Are you being served?

Published in The Guardian on 4 July 2005
View the published article here

Do women get as good a deal as men in the pub, the restaurant or the car showroom? To find out, Rachel Bell set Valerie, 64, Rachel, 33, and David, 44, a series of tests

A table for one at J Sheekey, a smart London restaurant

Valerie Roberts, 64, retired teacher
They took me to a table for two and offered me a newspaper immediately. The table was a bit tucked away – I think they were being tactful.

I wished I was wearing darker clothes and had to tell myself I should stop caring about what I looked like as no one was interested. I bottled out of ordering the things I wasn’t sure of and played with my glass a lot for something to do with my hands. I wished I’d accepted that offer of a newspaper! When I wanted to pay, it took two attempts to get noticed. The coffee was cold and I didn’t complain. How weak is that?

Rachel Essex, 33, jewellery maker
I was seated at the end of the bar and I was glad of that bit of privacy. The waitress insisted on bringing me a magazine to read, even though I’d said no. They took a long time to take my order so I had to ask the bar staff to take it. “Oh, I thought you were waiting for someone,” he said and I felt like I was supposed to give an explanation. I did feel a little unusual but I was quite happy. I’m good at being on my own, I enjoy nice food and I do treat myself, so I wondered why I don’t eat in posh restaurants on my own. If you’re single, you just don’t do things like that.

David Royle, 44, actor
I was seated at the bar with a couple on either side, which was fine. There was no Chardonnay, only a vintage left and the waiter said I could have it for the same price. The waiters were really friendly and wanted to talk about the wines in detail. I’ve eaten in restaurants like this before alone. It’s no problem. I’d do it more if it was like Barcelona or Paris and I could sit outside. Did they offer me a newspaper? No.

Test-driving a car

At Dagenham Motors, Tottenham

The salesman saw me browsing and came over. He sat me down, opening the doors, and pulling out the chair for me. He warned me about the financial regulations act and said he had to show me the hire purchase agreement, whether I needed it or not. So he was honest. After filling in the questionnaire, he showed me three cars that fitted my criteria well and offered me a test drive. I declined but he sat in the car next to me and went through all the controls. He kept a professional distance throughout. He was a perfect gentleman. I’m old enough not to be an object of desire but I think car salesmen have had proper training these days. In my 40s, they were cheeky and randy.

At Euro Cars, in Tulse Hill

As soon as I arrived the salesman pointed to the crappest, cheapest, smallest car on the lot and said, “This one’s good for you.” It was £800. I told him my budget was five grand so he said, “Why don’t you buy the Smart car? This is perfect for you.” I said it was only a two-seater and more than five grand so he said the Ford Ka was perfect for me. He asked if I was Spanish or Italian and all the men came out one by one and asked me the same thing and had a joke with me. I asked to test a Vauxhall Astra and had to ask all the questions about its service history and miles on the clock. Before I started he said, “Clutch in” and instructed me the whole way, which was only around the block.

At Scotts of Westminster, London

I was happy with the test drive in a new Volkswagen Beetle and I wanted the basic model, strictly no extras, in bright blue. The salesman was young and keen. He had a 2L Golf with loads of extras and a sunroof and worked on me to sell it. He said it would take three to four months to get the Beetle. I knew that was rubbish, I worked in a garage for five years. So I played his game and said I’d wait. I paid for the Beetle and went home. When I got there he called and said it would take three weeks but they could only get one with a sunroof for £600 extra. I said forget it, I was coming back for my money. He called me back and said OK, I could have the basic.

Joining a gym

At Fitness First

The young girl who showed me around was reassuring, very aware of older women’s needs and feelings. She showed me the women-only area, explaining that women often start here first because they feel shy about their bodies and using the equipment. The girl pointed to a woman on one of the machines with wonderfully toned arms and said, “She’s your age, she’s 60.” Then the manager, this bloke in his 30s with blonde spiky hair, joined us and he put his arm round my shoulders and round my waist. He was very friendly – not offensive, just one of those people who don’t know that’s how you don’t behave. He said I had a fantastic figure for my age. Then he gave me and the girl a big kiss on the cheek and said he was off for the weekend. People just don’t do that to 60-year-old women – that hasn’t happened to me for ages.

at Holmes Place

The fitness instructor took me up to the juice bar to fill out the forms so it was all low-key but professional. As I passed the clipboard back to him, my arm brushed his and he said, “Oh, you’re skin is so soft.” It was quite an innocuous comment but suddenly you’re not a fitness instructor and client, you’re just two people. It changed the dynamic. When we were on the machines, I was much more aware of how I was interacting with him. It’s not a huge deal but it threw me. You just want it to be business-like.”

