Nepalese (New) Women Workers in the Hotel Industry: Exploring Women’s Work and Respectability

  • Mona Shrestha Adhikari


This chapter uses qualitative data to explore the experiential accounts of women workers in the hotel industry in Nepal as they perform and resist gendered work, aesthetic and sexualised labour. Findings illustrate that management has a role to play in the way femininity is produced; management expects and controls women’s work, aesthetic and sartorial practices and performances of labour through organisational codes of conduct. However, as a consequence of trade union, the presumably new power structure, women appear to be engaged in resisting and negotiating with the organisational codes of conduct. In the Nepalese context where growth of tourism industry is instrumental in the development of the country, could this indicate the emergence of ‘new’ women workers within the hotel industry?


This research attempts to contribute to the scant existing literature on women’s work in the hotel industry in Nepal. I discuss women’s experiential accounts regarding their performance1 of gendered work, aesthetic labour (Warhurst et al. 2000) and (hetero) sexualised2 labour (Warhurst and Nickson 2009). I explore how they are conforming to, but also resisting and negotiating, organisational rules and respectability at work. When discussing women’s work, it is important to understand how gendered work is continuously changing, as well as its implications for new womanhood. I question if the negotiation and resistance exhibited indicates an emergence of new women workers in the hotel industry of Nepal.

Women’s entry into the labour market is important not only in terms of wages but also because it challenges existing constraints on women’s mobility—restrictions to the household, which is normatively women’s domain. Acker (1990) argues that organisations are not gender-neutral, and gender stereotypes exist at the workplace, which at times are reinforced by organisational policies and management practices. Notions of masculinity and femininity are attached to defining the job and the hierarchy in an organisation.

Globally, there has been an expansion in the service sector which, according to McDowell (2007, p. 408), ‘has been associated with significant changes in the gender divisions of labour and in the significance of gender relations and embodied performances in workplaces’. Studies on (interactive) service work (see Hochschild [1983]2003; Enarson 1993; Adkins 1995; Pettinger 2005; Deshotels and Forsyth 2006; Wolkowitz 2006; McDowell 2009) have explored how emotional labour, aesthetic labour and sexualised labour are gendered.

In Nepal, tourism is an important sector of the national economy and a major foreign exchange earner. Government policies in Nepal have focused on the economic development of the country by harnessing the potential of the tourism industry. The government has also recognised women’s economic contribution in it.

According to CBS (2009), 1.65 per cent of all women in the service sector labour force are employed in the hotel and restaurant sector. These both show an increase in the proportion of their female workforce from 45 per cent in 1998–1999 to 52 per cent in 2008 (CBS 1999). Due to a lack of detailed data, the extent of changes to the casino workforce is unknown. However, while the number of women joining the workforce of hotels, resorts and casinos in Nepal seems to be on the rise, there is very little gender disaggregated data that ‘counts women’ and their participation in organisations.

For example, few studies such as those by CBS (2004), Khanal (2005) and Upadhyay et al. (2011) on gendered employment in the hotels and resorts have documented the masculinisation of the sector. Demonstrating field survey data in 2008, Upadhyay et al. (2011) note that 18 per cent of the workforce in five-star hotels and 35 per cent of the total casino workforce were women. Thus, women workers are significantly outnumbered by male workers in hotels and resorts. Yet, Khanal (2005) finds that managers preferred to employ women in some departments, such as the reservation, sales and marketing, guest relations, front desk and housekeeping departments, because women were considered to have more convincing and negotiating capacity than men as and to be more patient, soft-spoken, polite and dedicated to work.

Fernando and Cohen (2013) point out that while studies of women workers in the West have not considered moral issues explicitly, in South Asia, concerns about respectability in relation to women’s behavioural norms outside the home have been raised as a crucial issue. Radhakrishnan (2009) highlights that respectable femininity is an ideological gendered construct. In her study on the IT industry, professional women present themselves as balancing work and family, culturally appropriate yet modern, exercising the right amount of freedom and conforming to ‘appropriate’ sexual behaviours. Additionally, Hussein (2015), in her study on urban middle-class professional women in Bangladesh, alerts that only by examining how women are redoing respectability and shifting the binary understanding of respectable or unrespectable, modern or traditional, can we analyse their progression towards new womanhood.

Moving beyond gendered workforce data, my study contributes to the more general understanding of women’s performance of interactive service work by taking a deeper look into how women conform, resist and negotiate at work. I explore how women perform gendered work, aesthetic labour and sexualised labour in the Nepalese hotel industry and further analyse women’s engagement in bringing change in the way femininity is produced in interactive service work. I also explore how women negotiate respectability at work; this, I suggest, has implications for new womanhood.

Interactive Service Work and Respectability

Gender underpins sets of assumptions regarding masculine and feminine behaviour which are guided by sociocultural norms of different societies (Charles 1993; Forseth 2005; McDowell 2009). These gendered expectations or assumptions also prevail at work as ‘workplaces are dynamic and changing and are themselves embedded within wider social structures and attitudes and assumptions about gender and sexuality’ (McDowell 2009, p. 54).

Acker (1990) suggests that one of the ways in which the ‘gendering of work’ can be analysed is by examining the gender division of labour. The concept of ‘occupational segregation’ (Hakim 1981) posits that labour is divided on two dimensions: vertical and horizontal. While vertical segregation describes who is employed and where in the organisational hierarchy, horizontal segregation describes who is employed in which kind of work in the different departments within an organisation and more widely across the labour market.

