Check Please! Gender Dynamics in Indian Restaurants

In the contemporary hospitality industry in India, traditional gender roles might be so deeply entrenched that they go unnoticed even to the most discerning feminists. Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine your spouse and you are at your favourite restaurant, and you have thoroughly shattered all week-long efforts to diet. When the time comes for the bill to be presented, the waiter places the check in front of you. There may be an implicit assumption guiding the waiter’s choice of placement: that the gentleman is always expected to pay.

Sounds familiar? You may not be at fault for taking offense (either as a man or woman), given that there is no evidence of training that indicates the waiter should always place the bill in front of the man. Gender differences crop up in the hospitality industry in many other forms as well: significant differences in pay, tipping preferences of diners, and sexual harassment at the work place. Some have attributed this to the very structure of the service sector, where operations often exploit traditional gender roles for maximizing their footfalls and bottom lines.

As experimenters, who also enjoy diverse culinary experiences, we set out to observe and verify if casual sexism indeed pervaded the restaurant business in India, by collecting primary data from 20 restaurants spread across Bangalore and Mumbai over the past three months. We included a diverse sample in terms of the average value of the bill, location, and cuisine. To understand if dining group composition made a difference to waiter behaviour, we sometimes visited with friends and relatives of differing ages. Every group consisted of at least two diners (one of each gender). Last, in many of these restaurants, service charges were included as a fixed percentage of the bill value, controlling for any waiter behaviour targeted toward receiving a tip.

On average, the value of the bill per person was Rs. 650, with the maximum being Rs. 1330 (lunch at an upscale Pan-Asian buffet franchise) and the lowest being Rs. 70 (snacks at a restaurant frequented by college students). 50% of the time, we were at the restaurant for lunch, with the average number of diners being close to 3. In 12 out of 20 dine-ins, more than one person placed the order for food, to a waiter who was male almost all the time (the exception was in the case of popular pizzeria chain located in Powai). This observation is already telling of the skewed gender ratio in restaurants in these cities; women were often given the role of handling welcoming and seating guests, but rarely of taking their orders or serving them.

Now for our variable of interest: who was the bill placed in front of when it was called for? 40% percent of the time, the bill was placed before a male diner, even when he neither placed the order nor called for the bill. However, in 35% of all restaurant visits, we found that the waiter placed the bill neutrally between both diners, while the bill was placed in front of the female in only three instances. In two such cases, either the female had asked for the bill or she was seated first in the approach of the waiter. This suggests that it may not just be gender roles at play when the waiter decides to present the bill to guests, but also convenience. In contrast, when the bill was placed in front of the male, there were no instances where this placement was physically more convenient for the waiter. While it is possible that the male calling for the bill influenced this placement decision, one needs to compare this situation with that of when the bill was placed in the middle to learn more.

In the ‘middle’ cases, despite the male calling for the bill nearly 6 out of 7 times, the waiter placed the bill in neutral territory. Interestingly, this happened even in the case where there were an equal number of male and female diners. This may suggest that waiters deploy heuristics when making the decision of where to place the bill; for example, they may place the bill more frequently in front of the person who has asked for it (but not all the time). However, we did not find any significant association between the location of the restaurant and the placement of the bill, but we did find a statistical association between the value of the bill and its placement. This implies that the higher the value of the bill, the more likely it would be placed in front of the male. Further, in two instances where an equal number of males and females were dining, the check was to be split across two debit cards, placed in the check holder. Despite the ‘middle’ placement of the bill, the server presented the Credit Card Machine to the males present, even though one of the cards belonged to a female diner! Instances such as these suggest that casual sexism in the hospitality industry is deeply ingrained in service providers.

Our observational experiment has shown that there are perhaps no ingrained rules in restaurant services that promote casual sexism or perpetuate age-old gender stereotypes (not ones that are consistent, anyway). This investigation, of course, is by no means comprehensive and there may be several other unobserved factors, such as prior interaction with waiters, which determine the position of placement of the bill. The best remedy to any lack of data is by design, more data; therefore, we encourage readers to turn into experimenters and observe how gender dynamics might come into play in their daily lives. As for the hospitality industry – we’ll be watching you.

Anirudh Tagat and Hansika Kapoor