It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
In 1943, the New York Times reported on a curious restaurant oddity: New York City’s first — and at that time, only — female sommelier. This sommeliére, who worked at the Algonquin hotel in Times Square, was commended not for her knowledge of wines or skill picking bottles for her guests, but for her ability to humor men and appropriately defer to them.
She “has learned the knack — the envy of many a wife — of being respectful yet not obsequious; of getting her way without offending male vanity,” wrote the Times. She thrived as a woman in the role of sommelier, a job that belonged almost exclusively to men, because she didn’t try to act smart. “One reason she gets along so well with the men,” the piece continued, “is that she sticks to things she knows something about.” Although the woman was named Elizabeth Bird, she also patiently endured her boss’ inexplicable decision to rename her “Francine.”
The earliest reference to New York City’s sommeliers dates back to a classified ad from 1852, which means it took nearly a century for women to break into the city’s wine army. Since then, the progress of XX chromosomes into the good ol’ boys club of wine connoisseurship — in wineries, collectors’ circles, on the restaurant floor — has been slow: As of the time of this writing, 86% of Master Sommeliers, who have achieved the top certification available to restaurant wine pros, are men. Even so, the last few years have seen a flurry of feature stories trumpeting “The Rise of the Female Sommelier,” announcing it’s time to “Make Way for Women” as they claim their places in cellars around the world.
For the past three years, I’ve explored the allegedly enlightened era of gender equality in restaurants while I trained and worked as a sommelier. I quit my job as the executive tech editor at The Huffington Post, got hired as a “cellar rat” — the lowest of the low in the wine industry — and from there embarked on a journey that took me through Michelin-starred restaurants, Trump-country eateries, collectors’ wine “orgies,” and scientists’ labs (all of which eventually led to my book, Cork Dork).
Initially, I was impressed by how little sommeliers resembled the stereotype of a humorless man in a pinstripe suit. More women than ever are pursuing careers in wine. At the restaurant where I worked, my boss was a woman, and so was her boss. My first few blind tasting groups were filled with women, whom I joined at 10 a.m. to sip wine and get schooled on spitting, and I watched female somms dominate cutthroat competitions. And why not? Compared to men, women who train their senses can discriminate far subtler differences in smell — particularly if they’re of childbearing age, research shows.
Yet, I quickly discovered I’d traded one male-dominated domain for another, where a lingering No Girls Allowed clubhouse mentality still shaped the status quo. Silicon Valley’s “brogrammers” dismissed potential dates as gold-digging “founder hounders” who were out to score big off a startup; Manhattan somms bemoaned some female guests as “cork blocks” who dissuaded male companions for splurging on fun bottles that would boost the check.
There was the blind tasting instructor who cracked off-color sexual double-entendres, nicknaming people who discussed a wine before savoring it “premature ejaculators,” or wondering“Did someone touch you inappropriately?” after a female classmate exclaimed at a wine’s aroma. There was the very senior sommelier who offered to let me stay in his “big” hotel room — not that I’d asked — and another who, while drunk, escalated from awkward attempts at flirting to full-out groping, despite knowing I was married.
There was also the auctioneer who informed me (along with a room full of our colleagues) that I’d provided him with hours of masturbation fodder. “In the first fifteen minutes I met her she gave me five to six hours of inspiration,” he said, nicknaming me his “future ex-wife.”
The female somms who stepped out on the floor each evening could be saddled with an extra burden their male colleagues avoided: The men had to command authority, while the women had to command authority and suggest they were open to being seduced.
The diners themselves posed another set of challenges. Male guests, more often than even they might have realized, wanted great wine, good service, and the fantasy the women serving them found them attractive. Even when I or other female sommeliers were merely hospitable — smiling, asking questions, making polite conversation—the men at our tables would interpret the attention the way they chose: leaving their numbers on the checks, or asking for ours before they left. We had to give the impression we weren’t closed to their advances and humor their flirtations (at least until the check arrived) because this is a tipped industry, where people pay you only as much as they like you.
The female somms who stepped out on the floor each evening could be saddled with an extra burden their male colleagues avoided: The men had to command authority, while the women had to command authority and suggest they were open to being seduced. I was unsurprised to learn the restaurant industry accounts for more sexual harassment complaints than any other industry in the United States.
The women we served would often bring their own suspicions, doubts, and double-standards. They were disproportionately skeptical of our abilities: They’d call over a man to double-check our work. “Are you sure that’s a full pour?” at least two different women would ask me, per shift, or “Are you positive that’s the wine I ordered?” (To both: Yes, totally, 100% sure.)
I grumbled about this to my male coworkers, who were taken aback — no one had ever questioned them in that way. Women could be landmines, suspecting us of hitting on their dates, or trying to pump their companions for cash. “Especially if it’s a couple, you always want to go up and smile at the wife — ‘Hi, how are you, how are you doing?’— so she’s not thinking, ‘Who’s this bitch who’s trying to get my husband to spend lots of money?’” a more experienced female sommelier advised me. It sounds paranoid, until you consider another female somm —pretty, young — got excoriated by a customer in a Yelp review because the guest suspected the sommelier had flirted with her husband.
These occurrences, far from the exception, tend to be so common as to go unremarked, and it’s hard to see how they can’t be blamed for delaying the progress of women into the upper echelons of food and wine. This is doubly unfortunate because the rewards of a career in the field are so many. The hours are long and work grueling, but it is a community distinguished by passion, curiosity, camaraderie, and a fanatical dedication to the often overlooked beauty that emerges from service and flavor.
Restaurants sometimes take matters into their own hands. One banned a profligate regular who, despite his lavish tabs, spent one too many evenings propositioning servers to sleep with his friends. Other times, women devise their own defenses: A female colleague, who was single, added an engagement ring to her work uniform. “It makes my life easier,” she said. “I can avoid certain conversations.” Groups like Chefs with Issues have been created by members of the food industry to help front- and back-of-the-house staffers speak out and find support.
And yet even in New York City — the proud site of women’s marches, protests, not-my-president calls-to-arms — the problem is not some amorphous “them.” It can be us. We pat ourselves on the back for splurging on cage-free eggs and grass-fed beef while overlooking the people who serve us, turning a blind eye to the ways we subvert their success. In that sense, we are also the solution, one that can start by not just eating thoughtfully, but dining with care, with a mind toward supporting the women, and men, whose work in restaurants turn meals into cherished memories.
Bianca Bosker is the author of CORK DORK: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste, published March 28.