Studies on gender, sexuality and work support the idea that men and women do different kinds of work when they are in the same occupation (Hochschild [1983]2003; Adkins 1995, 2001; Dellinger 2002). This is noted by McDowell (2009, p. 53): ‘[I]f femininity structures less-regarded jobs, masculinity is associated with management of skills’. Additionally, Acker (1990, pp. 149–50) asserts that the concepts of both ‘a job’ and ‘hierarchies’ are gendered. While ‘a job’ contains the gender-based division of labour and the separation of the public-private sphere, ‘hierarchies’ are also constructed on the assumption that those who are committed to work (invariably men) are more suited to authority and responsibility and therefore are employed at higher ranks, whereas those whose commitments are divided (largely women) are in lower ranks.

Literatures on the hotel industry illustrate that women and men experience gendered occupational segregation (Crompton and Sanderson 1990; Levy and Lerch 1991; Adkins 1995; Sinclair 1997). Women’s work is confined to traditional areas like housekeeping and reception duties, categorised as secondary labour and termed as ‘semi-skilled domestic work’. It is often viewed as an extension of their domestic and household activities. Women are also generally seasonal workers who face the risks of job insecurity. Men, predominantly, occupy skilled and managerial jobs.

Hicks (1990) mentions that the hotel industry gives the ‘personality’ of a person high weightage when recruiting. Further, the term ‘personality’ is often used to mean sexual attractiveness and/or certain specific feminine skills and attributes (Filby 1992). Hall (1993, p. 456) explains that ‘[H]iring young attractive women and dressing them in uniforms to highlight their “sexy” looks is commonplace’. Adkins (1995, p. 126) states that women bar staff in the hotel she studied were required to wear their gingham dresses off their shoulders, and bar managers would sometimes physically pull down their dresses to maintain the ‘appropriate’ appearance. Adkins (1995) also notes female workers in particular being expected to cope with sexual advances from customers, considering it to be part of the job.

Warhurst et al. (2000) refer to the process of organisationally producing employees’ bodies to fit the desired aesthetic of the organisation and work for organisational benefit. Employees’ embodiment in service work creates affective interactive service with the customers with the intention of ‘satisfying the customer’. It also creates a perception that employees have to be ‘good looking’ or simply have the ‘right look’. It is this focus on ‘looks’ that can be analysed to identify the extension of aesthetic labour to sexualised labour. In the words of Filby (1992) ‘selling the service’ also takes the form of ‘selling sexuality’.

Warhurst and Nickson (2009, p. 385) argue that to understand sexualised labour, ‘a conceptual double shift’ is needed: first, ‘from emotional to aesthetic to sexualised labour’ and then from employee sexuality ‘that is sanctioned and subscribed to by management to that which management strategy prescribes’. They identify three differing forms of sexualised work where employee sexuality is:
  1. (1)

    Sanctioned by the management—Sexuality that is driven by the employee, but not prescribed by the management. In this case, management is aware but remains silent.

  2. (2)

    Subscribed to by management—Management permits and promotes the sexualised work by subscribing to it and also capitalises on this for the organisation’s commercial benefit.

  3. (3)

    Prescribed by management (organisationally driven strategy), whereby the management has a strategy that is intended to create a distinctive, prescribed sexualised ‘look’ as a style of service.


Their distinction between sexualised work and sexualised labour is important; only when sexualised work is prescribed by the management can doing such be counted as sexualised labour.

Although one sees control over workers through organisational policies and practices, it is important to acknowledge that at times workers also resist. For feminist scholars, resistance at work has been an area of interest, illuminating processes of change and transformation (Cockburn 1991; Thomas and Davies 2005).

Studies on new womanhood present them as change agents. Discussion about the ‘new woman’ dates back to the nineteenth-century Britain, when respectable Victorian young women of the middle class were trained solely to be fit wives and mothers and were confined to domestic space, primarily as caretakers of the family. In contrast, ‘new women’ pursued a more active role in the public sphere.

In the South Asian context, the analysis of ‘respectability’ among South Asian women is gaining prominence where the notion of respectable femininity generally includes women prioritising family above work through domesticity, caring and socialising roles and moral propriety (Ansari 2016; Fernando and Cohen 2013; Hussein 2015; Liechty 2003, 2005; Radhakrishnan 2009). In Sri Lanka, Fernando and Cohen (2013, p. 160) examine the relationship between respectable femininity and career in a context where respectability is prominent and find that demonstrating good moral behaviour limits women’s career progression but is vital in winning respect from colleagues and superiors. For them, good moral behaviour includes trying to excel in work, limiting acquaintances with male colleagues, not being seen with a man after office hours, maintaining physical and emotional distance from men and not staying out alone at night. In Pakistan, Ansari’s (2016) study on professional women in the public sector finds that those who abided by the respectable femininity principles of domesticity faced hurdles in career advancement, as there is a clash with the traditional career management techniques. Hussein’s (2015, p. 267) study on professional women in Dhaka contends ‘that the power of new womanhood lies in their ability to legitimize which status claims are respectable in what context, rather than conforming to generalized norms of respectability across all fields, or abandoning them altogether’.

