Should Women Always Be Served First?

It’s a tradition, but is it sexist … or even really that efficient?

Waiting tables is a tricky business, full of late nights, ungrateful guests, and the struggle to remember if table 9 asked for their steak cooked medium or medium-rare. As such, experienced servers rely on a whole host of long-practiced standards to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible. These practices, such as making sure to bring the appropriate silverware before a course arrives, are drilled into the head of any new server, and they can save your ass when things get hectic.

Yet recently I’ve had reason to reconsider some of the service standards I’ve taken for granted. It started with an online discussion on the website for the Guild of Sommeliers, when the wine director at Vij’s in Vancouver, B.C., posted about a conversation he’d had with a server who felt that the long-standing practice of serving women first (specifically wine, but it generally holds true with food as well) was perhaps sexist, or at least outdated. A lively discussion ensued, with opinions ranging from agreement to near-outrage that anyone would think that a venerable tradition could have such negative connotations.

To me, the crucial issue here is whether drawing attention to someone’s gender is desirable in a service setting. I think we could all agree that automatically presenting the check to a man, or assuming that a man will order the wine, are sexist and dated practices that make a number of unfounded assumptions. The order of service is perhaps a bit subtler, but I still think it carries certain connotations that no longer apply.

While the origins and intentions of “ladies first” can be spun however you want, there’s no doubt that choosing to serve one gender ahead of others serves to highlight those differences. While in another time and place that might have been desirable, I don’t think it has much place in the modern Seattle.

It becomes particularly glaring in larger groups, as servers and sommeliers weave around and among tables attempting to serve all the women in attendance. Not only is it unwieldy, but it’s error-prone and time-consuming. It can also be jarringly inappropriate at a business event, where everyone should expect to be treated equally. As such, I advocate for serving wine in a clockwise fashion, starting to the left of the person who ordered the wine (presumably the host) and finishing with the host.

Smaller groups are a different matter, of course, and the desires of that individual table should always supersede a restaurant’s default setting. Yet we live in a time when making any kind of assumptions about your guests can be dangerous, so falling back on a service standard that relies solely on seat order spares us all that delicate dance, and allows the server to focus on the things that matter … like pouring me some more wine!