Waiting tables: a great example of sexism

It’s amazing how many perceptions factor into tipping waiters and waitresses, and how many of them are blatantly and mind-bogglingly sexist, and how people somehow manage to believe gender equality has already arrived. An examination of just this one job is enough to blow that away. My “data” will be anecdotal, because I can’t find any studies into the psychology behind how people tip men and women (probably because gender equality has already arrived, right?).

I used to wait tables myself, and we often debated whether women or men got better tips. There were a lot of supposed truisms about tipping psychology. We’d conduct little experiments, such as comparing the tips regular customers left waiters versus waitresses. These are the conclusions I came to, based on those totally unscientific experiments:

  • “People tip the opposite sex more than their own because they’re sexually attracted to them.” Generally, people do tip the opposite gender a higher percentage than they tip their own gender. But it didn’t just apply to “cute” servers, as it would have if it was about sex. There are actually two reasons why this happens: women consider getting waited on by men a real treat, while men see male waiters as an uncomfortable shift from the status quo in which men control resources and exchange them for services from women. Women also tend to be over-awed if a waiter gets things halfway right, while being far more critical of the waitress who, in the words of one female customer “just does what I do all day long at home.”
  • “Women are cheaper tippers than men.” Generally, women tip the same percentages as men, but because they order less food and alcohol, their checks are smaller. The problem is not that women are cheap. It’s that we need a better metric for determining tips than the “percentage of the bill” method.
  • “People tip more if they’re attracted to their server.” I found this plausible, but we never found evidence to back it up. People tip hugely when they feel they’ve gotten outstanding service, when they feel sorry for a server (say, working late on a holiday) or just because they are a consistent big tipper.

Interestingly, I’ve been having some really lousy experiences with male waiters and male managers at restaurants lately. Why? Because they have tunnel vision: they only see the tables they’re looking directly at. I spent ten minutes on Saturday waving an empty drink glass high in the air at a manager and a server who never, ever glanced in my direction. And it’s a small restaurant.

This is not a biological trait. Lots of men develop the learned-automatic trait of looking around to see if anyone else needs anything. But women are typically conditioned from birth to do this. Boys are typically raised to concern themselves with how they’re going to get their needs met. Girls are typically raised to worry about whether they’re meeting other people’s needs. I know: I was raised like a boy, and I never got very good at anticipating people’s needs in a service environment.

Of course, the way people can look at examples like this and still think sexism has disappeared is that they simply frame everything they see in terms of certain comfortable assumptions.


  1. says

    Re: “Generally, people do tip the opposite gender a higher percentage than they tip their own gender.”

    Did you check this both ways? I’m a straight woman, and I don’t give either gender preference when it comes to tipping.

  2. Patrick McGraw says

    Regarding how we already have gender equality, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard variations on “Everything is equal now, so why won’t those bitches shut up?”

  3. Ellen Kelly says

    As someone who hopes to get work as a waitron soon (well, waitress, being of the female persuasion) – an interesting experience when submitting an online job application:

    Sent in CV and covering letter by email – 15:00
    Response from employer requesting photo – 15:05
    Sent photo, mentioning that a photo was included in the CV document, but here was a separate jpeg copy – 15:10
    Response from employer…… two days and counting.

    Though he’s probably just collating all the CVs etc that he’s received and will get back to me in the fullness of time….

      • says

        Where I live (Germany) they cannot require you to send a photo, but everyone knows you have slim chances of getting a response if you don’t send one.

        It’s still better than in my own country (Argentina) where they not only ask for a photo, but list “good presence” as a requisite even to restack merchandise at a supermarket.

    • Anne says

      That sounds dubious. If I were you I’d check policies and law on that, and the BBB maybe. I mean, if you’re worried that it’s not supposed to happen; if you’re okay with it then that’s up to you!

      It seems weird to ask for a photo instead of a phone interview or something, personally.

      • Ellen Kelly says

        This is the first time I’ve applied for hospitality work in a few years, and I included my photo in my CV because I noticed a lot of job adverts requested one. I hadn’t really thought of the legality of it, though I’m not really fussed. I guess in the kind of jobs I’ve applied for – certainly for the job discussed above, waitressing at a Beer festival – personal presentation is important (positive spin)/some people doing the hiring have the impression that cute girls will get more customers (negative spin). Mostly the timing of his responses made me laugh!

  4. Dom Camus says

    men see male waiters as an uncomfortable shift from the status quo in which men control resources and exchange them for services from women

    This is missing a quantifier. Do you mean “all men”, “most men”, “some men”? Is this a theory you have, an empirical observation, received wisdom or what?

    we need a better metric for determining tips than the “percentage of the bill” method

    This is an interesting observation… because in theory each customer is already free to tip as they choose.