In Nepal, there is no research that analyses women’s work in the hotel industry using the concepts of gendered work, aesthetic labour, sexualised labour and respectability. Closest is Liechty’s (2003, 2005) work in which middle-class women are considered as objects of male consumer desire. Women are increasingly involved in the new consumer culture of leisure particularly in Kathmandu (the country’s capital) where the ‘emergence of both restaurants and prostitution represent the public commodification of transactions (whether in food or sex) that, until only a generation ago, had been almost always private and domestic’ (Liechty 2005, p. 7). He mentions that long-prevailing social and sexual stigma linked to women’s work in the market economy often causes jobs like waitress, receptionist and secretary to be seen as more or less synonymous with prostitution and thus unrespectable (ibid., p. 22).

Exploring how women’s performance at work in the hotel sector in Kathmandu is shifting the way Nepalese womanhood is produced raises questions about the transition towards new womanhood.

The Nepalese Context

Nepal has an ethnically diverse population of 26.62 million, which comprises of 48.56 per cent male and 51.44 per cent female (CBS 2011). Political instability which began in the eighteenth century has been continued by the armed insurgency waged by the Nepal Communist Party (Maoists) between 1996 and 2006 (Dixit 2011). During the research, the growth and activism of trade unions (TUs)3 was attracting the attention of the government and private industries in Nepal. The All Nepal Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union (ANHRWU) had become powerful, along with the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), which was in power from August 2008 to May 2009.

What the Maoists consider the ‘people’s war’ (1996–2006) disrupted normal life and affected many industries including the tourism industry. Certain labour disputes demanding fair wages, facilities and permanent status for workers have affected the hotel subsector, with repercussions including the closure of several hotels.4 Fifty-eight hotels and resorts in Nagarkot, a tourist hub near Kathmandu, were shut down for almost four days in November 2008 as the trade union (ANHRWU) demanded an increase in salary for all workers (Upadhyay et al. 2011).

The area of casino operation has remained largely untouched by researchers, although a few journalists have investigated issues related to crime and labour disputes in such establishments. Recently casinos came under public scrutiny due to tax evasion, so TUs there started to question the high level of profits earned. This resulted in strikes and protests. The closing and opening of casinos was ongoing as negotiations continued (Prashain 2011). These circumstances indicate the fragile employment situation in casinos, which carries implications for workers’ income and job security.

International Labour Organisation (2004) documents that women working in hotels and restaurants are at risk for sexual harassment, which is said to be more prevalent in hotels and restaurants although it is persistent in almost all workplaces. Within hotels, those working in health clubs are most vulnerable as they have to work on the bodies of customers. Women working as waitresses and housemaids also experience harassment from male colleagues and guests.

Research Design

When I started this research, there was no gendered workforce data on the hotel industry in Nepal. As per the Hotel Association of Nepal (2001), there were eight five-star hotels, five deluxe resorts and eight casinos in Kathmandu. I administered questionnaires to personnel managers in all 21 establishments about their workforce during my preliminary field visit to Kathmandu in July and August 2008.

During the second visit, between April and December 2009, I chose two establishments from each of the three categories—namely, five-star hotels, deluxe resorts and casinos based on the relatively high proportion of women in their workforce. To maintain confidentiality, I chose to use pseudonyms: Platinum hotel (PH), Gold hotel (GH), Sun resort (SR), Moon resort (MR), Dazzle casino (DC) and Glitter casino (GC).

I conducted 65 interviews with different groups of people (workers, managers, male family members and policy experts), organised two focus group discussions with women working on the gaming floor of casinos and made observations. Using mixed research methods of questionnaires, interviews, focus group discussions and observations allowed me to gather both quantitative and qualitative data.

In this chapter, although I do not focus on class as a category of analysis, I relate women workers to the similarly emerging ‘urban middle-class’, as referred to by Liechty (2003, 2005). The women respondents have joined the formal labour market; many have migrated from rural areas to cities for work and aspire to gain economic independence and respect. Most respondents could be categorised as lower-middle class to mid-middle class primarily due to their limited education level, ranging from a few years of schooling to higher secondary school level. They wanted to look both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ at work.

Research Findings

I discuss my research findings in three sections. First, I explain how women conform to gendered work, aesthetic labour and sexualised work. Second, the way in which women resist and negotiate organisational codes of conduct drawing on support of the TU is discussed. Finally I present how women negotiate respectability at work.

Conforming to Gendered Work, Aesthetic Labour and Sexualised Labour

The research finds that the nature of gendered work varies depending on the type of sector/industry and the kind of services provided. While hotels and resorts provide food, accommodation and related services, casinos focus on entertaining customers. The backbone of hotels and resorts is the back office and in casinos it is the front office where most workers are concentrated.5 My research finds that in all establishments, women are conforming to gendered work, aesthetic labour and sexualised labour to some extent.

Gendered Work

Data gathered during my preliminary field visit shows that a majority of the workers are men, with women comprising 14 per cent and 21 per cent in hotels and resorts, respectively. The casinos, a relatively new area of employment, have fewer men, with 32 per cent of the workforce being female. The workforce in hotel, resort and casino sector in Nepal is not feminised overall, but certain occupations within it are becoming feminised.

The analysis of vertical gender segregation in the sample establishments shows a ‘gendering of hierarchies’ (Acker 1990); managers are mostly male in all establishments. Analysing horizontal gender segregation has shown that there is a ‘gendering of jobs’ (Acker 1990) in hotels and resorts, women are concentrated in departments that involve so-called feminine work such as housekeeping, serving food and beverages, spa and beauty care, and in casinos, on the gaming floor assisting and entertaining customers, largely men, who gamble. Men comprise the majority of the workforce in other departments. The workforces in some departments, such as engineering and laundry in hotels and resorts and transport in casinos, are exclusively male, but there are no departments where the workforce is exclusively female.

