The Standard 20%

Ah, Paris, City of Light. Having recently returned from a 2 week trip to Paris, some cultural differences between France and the U.S.  were brought to light. Some were more expected than others (young bachelors walking home with freshly baked baguettes tucked under their arm . . . American frat boys with Wonder bread can take a leaf from this book) while others were slightly random and startling (shopkeepers don’t appreciate browsing, nobody carries a water bottle). However, one of the most surprising things I experienced was that in my entire time in Paris, I had 3 female servers.

2 weeks of vacation with 3 meals a day. You do the math.


Sweet ratio.

As anyone who has traveled to France will know, it is not a tipping economy. Service is included in the price of the meal, which explains why the price of take-out is often half that of dine-in. Tips are reserved for the exceptional (or for the gullible tourist who believes their server telling them that at this establishment, service is not included).

The logic of tipping is a simple and elegant one: it incentivizes good service. It is an economist’s dream method for compensating service jobs. However, the correlation between good service and bigger tips has been disproven–according to Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, “consumers’ assessments of the quality of service correlate weakly to the amount they tip . . .Rather, customers are likely to tip more in response to servers touching them lightly and crouching next to the table to make conversation than to how often their water glass is refilled – in other words, customers tip more when they like the server, not when the service is good.” (NYT) While women fare better with tips than their male counterparts, these findings are sales-adjusted, so this means that at a given restaurant bill, attractive waitresses receive higher tips. But it has also been long known that male servers are preferred in high-end restaurants, where just with sheer size of bills, tips can get much larger. The logic of tipping falls short if waitstaff are sorted by gender into low-end and high-end dining. There are protections to ensure that servers make at least minimum wage, but this doesn’t fix the gender differences and it is weakly enforced (Daily Beast). This gives restaurant employers a lot of room to exploit their servers.

Indeed, it seems France’s annullment of the practice and the inclusion of a mandated service charge is sufficiently ‘anticapitalist’ and entirely rational. We’re all for it. But the question remains: what happened to the women in France? How did a progressive law contribute to women being underrepresented? With female servers constituting the majority of the U.S.’s waiting staff, we have the ask the question of how a faulty tipping system (or lack thereof) contributes to the overrepresentation of women in the waitstaff profession, particularly in low-end restaurant service, in the U.S., and why France’s ensured tipping had led to an overrepresentation of men in the waitstaff profession?

Economists with more traditional ideas about the innate qualities of the genders like to argue that occupational segregation happens because women and men are just naturally better at different professions from each other, like women being better at jobs that require caring for children. Gary Becker went so far as to argue that women who defied their feminine professional tendencies or tendencies to be stay-at-home mothers were “deviant.” And coincidentally the professions that women are good at tend to be lower paid, like daycare workers and elementary school teachers, or unpaid, like homemakers without wages. But this France versus U.S. comparison adds another dimension, calling into question ideas about gender roles in the labor force and how they correspond with earnings. In the same exact job, when one country ensures fair earnings and  one does not, then why does the country with fair wages for waiting have a predominantly male occupation? What is it about just compensation that has ‘served’ to privilege the male worker over the female one, and how do we deal with it?


Categories: Girl Math, Women at Work

Tags: , , , ,

3 replies

  1. This reminds me of what happened to computer science as the field grew from something that was mostly moderately compensated dead-end public sector jobs to highly compensated private sector jobs with prospects for advancement. See also:

  2. “garcon!” – serving was originally a “male” job anyway. there seems to be some research that female customers prefer to be served by men whereas men are indifferent. given that the restaurant (where tips are included) effectively pays the entire wage of the serving staff, it would make sense that they would employ whomever customers prefer.

  3. I understand the logic of your article but I live near Paris and I have never noticed a so huge proportion of men in this profession. The last month, I went to restaurants several times and :
    – in a pizzerria : the server was a woman;
    -in a pasta restaurant : there were two women and a man;
    -in a french traditionnal restaurant : there were two men;
    -in a wine bar : there were a couple which owned the restaurant and a female employee.
    In bars where there are a lot of male customers who come daily and drink “au comptoir”, the servers are, you’re right, predominantly male.

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