Who Says Women Aren't in Charge

“The number of people that have come to the door and ask to speak to a manager, and had gotten me and asked to speak to ‘the real manager’ is just staggering. Every single woman across this industry would’ve struggled with this at some point.” 

This article first appeared in The Local, a quarterly feature of Neighbourhood newspaper.

By Candice Chung 

 Gem Williamson, Megan Douglas, Amanda Verratti & Anne Kessler. Green Park Hotel, Darlinghurst Photography by Raúl Ortiz de Lejarazu Machin 

Gem Williamson, Megan Douglas, Amanda Verratti & Anne Kessler. Green Park Hotel, Darlinghurst Photography by Raúl Ortiz de Lejarazu Machin 

 

For most of us, the Australian pub has been etched into our cultural DNA as much as Resch’s and devon. In dusty dive bar corners or out in sun-drenched beer gardens, we take pride in our easy drinking habits. But despite being the second country in the world where women won the right to vote, we were one of the last to abolish gender-segregated drinking in public houses. 

As late as the ’50s and ’60s, the bar remained a place of sexual apartheid. Women would drink on the outside steps and in separate ‘ladies’ lounges’ (if the pub had one). Alternatively, they’d have to wait in cars until their husbands eventually stumbled out. It wasn’t until 1965, when protesters Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner famously chained themselves to Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel after being refused service that things began to shift for equal access to pubs nationwide. 

Now, more than half a century later, such a scene seems hard to imagine. But in spite of ending the segregation in pubs, an invisible barrier still exists when it comes to working in one. In Sydney alone, roughly one in 40 bartenders is female. Fewer than one in five management positions are occupied by women in major bars and hotels. And despite an even gender split in wine and viticulture courses, a recent Curtin University study found that only 10 per cent of female graduates make up the workforce.  

 Last year, Amanda Verratti became the first woman to be named Time Out’s Publican of the Year. Now in its fifth year, the award – like many industry accolades – has gone out to male licensees in the past. “It’s ludicrous that this industry has been surviving for so long and men are winning all the awards. This shouldn’t be happening in 2017,” says Verratti. “But if I can be the person that makes someone go, ‘Oh look, a woman can win that award’ then that has to be a good thing.” 

 Verratti has worked as a licensee at some of the Inner West’s most iconic bars in the past three years. Before recently taking the helm at Newtown’s beloved Courthouse, the 32-year-old was managing The Marly. A mentor to female staffers and a champion for creating harassment-free spaces at her venues, she still finds herself fighting “ingrained barriers” every day in the male-dominated industry. 

 “The number of people that have come to the door and ask to speak to a manager, and had gotten me and asked to speak to ‘the real manager’ is just staggering. Every single woman across this industry would’ve struggled with this at some point,” she says. 

 In hospitality, gender remains something of a thorny topic. On the one hand, there’s a lot of talk about female empowerment on the frontline. On the other, you have a deeply stoic work culture where one is expected to rise through the ranks by grinning and bearing it. This breeds a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ atmosphere, where women are less likely to speak out against discrimination, for fear of potential backlash. Those who make it often push on without complaints. Those who don’t, end up dropping out silently. 

Gem Williamson, licensee at neighbourhood stalwart Darlo Bar, notes that while industry attitudes are slowly improving, a lot still rides on “working smart” by choosing female-friendly workplaces. The 29-year-old recalls a time in her early career when she missed out on a promotion to someone who’d barely been at the venue for six months – just because he happened to be male.  

“Compared to five to 10 years ago, there’s definitely a lot more respect for women. Back in the day you’d get overlooked for any management positions, but now there’s more of an even playing field,” says Williamson. 

As a young queer woman, Williamson also makes a conscious effort to work in areas that are gay-friendly. “It’s not just the venues, it’s the people you’re serving as well. I’ve worked in places where people are absolute jerks about it – so I’ve definitely seen the ugly side of this. You’ve got to have a thick skin.” As for those stuck in a toxic work space? “Move on. Because you’re only doing yourself damage.” 

Sometimes the barrier faced by women is less clear-cut than overt sexism. At Darlinghurst’s Green Park Hotel, licensee Megan Douglas says while she has never been shunned because of her gender, she does feel the pressure to work harder in order to stand out. 

“I’ve always pushed myself harder because I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually do this. That I didn’t need that help. I think we do have to prove ourselves a little bit more than some of the men,” she says. 

These days, Douglas is proactive about giving young women a leg up. “For about two to two-and-a-half years, I actually requested to only have female assistant managers underneath me, so I can nurture them and progress them through the company. And let them know hospitality isn’t just a boy’s club.” 

The first step toward improving female representation in hospitality, like any industry, is calling to attention some long-standing gender stereotypes. 

“Most of the time, we’re not talking about conscious sexism. It’s just years and years of ingrained misogyny from a lot of people,” says Verratti. “I work with so many wonderful men who are so good at supporting women, and elevating them and fighting for equal pay for us. But I think we can always do better.” 

 For Anne Kessler, being one of the youngest licensees in Sydney is something she’s proud to flaunt. “I always enjoy it when people say, ‘Can I speak to the manager?’ And I say, yes, you’re speaking to her.” 

At 24, she was made licensee of The Erko and runs a close-knit 70-30 male-to-female team that remains her “first line of support”. 

“There’s so much that we just kind of take as ‘it is what it is,’” says Kessler. “For me, I feel like I haven’t been around long enough to be questioning the way things are – you just work hard and accept it every step along the way instead of saying, ‘Would this be different if I was a guy, do you think I’d get treated differently?’” 

        In recent years, a groundswell of change has been building by key players in the industry. Not-for-profit groups, such as Julia Campbell’s ‘Women in Hospitality’, have been carving out a space for much-needed peer support and raising the media profiles of female talents. Elsewhere, award-winning Paige Aubort’s recently launched Coleman’s Academy has been hosting women-only discussion panels and events around the country, featuring industry icons like Tash Conte, Jessica Arnott, Alex Ross, Myffy Rigby and Harriet Leigh. 

“We’re definitely making progress in that we’re acknowledging more and more the role that women play in hospitality – women are celebrating women now,” says Verratti. And it’s time the rest of the industry caught on. 

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