Gendered work may be due to the gendered ideologies held by managers and workers, which are underpinned by essentialist views that attach attributes of masculinity and femininity to certain jobs. Managers’ preferences for women workers are based on supposedly ‘natural’ reasons: first, that women have often acquired certain skills like cleaning and caring at home—skills acquired at home are assumed to be easily transferrable to work—and second, that women are generally more presentable, with charming personalities, good interpersonal skills, soft-spoken manners and a liking for work related to beauty and body care.

Aesthetic Labour

Using the framework of Warhurst et al. (2000), I found that both men and women workers are with imparted grooming skills; workers are trained and monitored to perform aesthetic labour. While all workers are trained to look good, managers expect women to look glamorous. There is high scrutiny of women’s appearance by the management. Thus, more is required of women in terms of codes of grooming. Performance of aesthetic labour differed between working practices. Babita (27, Cook, MR ) revealed that it was skills that mattered to her at work, as she did not interact with customers, ‘… but those in the reception, and customer services need to look good because that is where customers come and interact’.

In the casinos, some women were of the view that good looks helped them get recruited. Madina (GC) is tall and believes that tall girls are selected in the gaming section. She further adds that her supervisor emphasises grooming classes because ‘…it is to train the girls to look good’. Women dominate as croupiers and guest relation assistants and are required by the management to adhere to specific grooming standards delivered through training and a staff handbook; these include applying makeup as taught, maintaining an appropriate body weight (a slim figure is preferred), and wearing high-heeled shoes, seemingly for the purpose of looking heterosexually available. Madina mentions that their supervisor ‘comes checking from the shoes, length of the skirt to the way girls have applied their makeup’.

During the field visits, I observed that workers in all establishments had uniforms (dress codes), and all wore name tags. In hotels, men at the front office wore Western outfits: a shirt and trousers and occasionally a bow-tie, or tie, and a jacket. Unlike men, some women were dressed in Western and some wore Nepali costume6—a blouse and a sari. The front office workers at SR had similar uniforms to the hotel workers. MR workers at the front office looked different as most wore the national costume7: daura-suruwal, topi and a waistcoat. Management controls women’s aesthetic and sartorial practices and performances of labour through organisational codes of conduct, projecting women as ‘customer oriented’ and perhaps also as ‘modern’ and/or ‘traditional’ women.

Sexualised Work and Sexualised Labour

Using Warhurst and Nickson’s (2009) framework, I find that women’s work in the hotels, resorts and casinos is sexualised through aesthetic labour in that a particular look, one assumed to appeal to heterosexual men, is required of women workers.

The management of the sample establishments ‘sanctions or subscribes to’ women’s sexuality. Women workers’ discussions about flirting with male customers and colleagues indicate the way establishments ‘sanction’ sexualised work. As explained earlier, women workers having a certain appearance is considered useful to attract (male) customers. More work is required from women to follow the skills related to ‘looking’, which for them are more detailed and extended than they are for men. Women are also policed on their appearance to a greater extent. It can thus be said that women’s sexuality is ‘subscribed to’ by the management that permits and promotes women’s sexualised work and also capitalises on this in all establishments (Warhurst and Nickson 2009).

Sexualised work is ‘prescribed’ by the management through the hiring of young and (hetero)sexually attractive women workers on the gaming floor as croupiers and guest relation assistants. This can be construed as a management strategy to attract male customers. The women are also prescribed to perform sexualised labour through the acts that their role requires them to perform, such as lighting cigars and kissing chips. In addition, women workers’ accounts reveal that casino management requires that uniforms be tailor made to fit them in a certain way. Most women on the gaming floor at GC that I observed were wearing closely fitting clothes.

Sexualised labour is therefore legitimised by the management as part of women workers’ job in the casinos. Their work requires them to appear ‘attractive ‘and to play up to male desires, which necessitates a certain type of dress and make-up in order to be seen as heterosexually available (Adkins 1995). Doing sexualised work has implications for the way women’s work is perceived in wider society particularly in relation to respectable femininity.

Resistance and Negotiation at Work: Role of the Trade Union

The support of the TU emerged as an important element in my study and was particularly perceived by women as a source of ‘power’ that was important for their resistance (Deshotels and Forsyth 2006; Sallaz 2005). TUs can be seen as an evolving player in the hotel industry, gradually shifting power away from management. In the sample establishments, although employees need not necessarily belong to a TU to be recruited, TUs operate to a large extent as closed shops.8 According to several communications with workers and employers within the TU, women’s representation on the executive board, and the visibility of women’s issues, has increased over the years. The establishments felt threatened by TUs as they realised that not fulfilling TU demands could result in strikes, closures and business disruption.

When interviewing managers, I came to understand that they were challenged by the TUs. Their accounts further highlight the intervening role of the TU in the recruitment process, which makes it difficult for them to continue recruiting on the basis of ‘looks’. More and more workers are drawing on their connection to TUs to show resistance at work. For example, the quote from the manager of MR below shows how workers are using the support of the TUs to disobey organisation rules:

These days they [workers] stay on leave without prior notice. If you scold them, they say sorry and that’s it. We give them a verbal warning and that’s all. We cannot fire them, they know it. … Earlier workers would abide by the rules, only a few would disobey but now it’s the politics… the union is active.

Overall, some women resist and negotiate on certain aspects of their work, aided by the TU.

