A Melbourne cafe that only launched last week has already copped significant backlash online after introducing an optional 18% “tax” for male customers.
The cafe, called Handsome Her, is located in Brunswick and offers a variety of vegan and vegetarian options to customers. The business opened on August 4, staffed by a team of women, and with a chalkboard out the front which quickly stoked the fire of outrage.
“Handsome Her is a safe space for women. House rules: 1. Women have priority seating,” the sign read.
“2. Men will be charged an 18% premium to reflect the gender pay gap (2016) which is donated to a women’s service. 3. Respect goes both ways.”
— Paige Cardona (@paigecardona) August 3, 2017
Speaking to Broadsheet, Handsome Her owner Alex O’Brien clarified the nature of the “premium”, saying the policy ran for one week a month and was an optional choice for male customers when paying. The business says this was an effort to draw attention to the issue of pay equality.
“I do want people to think about it, because we’ve had this (pay discrepancy) for decades and decades and we’re bringing it to the forefront of people’s minds. I like that it is making men stop and question their privilege a little bit,” O’Brien said.
“One of my friends who works for a not-for-profit women’s service was talking about the pay gap and I thought it was a good idea, so we decided that one week every month we would charge men an 18 per cent premium, which we will donate.”
“It is a bit more tongue in cheek. If someone doesn’t want to pay the tax, we will just wipe it.”
O’Brien told Broadsheet the cafe had received “nothing from positivity” from customers, both male and female, but comments online told a different story.
In a response to an image of the chalkboard posted on Twitter, users were quick to label it “discrimination” and a “feminism tax”.
“Women get priority seating”. Can’t explain that away with pay gap. She sounds like a misandrist.
— Stuart McIntyre (@s_d_mcintyre) August 3, 2017
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It was a similar story on Facebook, with one comment writer saying “It’s giving women extra rights at the expense of men. That’s not fair and it’s not equality, bludy [sic] awful”.
The business made a subsequent post on its Facebook page, saying it had been a “hectic couple of days”, and praised its staff for weathering a “social media storm”.
“It’s not every day that your boss pulls you into her fire-pit of feminism and you have to quickly become warriors and defend where you work and what you do on a level that others never do,” the business wrote.
Facing backlash? “Nut out” your responses early
While acknowledging negative comments are part and parcel of business’ social media presence, director at InsideOut PR Nicole Reaney believes this business would have been “naive” to its payment policy “wouldn’t cop any backlash”.
“The hospitality industry is so competitive with a large female market within it, and they’re trying to capture that,” Reaney told SmartCompany.
“They’ve gained some publicity off it, but they went in knowing it would be controversial.”
For businesses dealing with anticipated significant social media backlash, Reaney advises SMEs to take some time and “nut out” the various responses customers might have to any potentially controversial approach.
“Think about not only your core customers but think externally to how any particular group you’ve identified might respond,” she says.
“Then, identify how you would respond if you decide to, and what platforms you’ll use.”
In a comment on its social media page, Handsome Her notified customers it was forced to put “a string of security measures in place” to restrict comments from outraged internet warriors. Reaney says this is a solid move if businesses are dealing with an influx of “trolls”, but says SMEs should endeavour to take the bad with the good.
“In this day and age, if you are putting yourself out there in the public domain, you have to prepare for both the positive and negative comments,” she says.
“Just let it ride its wave, and it will settle down eventually.”
SmartCompany contacted Handsome Her but did not receive a response prior to publication.