Boas: changes in cultural context over time reflected in gender roles in a restaurant setting

I have worked in restaurants since I was sixteen. Three restaurants to be exact and sadly I have to admit that two of them were an Applebee’s. In 2008 I left the corporate chain in Kenosha to earn a better living in a family owned supper club that has stood the test of time. The HobNob opened in 1954 at a time when women were waitresses and hostesses and every other position was held by a man: bartender and chef to name just two. Today, I am one of three bartenders that work there; two out of the three of us are women. Just under decade ago, these positions were extremely gendered and rigid whereas today, they are not only diverse but are addressed with a completely different vocabulary: ie, waitress/waiter = server. Today, in conjunction with the addition of women bartenders, there have been women chefs and male servers and hosts, so, clearly times have changed. Boas would argue that these changes in the cultural context of the restaurant and society in turn change the elements of the restaurant’s culture and their meanings.

In the 50’s, a woman’s role in society was quite clear: an ideal woman cooked, cleaned, looked after the children, and concerned herself solely with the happiness of her husband. This image is rather exaggerated but illustrates the frustrations of the women of those generations and the mentality of men of the time. Bill Higgins was the first owner of the HobNob and would see to it that a waitress stayed well into the evening to serve him dinner in the empty restaurant – because he could. Today, that would be considered totally inappropriate and a form of coercion of an employee by her boss. Over the past sixty years there has been incredible progress in equality of gender and race which can be reflected in the cultural context of this supper club as well as any other place of employment due to the fact that the culture surrounding the workplace is magnified in such a concentrated space.

When the HobNob first opened, women were looked down on and considered a nuisance to most men whether or not they were aware of their reliance upon them. When taking an order, I can imagine a waitress of the 50’s having to just accept the condescending tone of the male patron. In contrast, by today’s standards, to be a male or female server and to be disparaged by a patron of either gender is not only impolite of the patron but also plainly disrespectful. Taking a look at the inner workings of the restaurant, women servers of decades past might have been taken for granted, considering their limited roles and ability to be of value. Today, there may be only two male servers at the restaurant, but they are not considered the “strongest” or the “best”. They are equally as important but the female servers, especially the seasoned ones that have been there for years, are more heavily relied upon to solve problems or answer dire questions. The dynamics of the restaurant have certainly changed over the years in relation to the changes in the culture of the local society. To understand where we are as employees at the HobNob, as Boas would point out, we have to look closely at the history of not only the establishment itself but also of the local society.

4 thoughts on “Boas: changes in cultural context over time reflected in gender roles in a restaurant setting

  1. This is very good I liked how you used the restaurant to describe Boas’s theory. It is also neat that you tied local history and gender roles together to describe it.

  2. It is interesting to step back and look how the jobs we have now have changed in hopefully the right direction. I stayed clear of the food industry, but have the utmost respect for those that do both male and female.

  3. Very interesting – I like the idea that we can only understand the gender dynamics of the restaurant in terms of its own history. I would take it further, if I were going to be Boas – I would study ONLY the dynamics of this one restaurant culture. Change, other restaurant cultures, all irrelevant – unless this model of work allocation was borrowed from a neighboring restaurant 🙂

  4. Add equal pay for equal work and the future will start to look a lot brighter. Some sort of incredible upheaval will have to occur for justice to play a bigger role in the shape of culture. Currently, it seems like social groups that are treated as lesser are only begrudgingly given the rights they deserve after a lengthy battle.

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