Challenging Gendered Ideologies

Although workers generally conformed to gendered work, a few women workers challenged the gendered ideologies by resisting the gendered aspects of work. For example, Karuna (22, MR) and Dolma (27, PH) had to prove they could work in the kitchen when faced with resistance from male workers. Karuna expressed, with anger, ‘some men suggested that only they can lift the heavy utensils. I felt they were trying to tease me… Once, one of my male colleagues said I was not strong enough as them… That really annoyed me…’ Likewise, Dolma said she did ‘everything from lifting big pots and standing long hours in front of the oven just to prove myself that I could handle the tough work’. Thus, while male workers seem to draw gendered boundaries at work by resisting women’s entry into certain departments, these women are challenging the understanding of femininity as weak and fragile and are negotiating by taking up work that requires them to use physical strength.

Defying Codes of Grooming

The emphasis on looking good seems to be slowly changing with the new recruits through the influence of the Maoist TUs, as explained by managers of both casinos. For example, when I asked the manager of DC what they looked for in women and men workers, the manager replied, ‘…we now face labour militancy. The union gives us a list of say fifty names and we just select say twenty’. The allusion to the role of TUs in the recruitment of workers was echoed by some casino workers.

Not all women comply with the standards of looking glamorous set by the management. They are comfortable ‘looking good’ and ‘dressing up smart’, which gain respect at work. But despite the emphasis on their aesthetic labour, they defy some codes of grooming. This does not mean that they do not like to ‘look good’. They do have an interest in putting on makeup if it suits their uniform and their own style. It is the manner in which management wants them to look good that women resist: they contest and negotiate the grooming techniques taught to them.

It is particularly those working in the back office of hotels and resorts who defy the codes of grooming. For example, Dolma (PH) said, ‘I don’t understand why I should apply makeup on my face. I just don’t. … If I am called to face the customer; I will … they should like the food I serve, not my makeup’. Similarly, Sumnima (33, Housekeeping, SR) mentioned that although she applied makeup, it was in her own style. She said, ‘my style is not like what was taught to me in training on grooming, although I did learn some techniques’. Both these women negotiated on the extent to which they would do makeup. When I asked how they managed to get away with it Dolma said, ‘I got this job because I had links with the trade union and I know the management does not dare to take action or say anything to workers, especially to us who were recruited through them’.

Another female worker, Deepika (GC), said that if she did as she was taught in the grooming training, she would look horrible. She said, ‘it’s just too much makeup … and the hairstyle is even worse, as if I am trying to look sexy…’ suggesting resistance of sexualisation. Deepika grooms herself in her own way, transgresses the way the casino aims to produce femininity and creates a ‘new’ femininity, one that she called ‘…just in the right manner’. She asserted ‘… I don’t want to be seen as a prostitute’ showing her desire to maintain ‘respectability’ and avoid association with an occupation that is often linked to women’s work in casinos.9

In GC, women as a group on the gaming floor defied the grooming codes by hiding their mobiles in their stockings. Deepika mentioned, ‘I think even our supervisor knows we hide the mobile inside our clothes, but she does not say anything because now most of us are doing it’, indicating loosening control of management. Sonali (24) mentioned, ‘married women cannot wear potay, bangles and sindhur during work’, but I observed that some women wore them, hiding potay and bangles under their shirt and sindhur covered by their hair.10

Later when I asked Anju (31) to explain the situation, she said:

Actually although earlier, we were not allowed to wear them at all, it’s been a few years, we can wear them during festivals like Teej11 …only for that day. But then it’s been so many days now that the festival is gone and still some of our colleagues continue to wear them … the supervisor I think pretends not to see or comment … these [women workers] are the ones who got the job with the influence of the Maoist trade union.

By allowing certain exceptions to grooming requirements during festival times on a temporary basis, casinos are relaxing their control over women’s appearance. Some women continue to carry on with the same appearance long after the festival, which further suggests that women are negotiating on their looks and sartorial practices. As Anju explains, these women had support from the TU, which could be the reason why they could show their resistance without too much risk to their employment.

While some women choose to overtly flout the rules, others do so covertly, resisting management’s prescriptions of how femininity should be done through hidden acts. These strategies to both maintain ‘traditional’ values (married women’s adorning accessories) and embody ‘modernity’ (carrying mobile phones) point to a ‘new’ form of womanhood. The examples above also illustrate that some women are negotiating aesthetic labour, and a few women are also claiming respect as they resist the organisational codes of conduct.

Confronting Sexualisation by Customers and Male Workers

Some women workers confront the sexualisation of their labour, mainly from customers, by protesting sexual harassment. I specifically asked the workers, ‘Did you or any of your colleagues face sexual harassment at work?’ In the casinos, croupiers (largely women) face customers who make passing offensive remarks, as shown below:

Basanti (30): We have the power to discipline the men in the casinos. We tell the customers to behave and sometimes when they do not, we signal the bouncers, who immediately come and handle the situation.

Neetu (30): These men [bouncers] are so strong that they will just lift the customer and take them to a corner, have a discussion and make them understand the rules of the casino.

Basanti (30): … some customers try and harass us but we are the ones who control them in the casinos because we decide when to signal the bouncers.

The above quotes show that croupiers feel that they have ‘control over’ drunken and sometimes abusive men. This helps them feel more secure working in the casino. Croupiers have the ‘power’ to call (male) bouncers; this is a ‘power’ gained by women and is ‘new’. Nonetheless, the conception that these women have ‘power’ can be questioned. In this case, croupiers’ ‘power’ is conditional; they could mobilise men as bouncers which is a novelty but one sanctioned by management.

