Blog / Impact

Continuing the Conversation Around Gender Issues

Exploring What Men Can Do

Maggie Borden

March 28, 2018

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Men in the restaurant kitchen stock

Earlier this month, JBF held its third gathering of culinary professionals to discuss sexual harassment and gender inequality in the restaurant industry. Moderated by JBF senior director of policy advocacy Katherine Miller and JBF Leadership Award winner Saru Jayaraman of ROC-United, this meeting focused on the role of men in the efforts for substantive change, bringing together a group of largely male chefs (a suggestion from a previous meeting), restaurateurs, and management staff to discuss the challenges and possibilities of creating a safer and more equitable climate within the professional kitchen. 

Jayaraman shared ROC’s findings outlined in the New York Times’s recent exposé on tipping culture, which emphasized the connections between a gratuity-dependent restaurant economy and the view of workers whose value is only as high as the amount of tips they bring in. A “‘customer is always right’” ethos, the New York Times says, “[creates] the kind of power imbalance that has become front and center in a broader conversation about sex and gender in the workplace.” This imbalance disproportionally affects women in the culinary world, as they account for nearly 70 percent of all servers. In fact, the entire industry suffers the consequences of this dynamic, as restaurants and food service topped all other industries nationally in reported sexual harassment complaints from 2005-2015.

Although the men gathered at the Beard House discussed larger policy and political efforts, attendees shared that first and foremost they wanted to improve conditions on the local level, seeking to reduce and eliminate issues for their restaurants, staff, and customers. They highlighted fear as an obstacle to an honest dialogue among chefs—the anxiety around getting called out as an offender and losing business, or even of admitting complicity in the inappropriate behavior of a staff member or colleague, holding back advances in culture change.

Others offered insights into their recent experiences attempting to affect change in their businesses’ culture. Attendees admitted the difficulty of uncovering and addressing the past transgressions of employees, and how discouraging the public airing of those mistakes can be when your ultimate goal is to do the right thing going forward. But a common message was that any setbacks shouldn’t prevent real progress—attendees agreed that culture lies at the root of this issue, and shifting that culture is a big part of the solution. As one participant said, “this industry has been a leader in creating a dialogue around plants and animals, and now we’re dealing with people. People can express opinions, so it’s messy, but that’s not a reason to avoid the conversation.”

The meeting concluded with a list of suggested action steps, from the level of individual restaurants to local, state, and federal initiatives, including: 

  • Establish a culture built on respect
  • Examine and retrain your staff on your human resources policies and procedures
  • Create an established method of reporting (including an avenue for reporting on a manager or CEO/owner’s bad behavior)
  • Implement training for not only management, but every member of your staff
  • Create advancement and leadership opportunities for women through mentorship programs and potential partnership
  • Know your resources: ROC, SAFEBARS, and more
  • Get involved in advocacy around systemic change in state and federal policies

As the industry continues the conversation around these issues, JBF is looking at all avenues to provide resources, convene stakeholders, and cultivate our own leadership programs. We are interested in hearing from others in our community. If you have ideas on how to end harassment and abuse in the hospitality industry, please email us at impact@jamesbeard.org.

Sign up for our Women’s Leadership Programs newsletter for news on events, webinars, and initiatives as the conversation continues.

Read JBF’s list of sexual harassment resources.

Learn more about JBF Women’s Leadership Programs.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.