That Beer Is For Me, Not My Boyfriend

Photographed by Anna Jay
Sexism when eating out doesn’t only happen when it comes to who is expected to pay. It can happen right from the moment you place your order.
There have been several instances in my life when restaurant staff have delivered my order based on gender biases. And every single time it has been a very awkward experience. Why would you assume that beer wasn’t for me? Or that salad wasn’t for him?
"I’ve had waiters assume my boyfriend ordered steak instead of me. He’s had funny looks or comments made about a cocktail being for him. If I order a beer or a cider, it is often given to him instead of me," says Megan Geall, a master's student in London.
These gendered assumptions also extend to allergies, special needs and a person’s dietary preferences.
"I once went to a very posh restaurant and called ahead to inform them that one person in our party – my brother – was gluten-free. We didn’t tell them who it was. But when they brought the food over, they automatically gave the gluten-free dish to me," says Victoria Perllman, a social researcher.
There is also often a 'ladies' version' of a menu in certain restaurants. Restaurateurs argue that 'ladies' menus' (menus without any prices on them) are a thing of the past. But based on technical director Chris Lilley’s experience, they are still very present.
"At a Michelin-starred French restaurant in Athens, my wife was given the 'ladies' menu'. Mine had the prices. We complained. When we asked what they do for business dinners, lesbian couples etc., they claimed that it was 'the French way'," he recalls. 
Lilley has lived in France for 20 years and he says that it is not, in fact, the French way.
Why is this a thing? And how did we get here?
"Sexism is most often the result of cultural conditioning based on the dominant culture and those that are in leadership and power positions," says workplace culture expert Amanda Rue. 
"We often assume that male equates to 'hearty' while female often equates to 'dainty' or 'lighter'. This is conditioning that is developed as part of cultural society based on societal norms, media influence and reinforced stereotypes of gender through generations," she explains.

We often assume that male equates to 'hearty' while female often equates to 'dainty' or 'lighter'. This is conditioning that is developed as part of cultural society based on societal norms, media influence and reinforced stereotypes of gender through generations.

AMANDA RUE, workplace culture expert
Something as simple as the shape of a glass or the colour of a drink could contribute to this bias. Cocktail glasses are usually more elegant and delicate – adjectives that are often associated with women – whereas beer glasses are often bulkier and sturdier. This also reinforces the stereotypes associated with gender
These stereotypes definitely influence a person’s decision to order – or assumption that someone has ordered – something, not to mention the pressure they put on people to behave a certain way in order to appear more masculine or feminine.
All of this brings us right back to how beauty standards and ideas about femininity shape our thinking. In years gone by we had sexist advertisements to contend with. In today's digital age, influencers like the Kardashian Jenners either explicitly or implicitly promote diet culture and unattainable beauty standards, which have a huge hand in contributing to this narrative.
"Many of our biases toward gendered ordering at restaurants are related to traditional beauty standards that are upheld and reinforced by the dominant patriarchal society. In this world, [it is often assumed that] men eat more and consume more meat while women eat less (and healthier foods) to conform to traditional beauty standards of thinness," adds Amanda.
So why do some waiters assume someone’s food and drink preferences based on gender? Mostly, it's just due to personal observations.
"Servers, especially experienced ones, take in a lot of data as they take orders from diners all day and they can see how much each diner ate," says hospitality entrepreneur Alexandra Schrecengost.
"If women are ordering the salmon salad and finishing every bite, a server might be more inclined to suggest that dish to a woman. If men are ordering less fish in general, or more roasted vegetables, it may be more prudent to suggest a meat or hearty vegetable dish. After all, you’re there to help and you know the menu and the clientele," she adds.
Another bias that female patrons often face at restaurants is sexism with wine, which is a heavily male-dominated arena. According to 2019 research conducted by McKinsey and Co., only 4% of C-suite (high-ranking) positions in the wine and spirits industry are held by women.
"I’m a wine buyer – that is literally my job – yet I am completely ignored by the sommelier and I am never asked to taste the wine," says wine buyer Kate J.
Sommelier and wine buyer Jonathan Kleeman says there is no formal gender training involved with serving wine.
"The general rule when it comes to wine is whoever orders the wine, tastes the wine. The person that tastes the wine is to be served last. Ladies generally should be served first. That’s a classical form of wine training if you are formally trained. It’s not gendered in that sense," he explains.
The bottom line is, sexism is still rampant in every industry. But when you’re looking to unwind and have a good time with your colleagues or loved ones, you shouldn’t have to worry about being subjected to gender bias. Not only is it outdated, it can also be an incredibly degrading and embarrassing experience for all parties involved.
In order to prevent sexism like this happening in restaurants – or anywhere, really – it's important to understand our own bias and how it impacts our worldview. We need to unlearn stereotypes and meet people as they are, without expectation of behaviour based on perceived gender identity, however well intentioned it might be.
We also need to remember that at the end of the day, restaurant staff are humans too and that if these blunders do take place, we need to be kind about pointing it out (unless they double down on their choices). And if the problem persists, just stop going to that place to avoid ruining your day.

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series