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March 7, 2023

Beyond the Binary

The language of dining is heavily gendered. How can businesses adapt to be more welcoming to an increasingly diverse workforce and customer base?

Words: Jess Ho
Illustrations: Sean Kirkpatrick

“Good evening, gentlemen.”

“What can I get you ladies to drink?

“May I take your coat, sir?”

So much of the language of fine dining is gendered. It's deeply engrained in the culture of service, and pervasive enough that many have probably never even considered it. But I certainly have.

I used to work in hospitality. It was my career for most of my professional life. I am also non-binary. My pronouns are they and them.

They and them haven't always been my pronouns. Though I experienced gender dysphoria in my service years, I didn't have the tools, the community, the language or the compassion from my peers to have the discussion, let alone come to a conclusion on gender. It wasn't a concern for my employers. Back then, derogatory jokes about sexuality and gender were commonplace.

In a time where gender cannot be assumed by how an individual presents themselves, or by name, how can industries like hospitality adapt to make everyone feel safe and respected?

Now, when I look through social media accounts, I see notices put up by business owners fighting for the dignity of their staff. These owners demand safety for their workers, call out transphobic and homophobic slurs, and even announce they will not operate on days that aren't respectful to all communities. Making money is not the only goal on the business' agenda.

Despite these positive changes, for most bars and restaurants, any form of political statement can seem like a risk to the bottom line. As general practice, the language of gender is still deeply ingrained in the ritual of dining, from greeting guests as 'ladies and gentlemen', pulling chairs out for women and automatically handing wine lists to men. So, in a time where gender cannot be assumed by how an individual presents themselves, or by name, how can industries like hospitality adapt to make everyone feel safe and respected?

“When we set out to own a business, we started from scratch on what we wanted our culture to be,” says co-owner Rob Libecans of Melbourne CBD cocktail bar Caretaker's Cottage. “We need our guests and staff to feel safe as a bare minimum. That had to start from us.” Despite being a business owned and run by three cisgendered men, there is a Progressive Pride Flag proudly placed behind the bar that signals solidarity with a community the owners aren’t a part of, but actively support. As soon as you walk into the venue, team members greet you with, ‘Welcome friends,’ which Libecans admits is cheesy, but suits the venue perfectly. The greeting sets the tone, and as someone who has known the owners over many years through different gender identities, I have never been misgendered. 

“Placing an importance on these fundamental elements that make up a person’s identity is instrumental to increasing a person’s comfortability.”

For some restaurants, gendered greetings aren’t an issue. Michael Bacash of South Yarra's Bacash said, “We haven’t had an instance where it has been a problem in our restaurant, to the best of my knowledge. We have been around for a while and know all our guests, so greet them accordingly.” For restaurants built on regulars that have been operating for decades, they have had the benefit of time to create personal connections and be introduced to new guests by their regulars.

At newer venues like Sebastian Pasinetti’s OKO, which opened in late 2022, induction starts with introducing yourself along with your pronouns. “Placing an importance on these fundamental elements that make up a person’s identity is instrumental to increasing a person’s comfortability,” says Pasinetti. He opened OKO with a strong emphasis on the care of his employees, conscious that it trickles through to the dining experience for the guest as well.

Staff members are encouraged to introduce themselves to every table they serve at OKO (if comfortable) with their pronouns, which has been very positively received. This simple act allows guests to identify themselves, so they aren’t misgendered during their meal. Pasinetti also recognises that announcing your pronouns comes with a certain amount of privilege, so as a safety measure to avoid misgendering people at all, words like ‘ladies’, ‘guys’, ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are not used in the venue. Instead, when referring to a guest, staff identify them by table number and article of clothing, like ‘The person on table one with the blue shirt.’

For those who have been operating for a little longer, the shift around language came gradually. “In a Google review, someone mentioned that they didn’t appreciate the table being greeted as ‘girls.’” says Bar Liberty’s venue manager, Josh Begbie. “Knowing the server, it wasn’t meant to belittle or embarrass, but it missed the mark. It resulted in a productive in-house conversation. We needed to adjust.” Since the incident, gender-neutral terms like ‘folks’ have been used to greet tables, and gendered greetings have been removed altogether in place of an enthusiastic, ‘Hi there.’ 

