But Women Make Such Good Hostesses: Service and Gendering

A conversation over at laughingrat’s recently got me thinking about gendering and the service industry. At the core of the service industry is, well, service, with certain expectations about how people conduct themselves when providing service and certain standards when it comes to the quality of service. Some of these come with very gendered and very loaded backgrounds.

Rat was talking about how, in librarianship, there are definite differences in terms of what is expected of people working in library settings. She pointed out that one responsibility of librarians is to make libraries a pleasant place to be, and this includes crowd control, reminding people to be quiet in the library. That sentence conjures up a deluge of images of shushing librarians, right? Were they all female?

It’s ok, you can admit it. And, as Rat went on to say, that stereotype is borne out in the way that librarians handle crowd control. A lot of young male librarians in her workplace don’t think it’s an important part of their job, leaving it to the women. Making the library a pleasant environment, part of the service of being a librarian, isn’t deemed important. The women are the hostesses here, evidently. The men focus on the ‘real work’ of reference requests and the like.

I saw this in my own experience in the service industry; in workplaces with mixed genders, I definitely got the sense that some duties were clearly gendered. That women were expected to do more hostessy things to make people feel comfortable and welcome, for example, even if this involved splitting focus and performing multiple tasks at one, while men were allowed to concentrate on ‘important’ tasks. People of other genders were lumped in with whichever gender other people thought was most apt and those expectations transferred on to them; a masculine androgyne, for example, would be excused from ‘womanly duties’ in the workplace.

I think about the way people talk about clerks and counter personnel. Women behind the counter are expected to smile, to be cheery and welcoming, to be highly attentive to the needs of customers, treating them as honored guests. Men are expected to be polite. When I hear people complaining about bad service, it’s often laden with gendered comments and it’s clear to me that people expect different standards of service from different genders.

These expectations tend to carry over into the training of service personnel and the way they conduct themselves in the workplace. It comes in everywhere from the boundaries of ‘professional appearance’ for employees, something I touched on briefly when I was discussing makeup, to the way people are expected to behave around customers. Men can be patronising in many settings while competent people of other genders will be told not to lecture or be pompous, for example. Men can avoid tasks they don’t like and people of other genders are expected to take up the slack.

This isn’t unilateral, of course. I know lots of service environments where this is not the case. But it’s a definite trend, and I’ve talked with a lot of people about the gendering of service and many reference the idea that some people seem to feel certain tasks are beneath them, even if those tasks are part of the job description, and that this tends to fall out along gender lines. Along with that comes the attempt to pass responsibility to people of certain genders when certain situations come up, usually on the grounds that those people ‘would be better.’ Even when that’s demonstrably not the case.

This conversation got me thinking about shifts and trends in the service industry and the way people view service. I note that waiting, a historically male industry, commands a certain degree of respect not available to, for example, people working behind the counter at a bakery. Waiting, we are assured, requires special skills and training. Haughty waiters are tolerated in a way that snooty counter staff are not. Could this possibly be because of the gendering behind the history of the profession? What about the fact that many restaurants have a hostess responsible for meeting people at the front of house (making them welcome…) before handing them over to a waiter (for the real work…). Naturally people don’t always fall into firm gender roles; I’ve seen hosts and waiters of a variety of genders. But there are definitely underlying attitudes here.

And I think about how the standards for service in traditionally male-dominated industries are different than those in industries where people expect to encounter people of other genders. I don’t expect my mechanic to be warm and welcoming, for example. I expect simple, efficient transactions where information is communicated clearly and plainly. Contrast this with what I expect when I go to get my hair cut, where I plan to encounter small chat and small details intended to make me feel warm and welcome.

As gender integration increases I think we’re seeing a reinforcement of gender roles coming up in a lot of workplaces, even if it’s not necessarily intentional. Those male librarians probably aren’t making a conscious choice to create more work for other people and to neglect certain tasks, but they’ve been socialised to consider certain activities beneath them, and to think of certain tasks as being the responsibility of other people, somewhere else. Not them.