For many of us, prior to the #metoo movement, speaking out about our own personal encounters with sexism and abuse across many sectors felt taboo. It was often frowned upon to speak up and outwards against this kind of behaviour that has been accepted for decades. Women are often shunned into silence, and made to feel worth less than how much they are actually worth. This is not a piece to man shame or blame anyone for anything, other than to highlight the kind of behaviour some women face in the hospitality industry.

From the age of 15, I have always been the people pleaser but I have been bullied since I was young and defenceless for bizarre details such as my hairstyles, not having the latest backpack or because I had braces.  Those things stick with you, and even now at the age of 25 when someone comments on my appearance I shrivel back into my shell of feeling powerless and unprotected. As I moved up throughout my professional career, I always sought out a working environment in which I felt safe and looked after. I’ve matured into a much more confident and social type of woman, bubbly with conversation, speaking to strangers and building friendships always came as a second nature.

When I entered the world of hospitality nearly 3 years ago, the buzzing nightlife and fast paced environment was next to none, the freeing feeling of listening to fascinating stories from different people from various walks of life, felt inspired. I often worked long hours, and even longer shifts but with a twinkle in my eye and pep in my step because this type of work never got boring for me. Someone new every day to speak to and swap stories, which was very much appreciated, I had a smile on my face for the world to see. Like most women before me, the odd comment from drunken men isn’t enough to make us feel unnerved, I shrugged off the lingering feeling that filled my entire being and replied simply with a weakened smile “thank you”.

This has become a repeated pattern, what began as flattery has turned sour, at lightning speed.  Standing behind a bar, serving drinks at a click of fingers, I began to slowly but surely withdraw back into my shell, my safe haven. I regressed and became the tight lipped girl I once was throughout my teenage years.  When I first began working in the hospitality sector I showed up for work neatly presented in a clean cut uniform, fresh hair and a light touch of make up to cover some dark circles and a soft touch of highlight to brighten my complexion.  As the feminist in me would say, regardless of dress code, make up or hairstyle, I was not “asking for it”. I did not ask for the glances, the winks, the disgusting comments on my shape or size.

A survey in February 2018 found that almost 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. The survey, created by the non profit group ‘Stop Street Harassment’, also found out the locations of such harassment. Not surprisingly 35% of these experiences happened within the work place.  These figures suggest that workplaces are not safe spaces for women, and not only for bar staff like myself, it is a global pandemic.

My eyes have been opened to the kind of abuse women receive while in the work place, as well as the problem of sexism. The comments grew more frequent and during one incident a member of the public placed their hands on me in a upsetting fashion – I knew it was time to find my voice. The voice I have had in my soul all my life ignited throughout my being and I emerged from my shell, with my head held high and ready to make a change within my work environment. In the past, I would have let an incident like this slide, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had enough of the staring, snide remarks and this was a step too far. I thought I would be met with scoffs and anger but the response I got when I spoke out against this behaviour was a warm, welcoming one. The perpetrator was put in their place and removed from the premises and since then they have stayed well clear from me as requested.

I felt like myself again, the confident woman I always have been, on the journey to rebuke these actions from certain individuals, to stand proudly as a strong woman who sets boundaries and will not take any ill action. While this experience wasn’t the most pleasant, it was an eye opening part of my career in hospitality that I have learned from. This has instilled in me my own core values that I must practice each day and remind myself to stand up and more importantly speak out against such behaviour. The compliments, and the pet names and staring, may seem harmless and “just giving you a compliment” but it is also vital to remember it is not necessary. The impact this can have on a person’s mental health and well being while at work is often detrimental. I often felt like a spectacle for the male gaze, I changed my appearance and often came to work without any make up or fresh hair because I was afraid of being preyed upon by the next male that entered the bar.  The fear was what made me not want to come to work, often hiding out the back and being short with new comers to avoid any sort of unwanted attention. Flash-forward months later and the fear and dread of such behaviour has disappeared. I have come back stronger to my work place with my shoulders back and voice confident. I am able to handle any situation, I continue on, more powerful than ever.

This piece is by Caitlain Rafferety. Follow her on Twitter @Crafferty11