    • DragonLord says

      One of the fun things about general rules is that they apply to groups rather than individuals, and groups make things so much simpler as groups of people/things are far far more predictable than individuals.

      As such making the rule more specific would just lead to it being less accurate.

    • says

      Boy, it sure is interesting that you only complained about the lack of a quantifier in talking about men. Just ahead of that bit you quoted I gave a general reason why women would tip men more, but that generalization doesn’t worry you. Hmm. Interesting!

      As to your questions: which part of “These are the conclusions I came to, based on those totally unscientific experiments” didn’t you understand?

      I can’t decide if this is a strawman argument you’re making, a failure to read the comment before responding to what you *think* it said, or a request for article editing left in comments instead of the contact form. In any of those cases, it breaks our comment rules.

      • Casey says

        I think you should pre-emptively banhammer him, or else he’ll whinge some more about women stomping on his ickle toesies via quantifying language about TEH MENZ~!!!

        But you don’t answer to ME, so….’mjussayin 😛

      • Dom Camus says

        It’s not that your generalization about women is necessarily any better, it’s that your generalization about men doesn’t apply to me and so I was curious as to how you’d arrived at it.

        As to your questions: which part of “These are the conclusions I came to, based on those totally unscientific experiments” didn’t you understand?

        The part I didn’t understand is how the experiments (which sounded like they were statistical in nature, based on analyzing a large sample of tips) related to the psychological explanations you offered for the observed behaviour.

        Also, I apologize to Casey, and to anyone else who found my comment similarly triggering. Indeed there was a gender bias there, fairly called out, but I do not in fact consider that my “ickle toesies” have been stomped in any way. I find psychology very interesting, is all.

        • says

          The generalization about women doesn’t apply to me or, if you’ve read the comments, at least 2 other women who’ve spoken up. I don’t really understand why you’re asking about stats on something I referred to as “totally unscientific experiments”, but here’s how we got the data and how I formed that particular conclusion.

          –We had regulars. We would compare the percentage tip they left when different people waited on them.
          –“Conventional wisdom” said that people tip their opposite gender more because people supposedly think with their genitals, I guess. We were surprised to find that while they did most often tip the opposite gender a slightly higher percentage, the sexual attraction reason offered for it didn’t fit. We noticed conflicts, such as: the more a customer flirted with waitstaff, the less they tipped! It was as if they thought the flirting was in lieu of payment, or perhaps in their minds that they’d established a “friendship” and you don’t have to tip “friends.”
          –Additionally, ordinary-looking waitstaff tended to do as well as the really cute waitstaff, so that made sexual attraction motives seem most unlikely. If lust wasn’t driving the opposite-gender higher tipping trend, I asked myself what other social factors were likely. Also, around that time, I was very (badly) impressed by the woman who said she wasn’t going to tip a waitress much “because she’s just doing what I do all day for free!” and that got me thinking: if women perceived table waiting as something they did themselves with no pay and no gratitude, no wonder they tipped women less. We weren’t “entitled” to more for just doing what women “naturally” do.
          But that didn’t explain men tipping women more than men. If it wasn’t out of lust, what was it? I paid closer attention not only to customers, but friends and family, and began hearing occasional comments from men indicating that waiting tables in a mid-price restaurant (or even, possibly, in a 5-star restaurant) was a weirdly feminine thing that Real Men would not be doing, therefore all servers were probably gay, or at least defective in their manhood. (Yes, they were completely serious.) So I concocted the conclusion that they didn’t want to financially reward men who bucked masculinity trends or, gasp, might even be Teh Gay.

  5. vanth says

    I enjoy the luxury of five star restaurants, on special occasions. I can tell you in those establishments the majority of the wait staff are male. There are a few women, but really the balance is flipped in comparison to the wait staff at a chain middle end restaurant. In fine dining the male servers are just as attentive and detail orientated as you could want.

    This disparity between chain and fine dining is often a contentious issue with the women I know who are servers. They try often to break into the ‘fine dining’ but it’s a hard nut to crack as the desired applicant is male.

    The reason the women want these jobs is clear, if a tip is even 15% or 20% there’s a huge difference between a chain’s total bill and that of a ‘swanky’ restaurant where the bill for just 2 can be hundred’s of dollars.

