Waiting Tables and Waiting for a Big Break
On Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23, young barista and aspiring financial analyst June (Dreama Walker) tells her co-worker, "I want to succeed, but I want to be judged on the quality of my work, not who I know!" As a riposte, her coworker hands her a mop, ordering her to clean up the vomit on the sandwich case. Burn.
A humbling moment, sure, but we as audience members know that June will ultimately embark on her Wall Street career. Just as we knew that Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends would get to quit Central Perk, the title character of Felicity (Keri Russell) would depart Dean & Deluca, and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would leave the diner in the episode called "Anne." How do we know this? Because on TV, the café, the restaurant, the bar—these are just purgatory for ambitious young women, a stopgap until they unlock (or, in Buffy's case, reunite with) their destinies.
Offscreen, it's true that service jobs can bridge the gap between college and career for college-educated young women. I, too, worked as a restaurant hostess for part of my first couple of years in New York before landing a job in publishing in 2005. But server jobs are not the stepping stone that many young women would like them to be.
The economic downturn is delaying young, educated women's careers. In 2010, only four in ten Americans age 18-29 were working full-time, as opposed to one in two Americans of that age group back in 2006. That means a longer tenure behind the bar for not much more than minimum wage. And, according to The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) report Tipped Over The Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry, there's a stark gender pay gap in the service industry:
Within servers, the industry's largest occupational category, full time, year round, female servers are paid 68 percent of what their male counterparts are paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually). Black female servers are paid only 60 percent of what male servers overall are paid, costing them a deficit of more than $400,000 over a lifetime.
Moreover, the report says 90 percent of these employers don't provide health insurance. And if you think that labor inequality in this sector only impacts young women on an economic level, think again. According to the ROC-United report, "More than one in ten of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers ROC surveyed nationwide reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment in their restaurant."
In this industry, women experience low wages, a lack of health benefits, and the threat of sexual harassment. And we're spending a longer amount of time waiting tables, waiting for a big break that may never come.
I spoke to Emily, 23, of Murray, KY. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing. But she told me, "I know I'm not going to be able to find that job where I am now, and I know I'm not going to be able to move [to New York] for a while. I have to save first in order to not be in debt my entire life. I'm working in fast food right now."
Similarly, in he New York Times video "Graduating Into Debt," Brent McDonald and Matthew Orr's subject, Amanda, a recent SUNY New Paltz grad and cafe worker, said, "The economy went downhill. I've been working retail jobs ever since and trying here and there to pay off student loans. But I just keep on coming up against a wall where you're like, 'Well, I can pay off my student loans, but then I can't eat.'"
As for June of Don't Trust the B-----, she ultimately does get a job offer, with the help of her entertainingly manipulative roommate Chloe. But it's important to distinguish fiction from fact. Onscreen, the café is a backdrop that contrasts with our heroine's corner-office ambitions; there are no mentions of a hostile environment, low wages, or student debt. Instead, it's a barista-as-Cinderella myth that sets up the characters for eventual triumph.
Offscreen, service jobs are not just a trope. They are a fraught solution to economic problems that heavily impact young, college-educated, indebted women. However, these jobs stanch us against further debt. And while that is but incremental relief to young women such as Emily and Amanda, it's still a way of working toward their goals, ever so slowly.
In real life, we don't get rescued from it. It's up to us to rescue ourselves.
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