Gender-based violence is a big concern in hospitality – and women bear the brunt of managing it


Gender-based violence, particularly sexual harassment, is a serious and persistent problem across the workforce.

But our new research paints a concerning picture of the extent of the problem in the hospitality industry.

We interviewed 124 hospitality workers in Melbourne and Newcastle from a range of different bars, restaurants and cafes.

We found young women, queer and gender diverse workers are on the front line in responding to and managing the threat of gender-based violence in their venues.

Women bar workers were also routinely seen as “better suited” to manage the threat of violence.

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‘The line is clear’

Gendered dynamics are particularly stark in service labour.

Enduring sexual harassment was described as a routine “part of the job” for young people, particularly in women in bar work.

Workers insisted the line between friendliness and harassment from patrons in bar work is “very clear”. Karen*, a bar worker from Melbourne, said

The line is very clear. I think it’s as soon as you feel unsafe in a situation, it’s like ‘don’t say to me, anything explicit about what you want to do with me’. That’s obviously, deeply inappropriate. I’m serving you a drink.

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Ben, a barista in Newcastle, wanted management to clearly designate “the line” for what is “acceptable” or “unacceptable” behaviour, rather than placing responsibility on the individual to “speak out”.

Why is it not standardised across venues? I feel like that line [calling out bad behaviour] is dictated by your superiors.

Workers like Ben, whose managers didn’t have processes for protecting staff, meant risks had to be assessed and navigated by workers on their own. Learning how to manage harassing or abusive customers was considered a normal and essential part of the job, particularly impacting women, gender diverse and queer workers.

Women routinely expected to manage violence

In our study, women bar workers were regularly called upon to defuse violent or aggressive patrons. Women were expected to be “calmer” and “kinder”, creating significant risk of harm for them.

Felicity, a Melbourne bar worker, said:

If a guy is in for a bit of argie [looking to fight], the absolute worst thing you can do is send a male bar member to deal with it […] Women can deescalate that situation far better, nine times out of ten.

A pub worker from Newcastle, Stan, said:

Some guys just want to kick off and will start a fight over anything […] It doesn’t matter what you do in those situations, you’re pretty much fucked. Unless you’re a female [staff member], to be honest.

This expectation to manage violence is an unrecognised extra form of gendered labour which women are primarily expected to undertake.

Women, queer and gender diverse workers also described instances of being spat at, followed home, and threats of physical and sexual violence.

Given the scale and breadth of gendered violence against women, the normalised position that women are “better suited” to manage violence is risky and exploitative.

Five recommendations to change the industry

We suggest five recommendations targeting employers, policy and resourcing to create change in the industry.

  1. new policies for addressing sexual harassment in front-of-house service labour are needed. This includes processes for registering and resolving complaints, investigations and outcomes, which should be developed by government and industry in consultation with workers

  2. the hospitality industry should develop tailored approaches, in line with the new positive duty under the Sex Discrimination Act, to support businesses and venues to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. This should address key areas such as effective education and training. It should also focus on recording all instances of gender-based violence so the true scale of the problem can be better understood and monitored over time

  3. hospitality management strategies should implement a “zero tolerance” approach to account for, and reduce the risk of, sexual and gender-based harassment. Behavioural expectations between workers, and workers and employers, should be discussed and agreed upon

  4. hospitality venues must continue to improve gender equity across all staffing positions to support developing skills and the value of diverse experience in hospitality

  5. increased state and federal funding is needed for local organisations to deliver training, resources and campaigning tailored for hospitality workers based on their experiences. This will lead to better outcomes in the industry.

These changes can create safer and more respectful workplaces for all.

*All names attributed to quotes from participants in this study are pseudonyms.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Julia Coffey, University of Newcastle; David Farrugia, Deakin University; Lena Molnar, University of Newcastle; Megan Sharp, The University of Melbourne, and Steven Threadgold, University of Newcastle.

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Julia Coffey receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

David Farrugia receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Lena Molnar works for Women with Disabilities Victoria.

Steven Threadgold received funding from the Australian Research Council for this project.

Megan Sharp does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.