Workplace sexism is an issue for all women, so why focus on the ones with office jobs?

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Kirsten Owens

Kirsten Owens is tired of her industry - hospitality - being ignored in discussions of gender equity and workplace sexism.

Kirsten Owens is tired of her industry - hospitality - being ignored in discussions of gender equity and workplace sexism. Photo: Stocksy

 Most public discussions of issues affecting women and gender equity in the workplace, frames every workplace as a corporate one. Stock images that accompany articles depict white women doing white collar jobs, and the baseline assumption is that a 'job' is something you do in an office, where all your coworkers wear suits, and you have a manager and a board and an HR department.

As a measure of how 'well' women are doing in the workplace, discussions like these render a large number of us invisible. I have worked what is commonly referred to as an 'unskilled' job (read - does not require a tertiary education) for the last fifteen years. I work in frontline hospitality, and I'm one of those women who are disproportionately represented in part-time, casual, service industry jobs. The word 'unskilled' in itself is a problem, as it makes it easy for others to not value our work very highly, and by extension, to not value us as human beings the same way you value, for instance, a doctor or a lawyer or accountant or journalist.

Take, for example, the recent outcry regarding the comments made by Eddie McGuire et al towards their colleague Caroline Wilson. I was happy to see the public protest, but at home I said to my partner; "If they speak that way about someone they see as a professional equal, think about how bad the waitresses who work at their corporate functions get it." I recognise every guffawing middle-aged grosso in a suit I've ever had to serve in the McGuires and the Newmans - something that was a watershed moment for women working in football and sports' journalism is pretty much what we call 'Thursday' in hospoland. And nobody is writing op-eds on our behalf.

I love my job. I love the high level of interaction with others, I love looking after people, I love the science and the artistry in the food and beverage industry. I love how the high pressure services create extreme solidarity amongst your team, and I love working with a bunch of young, liberal-minded, creative weirdos. My work day is fun, and it's tough; the flexibility of doing shift work fits my life; and I wouldn't swap my job for a perceived 'better' one.

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But I am fortunate enough to work in a 'good' place, and I'm not blind to the unique challenges facing women working not only in hospitality but in other service jobs. We're often part of larger societal groups that are already vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous bosses - the very young, recent immigrants and ESL speakers have it especially rough. Workplace representation or advocacy is often non-existent; casual employment that gives little guarantee of stable week-to-week income, leave entitlements or even basic job security is rife; and in a small business there's often no reporting line or recourse for unfair treatment.

Gendered harassment and abuse can happen in even the most so-called 'respectable' workplace, but those of us who work in low-status jobs are probably easier targets. I've been called 'bitch' and 'whore' and had my employment threatened by clientele, been manhandled, and had to smile through sexually suggestive 'jokes' (because it's just quicker and easier) time and again.

I have the luxury of knowing that my crew and my employer have my back - the stress would be ten times worse were this not the case, and there are plenty of others who aren't as lucky as me.

Within the workforce I'm a part of, gender lines present another problem. Men often hold the 'professionalised' jobs such as chef or barista, whereas women do the literal serving. In a conflict between someone who is seen to possess technical competency that is essential to the business, and another who is seen as largely expendable... Well, it leaves the person with less power with little to bargain with. And anyone who's watched Gordon Ramsay or Masterchef (hey there all-male judging panel!) knows all about those famous chef tempers.

Workers' and feminist movements that fail to advocate for the rights and safety of those on the lower rungs of society's ladder automatically become classist and exclusionary to the people who need them the most. Everyone I know who has any involvement in social activism is well aware of this, but there's a massive stumbling block in terms of practical access or applicability for the working class.

Gender parity on boards does not make my work day easier or more welcoming. Business coaching that teaches how to negotiate a pay rise is useless to women who work for industry award. Lean In is completely unrelatable to me. Important networking events that occur on weekends and during evenings (when a lot of us shift workers are, y'know, at work) pass us by and keep us disconnected (this is where the internet and social media can be awesome, but obviously how woman-friendly online spaces are is a subject for a whole different article).

Mainstream media articles discussing women at work that fail to give any recognition to the existence of jobs like mine delegitimise the real, hard, skilled labour involved in service work. And it legitimises the propensity of the more privileged to treat us like shit, both socially and professionally.

All women should be able to do the work they choose, are suited to, and need, where their basic safety, security and wellbeing at work is looked after. Don't let gender equity in the workplace be a middle-class circle-jerk that mostly looks after the interests of middle-class, university-educated women.

And be nice to your waitress.