Begbie has even gone a step further and recently put in a request with Obee (Bar Liberty’s reservation system) to add a pronouns box to each booking. He believes, “technology is a powerful tool in documenting guest dietaries, favoured tables [and] wine preferences. We should be able to document their pronouns.”

Rico Santos, restaurant manager of Smith and Daughters, says they don’t think pronouns are needed on bookings, “I just greet guests by the name on the booking or use inclusive terminology. Smith and Daughters is very lucky to have a gender-diverse team, so the least of my worries is a guest being misgendered or greeted with exclusive language.” 

Santos is trans and uses he, she and they pronouns. They credit the leadership of Shannon Martinez and the mostly AFAB (assigned female at birth) or femme-identifying management team for cultivating the inclusive environment for staff and guests. As someone who has worked in hospitality for ten years, Santos thinks, “the only system that needs to be in place is creating an environment that is a safe space.”

And these days, both staff and guests keep an eye out for inclusive spaces. “Inclusive language definitely plays a big part in how I gauge if a workplace is for me,” says Santos. “A simple question of ‘what pronouns do you go by’ will speak volumes about the environment.”

By ignoring the needs of a community for the sake of addressing diners as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, a venue closes itself off to an entire demographic.

According to the Australian Government Labour Markets Insights statistics, the median age of hospitality workers is 22. With young adults being the most openly gender-diverse demographic, a failure to use inclusive language is likely to hinder a venue’s ability to capture staff as well as new customers. 

The common sentiment that was shared by every interviewee is that meeting a diverse range of people encourages personal and professional development. “All of the best things about us (Caretaker’s Cottage) have come from listening to others. We are constantly striving to be better for the next person who joins us,” said Libecans. 

It could be argued that neglecting to include inclusive language is something that restaurant operators can’t afford not to do. By ignoring the needs of a community for the sake of addressing diners as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, a venue closes itself off to an entire demographic. As a gender diverse, POC diner, I can gauge if an environment is going to make me feel uncomfortable within five seconds – and those five seconds determine where I spend my money. After speaking with several restaurateurs and managers, it’s clear that I’m not the only person who dines this way. 

“As clichéd as it sounds, we’re in the business of hospitality, and making people comfortable within our walls,” said Begbie. And when comfortability comes by simply respecting a guest, it really isn’t a radical change, but an inevitable evolution in what is considered good hospitality. 

Simple things a business can do to be more inclusive:

  • Display a Progressive Pride Flag: Be clear that your venue supports the LGBTQIA+ community by marking it as a safe and welcoming space. Stickers, flags, window decals and pins can be purchased from the Minus18 website. Free resource kits are also available online. 

  • Book an inclusion workshop to better your workplace: Minus18 offer a range of in-person and online workshops about creating LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace with a focus on professional and interpersonal relationships. If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry; these workshops range from beginner to advanced and are run by experienced presenters. 

  • Foster diversity across leadership roles: Diversity across a business is important at any level, but actively incorporating a wide range of people in leadership roles will ensure that a broader range of voices are heard and respected. This is important for maintaining the culture of the business and its commercial growth.

  • All-gender bathrooms: To respect people verbally is one thing, but physical respect is also essential. By offering at least one all-gender bathroom, you are increasing the comfort of any gender diverse person who patronises your restaurant or bar. 

  • Remove gendered language: Greet guests by name or use inclusive language. Also, pay attention to the way you train your staff with dishes and beverages. Drop descriptions like feminine or masculine when talking about wine and use descriptions that qualify the product instead. If you train your staff this way, they will develop better skills in identifying flavours and selling it to your consumer.

  • Identify your guests needs by using table and cover numbers: This is the easiest way to avoid misgendering a guest. If your venue is not used to cover numbers, refer to the table number and an article of clothing the guest is wearing.

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