The Struggles of the Female Bartender

A few nights ago I was walking home from work at 3 a.m. when I decided to go to the 24-hour grocery store to get myself something to eat. I had just finished a twelve-hour bartending shift and I was starving.

As I was browsing the aisles, a man came up to me and said, “you’re so fucking beautiful,” as he proceeded to put his had out to touch me. I completely snapped. I told him that he had absolutely no right to touch me, call me beautiful, or disturb me while I was shopping. I couldn’t believe that someone would so thoughtlessly violate my boundaries, and when I told a friend about what had happened, he said, “well you shouldn’t be out by yourself at 3 a.m.!” I told him that sure, maybe NO ONE should be out in Chicago at 3 a.m., but that if he had been shopping, no one would have touched him or commented on his looks. His response was, “well, I am a dude.”

My experience at the grocery store really got me thinking about how difficult it is to be a female bartender in a city like Chicago, or anywhere else for that matter. For one, perceptions of the industry are inherently sexist. Last year I came across an article on Thrillist, “These Are The 19 Types of Bartenders,” which was littered with sexist stereotypes to describe female bartenders such as the, “one-of-the-guys bartender,” and the, “chick who has no plans of putting herself through college working at a sports bar,” while the more positive descriptions were reserved for male bartenders, including the, “molecular mixologist” and the, “home brewing craft beer guy.”

From my experience, male bartenders are more commonly admired for their work and passion for their craft, while female bartenders are more often stereotyped and pegged as “damaged.” A customer once said to me, “You aren’t the type of girl who I’d expect to be a bartender. You seem smart; you don’t seem like you’re just bartending because you have daddy issues or something.”

As a result of these harmful stereotypes, female bartenders constantly have a point to prove. While our male colleagues thrive on a healthy level of competition and hard work, women need to go the extra mile to prove that we are, in fact, qualified.

Just in the past couple of months, I landed two amazing bar jobs: one at the new Chicago restaurant, Sink|Swim, which was opened by the masterminds behind one of Chicago’s best cocktail bars, Scofflaw, and the other at great classic cocktail lounge, Weegee’s Lounge.  Prior to that, I worked more than a year in a dive bar that was a forty minute bus ride from my apartment and gained cocktail experience by working shifts for free at some of the best cocktail bars in the city. Meanwhile, a male friend of mine was hired as a bartender at a popular Chicago bar with absolutely no prior bartending experience.

I recall talking to a fellow bartender about my frustrations with how difficult it was for me to break into Chicago’s cocktail scene. He explained, “Yea, it is a lot harder for women to be hired as bartenders, but when they do get hired, they always end up being so much better than the rest of us because they had to work that much harder to be taken seriously.”

Even when we do finally succeed, female bartenders are treated as the “shiny object” of the  cocktail scene. Women who call themselves “mixologists” and work in popular cocktail bars are viewed as more intriguing, impressive and unique than our male-counterparts, because we are also the MINORITY; or, perhaps, it is because it is assumed that our role at the bar is to appeal to the male gaze.  If a male coworker and I were to both make the exact same cocktail and serve it to the exact same person, chances are that person would say my cocktail is better because I am a woman, and therefore, I am the more interesting person behind the bar.

At my new job, I am the only female bartender that was hired, and while I am thrilled to work for a company that values and empowers women, I am irked by the remarks I have heard regarding my success. People hold my accomplishment to a higher regard because I am the only woman who was hired; my peers applaud me because I overcame the obstacles of my own gender.

Somehow, being good at what we do, working hard and overcoming a disproportionate amount of obstacles STILL isn’t enough for other people to take female bartenders seriously. Some of the worst comments I have received regarding my success have been centered around my appearance. Someone once asked me, “How do you keep getting these jobs?” Before I could reply, she answered her own questions with, “It’s because you’re so beautiful,” to which I responded, “No, it’s because I am good at my job.” This was not the only time that someone told me that my looks played a major part in my being hired, which I find terribly demeaning.

It is wonderful that female bartenders are being recognized for our accomplishments, but even the media singles us out rather than measuring our worth against both our male and female peers. Thrillist recently put out another article about bartenders, “15 Female Bartenders You Need To Know In Chicago.” While I certainly agree that the women on this list are extraordinary, talented and deserving of recognition, I also find it unfortunate and bothersome that there is a separate list about female bartenders.

While perceptions and stereotypes are the greatest hurdles female bartenders face on a daily basis, there are less obvious factors that make this career difficult for women. As a woman, many employers view me as a liability and a hazard, and have to take extra steps to protect me while I am at work. I don’t really blame them; there are some serious monsters out there and the fact of life is that as a woman, I face greater dangers just by being alive. As a result, most of my employers will not allow me to work shifts that have only one bartender, because as a woman, I can’t close the bar alone for fear of some creep catching on to my hours and assaulting me at 1 a.m. At my old job, I was forced to tip out a barback to stay the entire night with me, meaning I made LESS money that my male coworkers who were allowed to work alone on slow weeknights.

Even getting home at night is a struggle. In 2015, I spent $1,320 taking Ubers home from work at night, even though there is a perfectly reliable bus route from the bar to my apartment. Sometimes my coworkers make fun of me for not having a bike, but I am usually too embarrassed to tell them that I can’t always ride a bike due to a health issue I have that only affects women. I now work at two bars that are both fifteen minute walks to my apartment, but as a woman, it is too dangerous for me to walk home alone at night, and my male friends have even scolded me in the past for not taking an Uber home.

Women face unfair challenges and stereotypes in every industry, but the inequalities that I face and will continue to face as a woman became much more apparent to me once I started bartending. I should be allowed to go to the store and buy a burrito at any time I choose without worrying that a man will sexually harass me. I shouldn’t have to overcome heavier obstacles just because I am a woman, and I shouldn’t have to live in a society that applauds me for overcoming the forces of sexism that work against me in my every day life.

Most of all, I don’t want my life-choices, my success, my image or my character to be measured by my gender — no matter what career path I ultimately choose. I don’t want to join a club of “female mixologists” because I don’t see myself as “separate” from my male counterparts. I don’t want people to constantly point out that I am the only female bartender at the various establishments where I work.

I am tired of struggling to have my voice heard and my talent seen, but I won’t allow flawed perceptions of  my gender to hold me back, and I absolutely will not use societal reactions to my femininity as a crutch or a tool to get ahead.


5 thoughts on “The Struggles of the Female Bartender”

  1. amen! At 32 I was not young enough or hot enough anymore even though I had a following and a badass cocktail list. I’m in a totally different career now and I miss the good days but the bad days can f*** off.

  2. I sadly don’t think things will change soon. What’s that dt chicago bar where the female servers wear nothing but nipple pasties as they sell jello shots? Some Irish place. The things the females wear (or don’t) won’t change any time soon. Looks do mean something (OMG ) when you are wanting respect.

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