    • Anne says

      Do you know why the wait staffs are male? That may sound rhetorical, but I’m actually curious. Me being the poor recent college grad I am I haven’t ever really experienced five star restaurants. I’m thinking maybe because female wait staff may have an automatically sexual “vibe” imposed on them by social views of wait staff (Hooters, cocktail waitresses, and then the idea that they have to be flirtatious and the reinforcement in films–Supernatural, for one, often uses waitresses as an easy go-to for people a male protagonist can find quickly to get laid, or at least imply that that’s what he’s looking for). I might think that this imagined quality has something to do with it, but I’m just thinking “out loud” as it were. I’d also guess it has something to do with men being automatically viewed as more competent. *shrug*

      • DragonLady says

        I had a buddy of mine who attended a Cordon Bleu culinary school and her instructor told her that the reason five-star restaurants hire male waitstaff is that a man is automatically distracted by a woman on sight, particularly a pretty woman. Women, OTOH, are not distracted in the same way/intensity by a man, even a handsome one. Therefore, by hiring male waitstaff the restaurant assured that it’s customers’ attention remained on the food.

        If it were me, I would have printed out every comment on every Criminal Minds board I could find about Aaron Hotchner and his suits, dropped it on this professor’s desk, and started looking for a new major/career path. My buddy instead finished her education and worked in fine dining for a year before realizing that working under that kind of sexualized perception wasn’t something she wanted to do.

        • Anne says

          Wow. Just, wow. Obviously they need to sit in on a women in film course, to learn that part of the “justification” for having mostly male protagonists is that men want to identify with him and women want to have sex with him. Unless they’re assuming their only patrons are male, as well.

          Also, Aaron Hotchner FTW! Although I definitely like Reid way better. I stopped watching this season though, because of their casting changes. Can’t support a show that does that.

          • Anne says

            Then they should appeal to the men, amiright? By having attractive female servers (because in wacko ***** world I’m guessing they’ve never heard of gay men and other gender types, since, well, attractive men kinda stand out for people attracted to them….) for the male patrons paying for dates to eyegasm all over? I mean, if their staff is all male, then the dates their male patrons bring might be more attracted to the wait staff than the dates and then those men are screwed! (See, fancy restaurants? I can use terrible logic too! :D)

          • DragonLady says

            I totally understand, what they did to AJ Cook was crap. I’m still watching because I want Paget Brewster (OMGLOVE), Kirsten Vangness (LOVE) and Thomas Gibson to keep getting paid. Especially Kirsten who, Hollywood being what it is, will have a harder time finding a new gig than the other two EVEN THOUGH she is just as epically awesome.


        • says

          I totally buy that this is the theory behind hiring male waitstaff (and even then, it sucks from an equality standpoint), but I don’t buy the theory itself. I can get so distracted by attractive men that I fail to focus on what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve also watched men be totally oblivious to the presence of a stunningly gorgeous woman.

          I would have printed out every comment on every Criminal Minds board I could find about Aaron Hotchner and his suits, dropped it on this professor’s desk, and started looking for a new major/career path

          So it’s not just me. Good to know!

          • DragonLady says

            Oh, the theory is total BS based less in fact than in the patriarchal notion that female sexuality is an aberrant and shameful phenomenon that crops up now and then — rather than just as healthy, constant, and normal as male sexuality. It’s rather like the fellows who insist that slash must be motivated by some deep-seated emotional motive/trauma rather than being the female equivalent of the male fascination for lesbian porn. (Now, whether slash is fair to homosexual men/the lesbian fetish of men is fair to homosexual women is another debate entirely.)

        • sbg says

          That’s about the silliest thing I’ve heard in awhile, and I’m dealing with a group of people who are quite possibly the most ridiculously entitled and ignorant-of-the-real-world folks I’ve ever met.

          Hyperbole, I love you so.

          But it’s still daft to think a man can pour a glass of water less disruptively than a woman. Why? Because she’s got boobs?

          Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve run into doors because I was distracted by a handsome man. I should be embarrassed to admit that. I’m not. 😉

      • vanth says

        The ‘official’ reason is the women don’t have the experience in fine dining. Another reason a friend was told long long ago was she wouldn’t look good in the tuxedo shirt. In other words, excuses.

        I can buy the interest in the food excuse. The server at fine dining is usually very inconspicuous and just fluidly refills the glass without asking if you want more. The majority of women I’ve had as servers are middle aged and present an appearance of ‘dignified’ over sexually pleasing the same as the men.

  6. INTPLibrarian says

    Some help from a librarian regarding some studies that have been done:

    Seiter, John S & Weger, Harry Jr.. (2010). The effect of generalized compliments, sex of server, and size of dining party on tipping behavior in restaurants. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40, 1-12.

