It’s safe to safe – this blog comes with a heavy trigger warning about sexual assault – and Mum, Dad; if you’re reading this…it’s probably best you don’t read any further.
It would come as no surprise that with so much in the media regarding sexual assault and harassment, as well as the yearly ‘date’ of my own trauma looming, that a lot has been playing on my mind. This is my story of an industry I used to work in, and the untold story of my own assault experience – a side I’ve not shared before.
Sexual assault and harassment isn’t a new thing and is widespread far beyond just the film industry and cases like Harvey Weinstein. In my previous career, as a female in the male dominated industry that is hospitality; for 12 years I was so vulnerable, exposed and with very little support; I have nothing but empathy for all of the women currently coming forward in Hollywood. Nothing is worse than feeling like your voice won’t be heard, taken seriously, or at worst the finger of blame will be pointed back at you.
From the age of 13 I was glass collecting in the local British Legion where men old enough to be my granddad openly made sexual references to my appearance, knowing my Dad was chairman of that branch. From the age of 16 I worked as a waitress in a hotel, where my first Christmas there, I was groped by footballers who saw me as entertainment or their property just on the grounds they were spending money. Countless times, I’ve had chefs from the safety of the other side of the pass asking and insinuating hideously inappropriate things to myself and my other young female colleagues.
The power they held was excruciatingly intimidating. You’d be terrified of any of these scenarios playing out on your shift, going into work full of fear. But equally, as a young female, you didn’t know who to speak to about it. All managers were male. Was this just how hospitality was, all of this harassment was just to be tolerated for the sake of a job? Would I be believed? Would I be making things more difficult for myself? Especially when it came to the taming of the beast that is a chef, you daren’t speak out against them or report them in fear they’d make your job even more intolerable.
These experiences? Just the tip of the iceberg. The notion of ownership, lewd comments and even more inappropriate behaviour was rife until I became a manager and put on a suit. It was then, I was no longer bait, but I was the protector of my female members of staff. The amount of times 16 year old waitresses, never had anything sexual said to them in their lives, showing me the harassment some of the chefs were sending them on twitter out of hours and the questions they were being pinned to in the kitchen. I lived in fear expecting any day for a phone call off one of their parents; and I would quite agree with any outrage that would have come my way.
One evening, after a wine merchant launch I had attended with head chef, sharing a taxi home he tried forcing me to kiss him. Eventually giving up trying to get his tongue in my mouth, he spent the remainder of the taxi licking my cheek. The next day I had to go into work, where his then pregnant wife was a colleague. He laughed the whole situation off. I inevitably was mortified.
Soon after, I left this hotel and moved to the Lake District where the night before my first shift I was assaulted by the member of staff who’s job I would be taking. The full story of which can be read here. I’ve made no secret of the ordeal I went through; I’ve fully believed in being open about it to encourage others to do the same and finally hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions. There is an element of my story I’ve barely shared but has played on my mind a lot the 2 years since it happened; something I probably wouldn’t have brought up had it not been for the recent media attention surrounding assault. This thing that’s played on my mind is how colleagues around me at the venue, particularly the hotel itself reacted to the incident.
On the day it happened, I was advised by the police to lock myself into the hotel room I was staying in. Waiting for them to arrive, I called the General Manager of the hotel, who was offsite for a few days. He had been a friend and a well respected manager at a venue I’d previously worked at. I had come to work at this new venue for him. My calls weren’t answered so I was left to text. I kept it brief. An equally short response was received. I begged for a phone call, as did a friend who called him, asking for me to be called asap for support. It was 3 days later I received that phone call.
Not widely known, I actually returned to the hotel to work. Stubborn and driven, I wanted to prove to myself that if it was going to fuck up, it’d be my own fault and not the fault of this horrid incident. I’d lost enough, I didn’t need to lose this opportunity of a lifetime for my career. On returning, the hotel hadn’t made any attempt to cover up the perpetrators name – clearly visible on training sheets, first aid sheets, cocktail specs…everywhere I went to hide if I needed 5 minutes headspace – there it was staring me in the face.
The other staff were inevitably wary about how to approach me as they’d worked with HIM for 2 years, but some were a lot more cold and uncivil than others. The only other female on the team was in sales and also someone I shared staff accommodation with; I never got more than a grunt from her. The team of chefs were rude, unprofessional and most of the time ignored me – which makes it pretty difficult for a new restaurant manager to not only gain respect from her new team but also to do the fundamentals of her job. It was horrid. I had no support up there and dreaded going into each and every shift.
The hotel’s general reaction was of minimal care or support – very much doing the bare minimum to appease the situation. One thing that truly sticks out and is reflective of the general reaction to assault and harassment across the board – not just hospitality – is one thing that was said to me in my ‘Welcome Back’ meeting on returning.
‘We’re treating it as an outside hotel incident’
At the time I was in too much shock to appreciate the gravity of these words. Over time it has played on me and I was going to just leave it. But recent weeks, this one sentence has had me angrier than anything before.
I was a member of hotel staff. He was a member of hotel staff. I was up there to work. He was to be training me. The hotel had suggested he take me for a welcome meal the night before my first shift. It happened in a bedroom at the hotel – not staff accommodation – a hotel bedroom, (which I later had to check guests into). Explain, exactly how is that NOT a hotel situation? Well and truly washed their hands of any kind of responsibility. The few preventative measures suggested by the police following my incident soon wavered and things were back to normal in their eyes before I left.
On leaving, I felt guilty for the Head Chef as he’d started his new role at the hotel without a functional restaurant manager. I was unsure if he knew what had gone on, so when I got home I sent a text thanking him for his time, briefly explaining the situation and that how I presented myself there wasn’t a true representation of what I was capable of. I didn’t even get a response. The arrogance someone has to have to ignore such a heartfelt text is baffling; not even the courtesy to send a basic reply to placate. Worse still, I heard from another member of staff he’d told others about it, and how ‘Fucked up’ it was. Fucked up for him? HOW?
My next and final venue in hospitality wasn’t a great deal better. Within 3 weeks of being there I had walked out. Not only broken from ridiculous rotas, poor team management and hideously understaffed; there was not an ounce of staff care. One night finishing work at 4am on my own in Manchester City Centre, I walked the 5 minutes to the room I was renting. 3 guys cornered me and if I hadn’t set off my panic alarm, things would have been very different. Inevitably shaken, at 7am and unable to sleep, due back in at 11am, I called the General Manager, explaining the situation and asked if I could take the day off or at worst come in just for evening service. He knew of what happened in the Lakes. His response? ‘Whilst I understand your circumstance, please understand ours and that we will be left severely understaffed’. Not even an enquiry about if I was OK. 10am, I quit the job and I left hospitality for good.
I wish my experiences were anomalies. I know so many other females with similar experiences. I know hospitality isn’t alone in industries where this behaviour is rife; but it’s certainly no angel and as it stands, very little is done to support women and to discourage this kind of harassment. All of the men I’ve talked about above had wives, girlfriends, sisters or daughters. How can so few be willing or wanting to stand up for women? I wonder how differently any of them would have reacted if it had happened to women in their lives? You wouldn’t accept this behaviour if it happened anywhere else, why here?
It is only through working together and looking out for each other that anything will change. Women AND men together. Something has to change, and it has to start now. We deserve better than this.