Stories / Impact

Discussing Gender Issues in the Restaurant Industry

Katherine Miller and Maggie Borden

January 31, 2018


Photo: Megan Swann

Over the last six years, the James Beard Foundation has been building programs and initiatives to bring more women into leadership roles in the industry. We need more female chefs, and we also need more women building successful businesses. We’ve created mentorship programs for young chefs and more established entrepreneurs, enhanced our scholarship offerings, and used our own events and media to highlight more women.

Other organizations have done the same: we’ve seen a rise in participation in programs such as Les Dames d'Escoffier and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. A lot of things have changed in kitchens and restaurants—and a lot of things haven’t.

It’s clearer now, thanks to brave women (and men) in the restaurant industry, that sexual harassment and abuse infect our culture in the same way that they have infected media, politics, and Hollywood.

There are nearly 70,000 restaurants in the United States, and the millions of people employed by this industry are potentially at risk. Moreover, this issue has deeper roots in our food system, also affecting farm workers and others who produce the food we eat.

The James Beard Foundation is just one part of this diverse and dynamic community, and our efforts are pieces of a broader set of solutions. However, we are determined to find ways to end systematic harassment and abuse. And we are also committed to finding ways to improve gender equality in leadership, pay, and attention throughout the food system.

In order to change our own culture, we’re going to have to be part of the larger movement. Last week, on January 25, a group chefs, culinary instructors and administrators, entrepreneurs, and advocates gathered at the James Beard House for a discussion about ways to combat sexual harassment and misconduct in the restaurant industry. The attendees, which included not only James Beard Award–winning male and female chefs; but also restaurateurs; front of house staff; senior hospitality executives; and representatives from RAINN, the national sexual assault hotline; Restaurant Opportunities Center United; United Farm Workers Foundation; and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.

The far-ranging conversation covered tackling sexual misconduct and the larger issues behind it on the individual, community, and national level, from in-restaurant trainings to the power of mentorship for young chefs of all genders. Frustrations with structural inequalities were voiced, such as limited access to capital for female entrepreneurs, the absence of women in middle and top management positions, the lack of support for child- and family-related obligations for women, and the need for men to be more involved in the conversation.

The meeting also focused on potential action steps—creating peer-to-peer networks for chefs at different restaurants in a community, so they can understand how each business fosters community and handles conflict; establishing a cooperative human resources exchange with case studies, sample policies and training models, and legal tools; posting a public display of your values, visible to customers and staff, that lists an HR contact, method for reporting, and handbook pages and policies, and more.

After two and a half hours of dialogue and debate, the meeting concluded, but attendees agreed the conversation was far from over. JBF hopes to host more opportunities for discussion in the coming months, and we are exploring ways to provide resources, regularly convene experts on these topics, and grow our leadership cultivation 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

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.


Katherine Miller is JBF’s senior director of food policy advocacy. Find her on Twitter.

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