“The guys always make more in tips than the women do.  Every night.”

Emily Perkins has worked as a server in a North Portland restaurant for three years and her words reflect a system of inequality most of us don’t often talk about.  But, those in the service industry?  “Everybody knows,” Emily says. 

The fact that male servers consistently make more money in tips than female servers seems almost counterintuitive.  The sheer volume of research focusing on the effects of female “attractiveness” or “sexiness” on tipping percentages speaks to the level of preoccupation our society has with the women servers and their sex appeal. [i]  The idea that women make more in tips due to sex appeal is an enduring cultural myth.  

We know that women working full time make only 80% of what men do, but what about tips?  Aren’t they outside of institutional sexism? Shouldn't they be?

                                Photo by  Robert S. Dononvan

                                Photo by Robert S. Dononvan

Tipping as a social norm is the most uniform in restaurant settings—meaning, basically everyone does it (in the U.S.).  On average, we leave our server a 15 to 20 percent gratuity, which is great because servers really do depend on tips to make any sort of living. [ii]  But there’s some interesting psychology that goes into tipping that determines how much is actually added to the bill.  For instance, regulars tip better than first-timers, as we would probably guess. [iii]  Credit card customers also tend to tip higher compared to cash tippers because of the difference in tangibility between the two forms of payment. [iv]  If a group is dining, the larger the party the smaller the per person tip will be because of a diffusion of responsibility—a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. [v]  When it comes to gender and tipping, however, there are multiple factors to consider. 

It’s commonly held that men tip better than women, but this isn’t the full story.  James Andreoni and Lise Vesterlund are economists who study gender differences in altruism and selflessness. Their research suggests that men actually only tip better for small bills while women tip better for large ones. [vi]  This means that when altruism is expensive, women are kinder; when it’s cheap, men are kinder.  Or, more generally, men are more likely to be perfectly selfish or selfless, tipping very generously or barely at all; women are more likely to be egalitarian, tipping consistently, even for larger bills. 

But why do men make more than women in tips?  Two-thirds of restaurant servers are women, after all.  The answer, and the system of inequality that’s driving it, has become more clear thanks to research from Matthew Parrett. For the Journal of Labor Research, Dr. Parrett spent two years studying gender discrimination in restaurant tipping in Virginia, collecting data from 495 customer surveys.  After exiting restaurants, bill-paying customers were asked to fill out anonymous questionnaires about their experience.  Respondents reported how much they had paid and tipped, as well as other information such as server quality and server gender.  What Dr. Parrett found was that men and women earned about the same in tips when the service was perceived to be “exceptional,” but that for any lower service quality women’s tips were lower than men’s.  This led the researcher to conclude, “Female servers are being held to a very high standard, and if this standard is not met, they are treated unfavorably in comparison to male servers who produce the same level of service quality.”  [vii]  Further, the data revealed that male bill-payers were more often discriminating in their tip amounts than female customers, driving the bias in server earnings.

Women are being held to a higher standard than men, even at the same level of service, and earning less because of it.  This is all too familiar.


Drew McGaw loves research, social psychology, and Twitter. @DrewMcGaw tweets from Portland.



[i] Michael Lynn, “Determinants and Consequences of Female Attractiveness and Sexiness: Realistic Tests with Restaurant Waitresses,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 38 (2009): 737-745.

[ii] Michael Lynn and Michael McCall, “Gratitude and Gratuity: A Meta-Analysis of Research on the Service-Tipping Relationship,” Journal of Socio-Economics 29 (2000): 203-214.

[iii] Michael McCall and Ann Lynn, “Restaurant Servers’ Perceptions of Customer Tipping Intentions,” International Journal of Hospitality Management 28, no. 4 (2009): 594-596.

[iv] John A. McCarty et al., “Tipping as a Consumer Behavior: A Qualitative Investigation,” Advances in Consumer Research 17 (1990): 723-727.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] James Andreoni and Lise Vesterlund, “Which is the Fair Sex? Gender Differences in Altruism,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 116, no. 1 (2001): 293-312.

[vii] Matthew Parrett, “Customer Discrimination in Restaurants: Dining Frequency Matters,” Journal of Labor Research 32, no. 2 (2011): 100-103.