    Bodvarsson, Ö. B., Luksetich, W. A., & McDermott, S. Why do diners tip: Rule-of-thumb or valuation of service? Applied Economics, 35(15), 1659-1665. doi:10.1080/0003684032000126799
    Boyes, W. J., Mounts Jr., W. S., & Sowell, C. (2004). Restaurant tipping: Free-riding, social acceptance, and gender differences. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34(12), 2616-2628.
    Crous, M. E. (2010). Gendering at work: The production, performance and regulation of gendered subjects at a stellenbosch restaurant. South African Review of Sociology, 41(2), 15-22. doi:10.1080/21528586.2010.490376
    Harris, M. B. (1995). Waiters, customers, and service: Some tips about tipping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(8), 725-744.
    Hubbard, A. S. E., Tsuji, A. A., Williams, C., & Seatriz Jr., V. (2003). Effects of touch on gratuities received in same-gender and cross-gender dyads. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(11), 2427-2438.
    Jacobsen, J. P. (2007). Occupational segregation and the tipping phenomenon: The contrary case of court reporting in the USA. Gender, Work & Organization, 14(2), 130-161. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0432.2007.00336.x
    Lynn, M., & Latané, B. (1984). The psychology of restaurant tipping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 14(6), 549-561. Rind, B., & Bordia, P. (1996). Effect on restaurant tipping of male and female servers drawing a happy smiling face on the backs of customers checks. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26(3), 218-225.
    Rind, B. E. A. r. e., Bordia, P., Hubbard,Amy S.Ebesu1 Email Address: aebesu@hawaii.edu, Tsuji, A. A., Williams, C., Seatriz Jr., V., et al. Effect on restaurant tipping of male and female servers drawing a happy smiling face on the backs of customers checks
    Rogelberg, S. G., Balzer, W. K., Ployhart, R. E., & Yonker, R. D. (1999). Using policy capturing to examine tipping decisions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(12), 2567-2590.
    Stephen, R., & Zweigenhaft, R. L. (1986). The effect on tipping of a waitress touching male and female customers. Journal of Social Psychology, 126(1), 141.

  7. Shaun says

    Interesting. I’m a waiter now and I’ve waited tables maybe half of my adult life. I have definitely noticed women tip me more than men, but at most places I’ve worked the general consensus was that waitresses made more. I’m not totally sure if that’s true or if it’s just a slant because most places/employers prefer to hire women.

    I do remember noticing that certain male regulars would tip waitresses more than waiters, which aggravated me, but I hadn’t really noticed the reverse. I kind of want to ask around now more specifically.

    There ARE a lot of gay/queer people waiting tables, I don’t really know why. I know in places like NY people who are trying to break into theater wait tables since the hours are flexible and the pay is nice, and theater people tend to be queer, but I don’t know why that’d be true across the country. The PERCEPTION of how gay waiters are is definitely overinflated. I’ve overheard customers speculate or boldly state the homosexuality of my straight male co-workers a couple of times. It’s always men too, which is funny since my current job has more lesbians than gays working at it right now.

    Women don’t get the same kind of… heterosexism directed at them, but there’s a kind of skeezy sexual receptivity thing going on too. Like, most places I’ve worked at disproportionately hire waitresses who are young and attractive, but when they hire males they’ll hire them with almost any appearance. I don’t even think I’ve noticed older or less attractive women bother to apply at my current job–I suppose somebody could make the argument that’s why they don’t get hired, but when 19 out of 20 waitresses at a place are pretty and under 30, that’s a pretty clear signal not to bother.

    • says

      I’ve waited tables in the southeast and northwest – the percentage of gays appeared to be about the same as it is anywhere else. I can imagine it being elevated in NYV for the reason you mentioned, and probably some other places. But generally, I agree with you that the perception is inflated and misdirected.

      Heterosexism… yeah. It does come at women differently than men, generally speaking. People evaluate men on the basis of whether they are Real Men, so it’s important to them to suss out Teh Gayz. But they evaluate women on how tantalizing they are to hetero men. Since a lesbian can be tantalizing to hetero men, it’s not so important to figure out whether she’s gay or not. Most “I think she’s a lesbian” speculation is reserved for women who aren’t obviously doing their best to tantalize men: not shaving visible body hair, for example, or standing up for themselves straightforwardly instead of coyly getting around male obstacles.

      • Shaun says

        I guess I don’t really understand how it comes at men and women differently, though I can tell it does, and I’m trying to figure out how to word it without suggesting I don’t think lesbians experience heterosexism.

        Like, for example. One of my co-workers is extremely pretty and very… charismatic. She’s told me waiting tables is a performance, and that my presentation sometimes matters more than my actual service. She’s a lesbian, but hardly anybody comments, or even guesses. Yet they make comments about waitresses who don’t hit all those categories, or speculate about them even when they’re actually straight. But it seems like just knowing a waiter is gay affects the way men react around him regardless of how “feminine” his cues are.

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