gets done under the table. If someone really needs a job, then another person has the power to hold that over them and use that person’s fear of losing their job to keep them quiet. So, whether they choose to speak up or not, either response is valid.”

As of now, Maddie is currently employed at her restaurant, and Olivia and Amy plan to work at the restaurants where they were previously employed during visits home from college.

Maddie, Olivia and Amy’s decision to continue working in an industry corrupted with sexual harassment is not surprising. According to Platt, sexual harassment and abuse have become so common that society is desensitized to it.

Illustration by Cate Sullivan

“We live in a rape culture, [which] means on a cultural level, assault of marginalized genders and rape are normalized,” Platt said. “ Rape culture is not just the fact that people think it’s okay to sexually assault someone while they’re unconscious for example, it’s also the little jokes that we make. It’s the ways that we tolerate other people in our peer groups’ behavior that minimizes people of marginalized genders or that objectifies and sexualizes women.”

To end rape culture in the restaurant industry, Thomas highlights the importance of a legal system ensuring consequences for perpetrators in the workplace. While Thomas’ efforts have proven to be essential, Maddie believes there’s more that can be done. Reflecting upon her experience at her Mill Valley restaurant, Maddie knows that the sexual harassment and assault in her workplace, which has been occurring for over six years, could have been stopped long before her coworkers were victimized.

“Managers and people in the food industry should try harder to be preventative. I mean it was awesome when they found out about the problem they took action, but they really weren’t doing anything to prevent it,” Maddie said.

For Platt, creating an environment of accountability in the workplace is crucial and in order to do so, it starts with strong prevention education.

“Rather than watching some video about harassment and everyone making jokes about it, [and] then going back to their work, [Sexual harassment and assault prevention education] should teach a sense of responsibility toward each other and mutual respect. When a manager sees someone being treated a certain way or learns that [something] inappropriate is happening, [they should] take it seriously rather than writing it off as, ‘Oh, he’s just a jokester. Oh, he’s always doing that.’ There [are] so many ways that people write off and excuse unacceptable behavior,” Platt said.

Platt made a point to say that ending sexual harassment in the restaurant industry should not be the responsibility of young women experiencing the abuse. It can be hard to change a system that has normalized sexual harassment and assault to such a great extent, but the first step is spreading awareness about the issue.

“In all of the teaching that I do, I ask people to think about power and where power is used and abused in relationships where there’s a slight power imbalance. It’s always important to analyze where the power lies in a certain dynamic so that we can, first of all, challenge abuses of power, and second of all, create empathy for people who are in an uneven power dynamic and have to make choices because they are under the power of someone else,” Platt said. 

If you are a victim of sexual harassment or assault or know someone who is, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656. HOPE (4673) or chat online at

Hollaback is a nonprofit working to end sexual harassment. To work with Hollaback via specialized company-wide training, visit