Women workers also found themselves sexually harassed by their male colleagues. As Dolma (PH) explained, ‘I do see some men who brush their shoulders, their hands as they walk past some of the women colleagues at work. I don’t think this is appropriate … well some women may complain but not all’. When she faced such harassment herself she ‘told the guy off, never to repeat’. She was hired because of the TU, which perhaps explains why she was able to contest sexual harassment by speaking up.

Negotiating Respectability

Women repeatedly claimed respect at work. They raised concerns over their work being stigmatised and disrespected. Women working particularly in the hotel industry are disparaged based on a common perception that ‘daughters of good/respected families’ do not work late at night, especially where the work environment involves people gambling and requires serving guests (predominantly men) alcohol.

In both casinos, during focus group discussions, women (especially unmarried and young women) expressed that they faced negative social perceptions. For example, women from GC said:

Madina (25): The house owners who lived in the flat above ours would often ask my mother what kind of job I do in the casino. … If any male colleague came to visit me at home or even dropped me off on his motor bike, I knew my mother would be questioned the following day.

Deepika (30): Oh yes, working in the casino is a challenge for most of us. People think because Nepalese are not allowed in the casinos, anything can happen inside, such as prostitution … but this is totally wrong…

Sonali (24): I fully agree. It is because Madina is not married there is so much suspicion about what she does. … These negative beliefs about our work in the casino will take a long time to change.

The social anxiety about women’s work in the casinos is often related to its sexualisation. All the women who participated in the focus group discussions raised concerns about the negative images of casino work perpetuated by society. Madina added, ‘… we now are dropped off by the casino van and I don’t hear my mother being questioned these days…’. indicating possible changes in these perceptions. Sonali’s prediction that social perceptions about women’s work in the casino would take a long time to change reflects the wider social norms about women’s sexuality and work; women’s work which has sexual connotations is associated with shame.

In hotels and resorts, some women workers explained that there has been little (if any) change in the negative social perceptions of women’s work—particularly that which involves housekeeping and body massage. Their work used to be stigmatised, associated with providing sexual services:

Hotel work was earlier not seen as good work. I think people associated sexual activities with hotel rooms and assumed women working inside rooms get involved in providing sexual services to customers … but this kind of perception is slowly changing. … I don’t think people recognise the work we do in housekeeping. (Sabina, 28, Housekeeping, PH)

Here, the job I do involves massage and spa treatment. We work for women customers only. Those who do not know may think women workers like me have to work with the bodies of male customers too … some relatives… had raised questions in my work… had barely any respect or recognition. (Meena, 27, Health club/Spa, SR)

Most women workers highlighted that their work was tough, tiring, skilled and demanding but was not valued as such. For example, Kalpana (36, MR) said, ‘[housekeeping work] is very tiring, my back hurts … but when I tell someone what I do in the resort, I don’t see any appreciation and recognition for my work’. Meena on the other hand explains that her relatives request that she find jobs for other girls in the family at her resort. She says, ‘I think they now understand and recognise what I do at work. If they did not respect my work, they would not want their daughters to join too’. Madina, working in the casino, also had her relatives request help in getting a job there. A few women, like Sabina, Kalpana and Madina, consider social perception to be slowly changing and feel that their work is gaining respect.

In the casinos, women workers at large were concerned with social perception about their work. For example, Rohinee (30, GC), however, said, ‘I still do not feel confident or I am not proud to say I work in the casino, it is not seen with respect’. Neeta (27, DC) said she hesitated to tell her friends and relatives that she worked in a casino because she was from a ‘good’ and ‘respectable’ family.

Women are disheartened that their work is undervalued, unrecognised and disrespected. They consider their jobs to be tough, skilled and requiring training. Women consistently try to claim respectability at work. The above discussion shows that women are shifting towards new womanhood as they strive to negotiate this.


This research contributes to the understanding and debates on gendered work, aesthetic labour and sexualised labour analysis of interactive service work in Nepal. I make three contributions: first, I find that gendered work, aesthetic labour and sexualised labour are all exemplified in the sample establishments. The hotels, resorts and casinos are not feminised sectors, although there are relatively more women employed in casinos. In contrast, studies in other parts of the world (Crompton and Sanderson 1990; Levy and Lerch 1991; Enarson 1993; Adkins 1995; Chandler and Jones 2003; Sallaz 2005; Jones and Chandler 2007) showed the hotel and casino as decidedly feminised sectors. In the case of Nepalese casinos, this research has found that although women do not make up the majority of employees, card dealers or croupiers are mainly young women, similar to the findings of Enarson (1993) and Jones and Chandler (2007). Casinos hire young, heterosexually attractive women on the gaming floor to attract male customers and differ from hotels and resorts in the way gendered work is constructed and performed there. Findings illustrate there is a ‘right look’ that is required of all workers, but this look is both gendered and dependent on the nature of interaction with customers.

Second, women’s resistance and negotiation on organisational codes of conduct with the support of the TU suggest that women are contesting the way management controls their work and are trying to bring about changes in the way women work. Women rely on the power of the TU to resist and negotiate while performing work. I also find that croupiers in both casinos perceive themselves as having gained ‘power’ which is a ‘new’ achievement for them. In this case, croupiers’ ‘power’ is conditional; they can mobilise male bouncers, which is a novelty, but one sanctioned by management. This shows that power, albeit conditional, gives women a form of confidence that reflects their femininity; their self-perceived strength results in the generation of a ‘new’ form of womanhood that claims respect.

