Service In The South: On Being A Woman Who Bartends

By Clair McLafferty

In 2012, I graduated Birmingham-Southern College with degrees in physics and English and the dream of climbing the corporate ladder at a multinational company. Over the next year, I worked first in data entry at a local corporation, then as a technical copywriter for a pain clinic. Life in the cube farm was even less rewarding than I had imagined. After many hours of repetitive tasks in windowless cubes, I discovered many of my coworkers had been in the same position for years, and few of them had gotten any raises at all.

A year later, I was drinking to deal with the boredom and emotional strain. One night in May, I asked a bartender I had been writing about for years for a job. He asked, “Are you serious?” Once I’d responded yes, he set up a meeting between the manager and me. When I went home to tell my fiancé, he was glad. “Oh, thank god,” he said. “You’re miserable.”

Clair | Credit: Jessica Jack Wyrick

Starting out as a barback was hard work, but I loved it. I spent my time outside work learning everything I could about spirits, cocktails and history. Weekend trips to cities near Birmingham included visits to their cocktail bars for research. Everything—the drinks’ histories, the science behind them, the celebrities and drinking culture—was captivating. I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe that I get paid to share this knowledge and introduce people to cocktails.

Once I started pulling shifts by myself, something changed. Complete strangers—not customers who were/have become friends—began asking me what I did outside of bartending, because “[I] seem too smart for this job.” Other common (and unsolicited) questions included, “What do your parents think of your work?” (I’m a grown-ass woman), “Why did you start bartending?” (Office jobs are the definition of my personal hell and I hate mornings), and my personal favorite, “What does your man think of this?” (He’s my biggest supporter, not that it’s any of your beeswax).

I became puzzled when I realized I’d never seen anyone ask my male coworkers the same questions. As the only female bartender (both then and now), I trained with men. I learned how to interact with customers from men, and picked up their verbiage and mannerisms over time. A few customers complained about my behavior, and for a while, I was puzzled and upset since I was doing the same thing as the other bartenders around me.

At the time, I resolved to do better and provide customers with better service. I spent more time talking and paying attention to their conversational needs. But this change meant that I was leaning on my coworkers (whom I was paying) to pick up the slack. I treated them exactly how I had been treated as a barback, and they complained to the bar manager. For the record, my manager was (and is) my biggest advocate, and had my back at every turn.

It wasn’t until then that I realized my gender might be the issue. I’m a woman who bartends, but I didn’t dress or act any differently from the male bartenders, and it made people uncomfortable. The situation was doubly difficult because I didn’t have a female mentor, and I’ve never been good at navigating gender-based societal expectations. So, I donned my emotional armor and started experimenting with different styles of customer interactions. My skin thickened, but the lack of respect that prompted people to ask questions remained. The few times I (politely) told customers that it was none of their business, they became sarcastic and acted almost offended.

To keep my job, I changed my behavior to parallel the Southern standard for women. Luckily, there’s a long history of quirkiness and friendliness inherent to this qualification, and I have both in spades. Now, instead of asking what someone would like to drink, I offer a variety of whimsical ways to order (including making a drink based on the last book they read). I do my best to maintain a welcoming and well-kept bar for all customers and to create drinks that are pleasing to all palates. I’ve even theorized a “Ulysses” cocktail. (Spoiler: It contains almost everything behind the bar with no set standard of measurement and is shaken, stirred and finally poured out in front of you.)

One of the most continually frustrating parts of being a woman in this situation is the lack of resources. In the service industry, your relationships with customers determine your income. Your stories become tied to those of the people who trust you (implicitly, explicitly, or accidentally) with their secrets. It’s difficult to write about the profession without writing about the people. It’s damn near impossible to discuss gender issues without talking about customers.

The result from that is that no one talks about it. On the Internet, the conversation devolves into rants about how “a young busty blonde is nice to look at, but does not usually have the brains or experience to carry a decent conversation. after all, we are therapists also.” Thanks for the insight, Bar Bill from Cincinnati. News articles about young, female bartenders usually focus on how sex is used to sell drinks. With few resources available, challenges can be difficult to navigate and can quickly push young, intelligent women out of the industry.

After a few particularly frustrating nights, I brought the subject up with my bar manager/co-worker/friend. He laughed it off at first, but when I listed off several examples of the differences, he started getting more serious. I’ve since discussed the subject with several of my newer male coworkers, and almost all of them have commented on the differences they see in customers’ behavior.

I started this conversation within the workplace to spread awareness of the (still!) pervasive double standards. Even though that’s been successful, the dialogue isn’t happening on a larger scale. This Jezebel article was one of the few I could find—and I looked for a while.

The concept of a gender-based double standard is so deeply rooted within our culture that it may not change within my lifetime. But we have to try—have to keep starting uncomfortable conversations and standing up for ourselves in any way we can. As the cliché goes, if you see something, say something. If enough people do, it might just make the difference.

 About Clair

SCWMK-3239Clair McLafferty is a Birmingham, Alabama-based bartender and freelance writer. She loves science fiction, large dogs, and stiff cups of Earl Grey.

View Comment (1)
  • As a female bartender in California, I related to this article. Granted there is a different culture where I bartend, in fact we have mostly female bartenders. However all my male coworkers will comment on how I have “it easy” as a female whenever I get a decent tip, or compliment, while they actually have to be talented and intelligent. For both sexes, awareness is paramount.

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