At a local public gym

I had a group induction with two men and three women. The instructor treated everybody the same – he was straight up, very thorough. He showed us the correct way to use the equipment and then said he was going to ask questions and if you got the answer wrong, you’d have to do 25 sit-ups. Because I was in the army, I didn’t mind but my sister wouldn’t have liked it.

Enquiring about buying a computer at n-genius electronics, London

Normally I approach sales staff but this time I decided to look around. All the staff were young men. Although I made eye contact with one, he didn’t respond. I saw one approach a young woman who was just standing by the door staring into space. I saw another approach three men before me, even though I was behaving in a more interested way than others were. Once an assistant did approach me though, he was very helpful, polite, thorough and informative. I couldn’t fault him.

The assistant was courteous but he was after a sale – he was looking elsewhere in the shop while he was talking to me. When I asked him about the difference between two processors, he said, “Well, it’s a bit complicated actually but basically it’s about battery life.” Isn’t it his job to explain something complicated? The content of what he said was patronising but the way he said it wasn’t, it was subtle – so I didn’t get feisty and say, ‘Well try me, explain it!’ I got the impression he couldn’t be bothered.

I was just browsing and the assistant came up to me. I said, “How come this computer has 60Gb and is £100 cheaper than the one with 40Gb. He explained that you can use a digital camera with the 40Gb one and that it’s got firewire. I told him what I was ignorant about and he explained everything very thoroughly. He gave me his full attention and I didn’t feel any pressure to buy.

Getting served in a pub

I had to assert myself at the bar to get served, literally wave my tenner about. Two men just shouted their orders and got served before me. It was at least 10 minutes until I got my drink. After sitting down for about half an hour, I imagined people must be looking at me and thinking I’d been stood up or had no friends. I had nothing to read so I made some notes – I wanted something to do. I wouldn’t bother having a drink alone normally, unless I knew I was meeting someone there.

One guy squashed in ahead of me at the bar but when he realised he was apologetic. I’m not a very pubby person, I’d choose a cafe over a pub if I wanted a drink. It’s not something I’d do unless I was meeting someone. I was quite happy to just people-watch. I was aware of peoples’ glances and if I hadn’t been able to sit down I would have felt like a right lemon.

I’m a 44-year-old man, I go into millions of pubs on my own and it’s never any problem. It was pretty packed but I got served straight away. I wouldn’t go into a pub to socialise on my own. They’re full of drunk young lads. I don’t look for female attention. I just go in occasionally to get a fruit juice or sit down and have a fag.

Booking a room for one at The Sanderson Hotel, London

The young man at the desk seemed rather bored with the whole process of booking me in. When I said I’d like to book a room, he said, “Would that be a standard room?” so I asked if the singles are of a decent size as they can be a little pokey. He replied, “You can sneak someone in if you want but we only provide one breakfast.” I didn’t like the connotations of deceit and sexual activity. It was unprofessional. I was embarrassed and felt wrong-footed. He then assumed I was a Miss Roberts without asking. That offended me as I’m not a shrivelled up spinster. The right thing to do would have been to ask, “Is it Ms?”

The woman on reception only offered me the standard or deluxe room. I may have liked the superior or penthouse. I was surprised to discover that a room for a single person is only £25 lower than it would be for a couple. Finding out the cost with VAT was really laboured. It took the woman an age to work it out. Did I feel self-conscious? No. Hotels are quite anonymous.

I spoke to a woman at the desk and she asked me, “What sort of room do you want?” So I asked her if I could see the penthouse suites. There were guys in trendy suits and I was in my jeans but I didn’t feel out of place. They were really nice and friendly. I had a joke with the receptionist and she offered me a discount on the room – £60 off.

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