Finally, women are negotiating respectability at workplaces. As in Fernando and Cohen (2013), notions of being a ‘respectable’ woman recurred as my respondents described some aspects of their work as still stigmatised, devalued and disrespected for various reasons. While some women consider the support of the TUs to have improved their situation, many continue to struggle for respect in their work by resisting and negotiating organisational codes of conduct.

In conclusion, women’s resistance and negotiation with managerial prescriptions of how femininity should be done suggest a challenging of management’s control over women; they are shifting towards bringing change in the understanding of ‘respectable’ femininity. As Chatterjee (2016, p. 1189) notes, the newness in ‘new woman’ represents ‘…looking forward, an urge to meet the demands of a changing world… [that] exists only in companionship with the ‘old’ as configurations that co-constitute each other’. Likewise Hussein (2017) asserts that women engaged in negotiating respectability posit the emergence of ‘new women’, who have been conceptualised as those constantly negotiating change and stasis in their everyday lives. Hence, I agree with Hussein (2017) and argue that by claiming respectability and negotiating and challenging gendered, aesthetic and sexualised labour, the women who participated in this research emerge as new women. I have provided a crucial starting point for further research asking if there is the emergence of the shift towards ‘new’ womanhood in the Nepalese labour market.


  1. 1.

    I explored how women were doing their work in the hotel industry. I limit the use of the term ‘performance’ to mean ‘doing’ and use the terms interchangeably throughout the chapter. I mention this to avoid confusion with the meaning of performance as performativity, which is not something I examine.

  2. 2.

    Throughout the chapter, unless otherwise specified, I use the term sexualised to mean (hetero)sexualised in the case of hotels, resorts and casinos in Nepal. I came to understand that the context in which gendered work took place in these establishments was guided with notions of heterosexuality as the norm. Therefore, when I say there is sexualised labour I mean there is (hetero)sexualised labour in these establishments.

  3. 3.

    In sample establishments, there were three major trade unions: All Nepal Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union (ANHRWU) affiliated to United Communist Part of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M); Nepal Independent Hotel, Casino and Restaurant Workers Union (NIHCRWU) affiliated to Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist party (CPN-UML); and Nepal Tourism and Hotel Workers Union (NTHWU) affiliated to Nepali Congress (NC).

  4. 4.

    The Hotel Yak and Yeti, one of the five-star hotels in Kathmandu, was closed for almost eight months (February–August 2006) as the trade unions (ANHRWU and NIHCRWU) demands were not met.

  5. 5.

    In service work, particularly the hotel, resort and casino sectors, it is common to hear the terms front office and back office. Front office departments have high level of customer interaction such as reception, sales and marketing, restaurants within food and beverage, security and so on. Back office departments often located at the rear of the premises where entry is restricted to staff include human resources, administration, finance, housekeeping, laundry and so on.

  6. 6.

    National costume for women includes blouses and saris. A sari is normally a 5 or 5.5 metres long cloth wrapped around the waist and over one shoulder. Debate exists on whether the present national costume represents the diverse ethnic costumes of the country’s different groups.

  7. 7.

    National costume for men includes daura-suruwal, topi and a Western style of waistcoat and a jacket. The daura is a closed-neck shirt with five pleats and eight strings that serve to tie it around the body. The suruwal are fitted trousers made from the same material as the daura. The topi is a Nepali cap, with its peak offset from the centre giving it a slightly lopsided look, which completes the outfit.

  8. 8.

    Closed shop refers to a place of work where all employees must belong to an agreed trade union.

  9. 9.

    According to Liechty (2005), the rise in number of prostitutes in Kathmandu took place alongside the heavy concentration of restaurants, hotels and lodges, which were new forms of public space for the rising urban middle-class population.

  10. 10.

    Traditional Hindu married women wear the symbolic potay (necklace made of beads) and sindhur (vermillion in the hair parting) that signifies and portrays their married status.

  11. 11.

    Teej is a Hindu festival celebrated by women, wherein they dress in their finest attire and decorate themselves.


