From Behind the Bar: On Gender

Alice Gao

What I'm Drinking: Racer 5 IPA (half-pint) Tullamore Dew 10 Year (neat)

A good friend of mine stopped in to see me the other night. It was her first time in the bar and I had not seen her for a very long time. After the initial hugs and how-are-yous, her first comment was, "What, no girls behind the bar?"

It was a Friday night, and my co-worker was also male, so I understood why she asked the question. Back when my friend and I were working together, there was a pretty standard formula in joints, and the thinking went like this: on busy nights, you have one woman and one man behind the bar. The female was there to cater to the male clientele, and the guy was there for whomever else.

Before you blow up the comment-chain, I didn't invent the system or the thinking behind it. The fact was, at Happy Hour, when the bar was full of suits, men would flock to the side of the bar where my partner was making drinks. She was awesome, gregarious, beautiful, and more than able to handle herself in any situation, but we both knew that we made more money when she was working up front. So that is where she worked.

Gender notwithstanding, she was also a rock-star bartender. Her technical proficiency was flawless and her knowledge was incredible, so her role in the business was not simply to shake down men for their tip money. Still, if I ever covered a shift for her, people who normally stayed for hours would have one round and be done. While I might have my charms, they were not the charms they were looking for.

And I'm not talking about cleavage, here. Many people go to bars because they crave human contact. When they're out in the real world, they might not have a lot of friends. They might not be huge hits with the ladies. They might be awkward and, regardless of whatever excellent qualities they have to offer a conversation, they might have a hard time getting people to talk to them.

In a bar, there is a person whose job it is to converse with you. And if you go on a regular basis, they get to know you. They ask about your day. They remember that you went on a job interview. They are paid to care, and given enough time, they often end up actually caring. There are many people now that I count as friends who started out as "that guy who drinks Johnny Black on the rocks."

"I can tell a guy that his haircut makes him look handsome, but it just isn't the same coming from me."

Somewhere between total stranger and long-time regular is a relationship that is based on fantasy, and this is one of two places that the gender issue comes in. While a man might act as father, brother, or buddy, a woman often fulfills the role of fantasy girlfriend, surrogate mother, or some combination of the two. The women that I've worked with have been just as likely to scold a regular for smoking as to flirt with him. They've given advice to customers on how to pop the question and what to give their wives for Christmas. I can tell a guy that his haircut makes him look handsome, but it just isn't the same coming from me.

The other gender issue is this: I can't name one female coworker who I worked with during the first twelve years of my career (and there have been many) who is still tending bar after all this time, still choosing the lifestyle. While there are a lot of women at the very top of the mixology game (which is related to bartending, but has better hours), and a lot of great women who own bars (ditto above, with worse hours), the resounding majority of career bartenders I know are men.

I imagine this will change as bartending begins to regain some respectability as a career. I spent years fighting the impression that I was doing this job because I was an alcoholic, a party animal, or some kind of attention-starved sex fiend. Now, more often than not, I am generally treated as a adult with an actual job. I'm curious to see if this relatively new-found respect will lead more female bartenders to remain in the game.

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