  1. Acker, J. 1990. Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender and Society 4 (2): 139–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adkins, L. 1995. Gendered Work: Sexuality, Power and Work. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  3. ———. 2001. Cultural Feminization: Money, Sex and Power for Women. Signs 26 (3): 669–695.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ansari, N. 2016. Respectable Femininity: A Significant Panel of Glass Ceiling for Career Women. Gender in Management: An International Journal 31 (8): 528–541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Central Bureau of Statistics. 1999. Nepal Labour Force Survey 1998/99 Statistical Report. Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Government of Nepal.Google Scholar
  6. ———. 2004. Nepal Living Standards Survey 2003/04. Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Government of Nepal.Google Scholar
  7. ———. 2009. Nepal Labour Force Survey 2008 Statistical Report. Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Government of Nepal.Google Scholar
  8. ———. 2011. National Population Census: Preliminary Results. Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Government of Nepal.Google Scholar
  9. Chandler, S., and J. Jones. 2003. Because a Better World Is Possible: Women Casino Workers, Union Activism and the Creation of a Just Workplace. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare XXX (4): 58–78.Google Scholar
  10. Charles, N. 1993. Gender Divisions and Social Change. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Google Scholar
  11. Chatterjee, S. 2016. ‘English Vinglish’ and Bollywood: What Is ‘New’ About the ‘New Woman’? Gender, Places & Cultures 23 (8): 1179–1192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cockburn, C. 1991. In the Way of Women: Men’s Resistance to Sex Equality in Organizations. London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Crompton, R., and K. Sanderson. 1990. Gendered Jobs and Social Change. London: Unwin Hyman.Google Scholar
  14. Dellinger, K. 2002. Wearing Gender and Sexuality “On Your Sleeve”: Dress Norms and the Importance of Occupational and Organizational Culture at Work. Gender Issues 20 (1): 3–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Deshotels, T., and C.J. Forsyth. 2006. Strategic Flirting and the Emotional Tab of Exotic Dancing. Deviant Behavior 27 (2): 223–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dixit, K.M. 2011. Peace Politics of Nepal: An Opinion from Within. Kathmandu: Himal Books.Google Scholar
  17. Enarson, E. 1993. Emotion Workers on the Production Lines: The Feminizing of Casino Card Dealing. NWSA Journal 5 (2): 218–232.Google Scholar
  18. Fernando, W.D.A., and L. Cohen. 2013. Respectable Femininity and Career Agency: Exploring Paradoxical Imperatives. Gender, Work and Organization 21 (2): 141–169.Google Scholar
  19. Filby, M. 1992. The Figures, the Personality and the Bums: Service Work and Sexuality. Work, Employment and Society 6 (1): 23–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Forseth, U. 2005. Gender Matters? Exploring How Gender Is Negotiated in Service Encounters. Gender, Work and Organization 12 (5): 440–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hakim, C. 1981. Job Segregation: Trends in the 1970s. Employment Gazette 89: 521–529.Google Scholar
  22. Hall, E. 1993. Smiling, Deferring, and Flirting: Doing Gender by Giving “Good Service”. Work and Occupations 20 (4): 452–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hicks, L. 1990. Excluded Women: How Can This Happen in the Hotel World? The Service Industries Journal 10 (2): 348–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hochschild, A. [1983]2003. The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling. California: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  25. Hotel Association of Nepal. 2001. List of the Hotel in Alphabetic Order. Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN). Available from: Accessed 10 Apr 2008.
  26. Hussein, N. 2015. Boundaries of Respectability: New Women of Bangladesh. PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, Coventry.Google Scholar
  27. ———. Negotiating Middle-Class Respectable Femininity: Bangladeshi Women and Their Families. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online] (16).Google Scholar
  28. International Labour Organisation. 2004. Sexual Harassment at the Workplace in Nepal. Kathmandu: International Labour Organization (ILO).Google Scholar
  29. Jones, J., and S. Chandler. 2007. Surveillance and Regulation: Control of Women Casino Workers’ Bodies. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work 22 (2): 150–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Khanal, M. 2005. Tourism and Employment from Gender Perspective: A Study of Five-star Hotels of the Kathmandu Valley. Post Graduate Diploma Thesis, Padma Kanya Multiple Campus, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu.Google Scholar
  31. Levy, D.E., and P.B. Lerch. 1991. Tourism as a Factor in Development Implications for Gender and Work in Barbados. Gender and Society 5 (1): 67–85.Google Scholar
  32. Liechty, M. 2003. Suitably Modern: Making Middle Class Culture in a New Consumer Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  33. ———. 2005. Carnal Economies: The Commodification of Food and Sex in Kathmandu. Cultural Anthropology 20 (1): 1–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McDowell, L. 2007. Gender Divisions of Labour: Sex, Gender, Sexuality and Embodiment in the Service Sector. In The Handbook of Service Industries, ed. J.R. Bryson and P.W. Daniels, 395–408. Cheltenham/Northampton: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  35. ———. 2009. Working Bodies: Interactive Service Employment and Workplace Identities. Sussex: Wiley & Sons Ltd.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pettinger, L. 2005. Gendered Work Meets Gendered Goods: Selling and Service in Clothing Retail. Gender, Work and Organization 12 (5): 460–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Prashain, S. 2011. Trade Union Leaders Urge Casino Owners to Clear Dues. The Kathmandu Post, February 14, Kathmandu.Google Scholar
  38. Radhakrishnan, S. 2009. Professional Women, Good Families: Respectable Femininity and the Cultural Politics of a ‘New’ India. Qualitative Sociology 32 (2): 195–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sallaz, J. 2005. ‘It’s an Empowerment Thing’: An Ethnography of Colour Bar Conservation in a South African Service Industry. Society in Transition 36 (1): 38–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sinclair, T.M., ed. 1997. Gender, Work and Tourism. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  41. Thomas, R., and A. Davies. 2005. What Have the Feminists Done for Us? Feminist Theory and Organizational Resistance. Organization 12 (5): 711–740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Upadhyay, R.P., H. Pradhan, and R. Grandon. 2011. Women in Nepalese Tourism: Opportunities and Challenges. Varanasi: Pilgrims Pub.Google Scholar
  43. Warhurst, C., and D. Nickson. 2009. ‘Who’s Got the Look?’ Emotional, Aesthetic and Sexualised Labour in Interactive Services. Gender, Work and Organization 16 (3): 385–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Warhurst, C., D. Nickson, A. Witz, and A.M. Cullen. 2000. Aesthetic Labour in Interactive Service Work: Some Case Study Evidence from the ‘New’ Glasgow. The Service Industries Journal 20 (3): 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wolkowitz, C. 2006. Bodies at Work. London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mona Shrestha Adhikari
    • 1
  1. 1.Enterprise for ManagementEconomic Reform and Gender EqualityKathmanduNepal

Personalised recommendations