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Opinion: Can We Finally Address the “Woman Problem” in the Culinary Industry?

Deborah Harris

March 08, 2017

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We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and all that’s in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.

JBF has made it a priority to create space for resources and mentorship for women in our field through our Women’s Leadership Programs. Below, Deborah A. Harris, a sociology professor focusing her research on gender in the restaurant industry, contributes our latest op-ed, providing a deep dive into the “woman problem” in the restaurant industry, and exploring the challenges and opportunities of changing how women are treated in the front and back of house.

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It seems that, for as long as there has been a culinary industry, we have been hearing about the “woman problem” that plagues professional kitchens. We see evidence in of this problem in formal statistics (only 20 percent of head and executive chefs are female), media representation (anyone remember the debacle over Time magazine’s “Gods of Food” issue?), and industry awards (the yearly debate that happens whenever a woman is named “Best Female Chef”).

I spent a lot of time with women chefs while working on my book, Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen (co-authored with Patti Giuffre). We wanted to know: why is cooking, when done in the home, so often considered women’s work, while professional cooking done by chefs remains so male-dominated? To answer this question, we examined the history of the career, analyzed over 2,200 pieces of recent food media, and conducted in-depth interviews with 33 women chefs. We found that, for many years, women were excluded from culinary schools, cooking competitions, and even working in certain venues. This helped create a workplace culture that was hyper-masculine, competitive, and generally unfriendly to outsiders, including women. Our participants shared how, in the early years of their careers, they had to constantly prove that they were mentally and emotionally tough enough to fit in with all-male cooking environments. They had to prove themselves again when they moved up the culinary ladder and their leadership skills were tested by male chefs unused to taking orders from women. Some of our participants eventually left professional kitchen work behind. This had nothing to do with discrimination or mistreatment; instead, it was because female chefs found it impossible to balance the competing demands of having a family and heading a restaurant.

Even years of hard work in the culinary industry didn’t necessarily mean the women got their due. An analysis of restaurant reviews and chef profiles found that women were featured in only ten percent of the articles. But there were stark differences in the ways male and female chefs were discussed in the media. Male chefs were described as rule-breakers who challenged and transformed various cuisines through their innovative cooking. Once a man helmed a successful restaurant for a few years, journalists and diners began to ask about the next steps of building a culinary empire by opening additional restaurants, product deals, and other opportunities. For female chefs, they earned accolades when they stuck to established culinary tradition and their cooking was just how “mom” used to do things. Instead of being motivated by traditional markers of success, female chefs were described as having a need to “nurture” and “nourish” their diners. Female chefs, even those who owned several restaurants, were not described in the language used for empire-building male chefs.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with nurturing and nourishing through food—it is a vital part of being a chef. But in the incredibly competitive restaurant industry where the hours are long, conditions are harsh, and profits razor thin, male chefs alone are often are seen as culinary stars. This can translate to some pretty big barriers for women in the industry. Recently, I’ve been a part of focus groups hosted by the James Beard Foundation convened to discuss women’s experiences as chefs. During these focus groups, female chefs described challenges to secure the capital to open their own restaurant or expand into multiple establishments. Even female chefs with established track records of great cooking find themselves being unable to gain more support. Part of this, they suggested, can be traced back to who gets the attention from food media outlets.

In Taking the Heat, we found that women chefs have numerous strengths that they bring to the industry. Several of the female chefs who were interviewed described how, once they began leading a kitchen, they focused on creating a more harmonious atmosphere that encouraged their staff to create and grow. Harassment and the sexualized joking prevalent in a lot of kitchens decreased, and these women reported having better-functioning and more diverse restaurants in both the front- and back-of-the-house. If these were the findings from just a few restaurants, imagine the transformation of the culinary industry if more women were able to operate and own restaurants. As the culinary industry becomes more aligned with other creative professions, new opportunities can arise. Encouraging and promoting a diverse workforce is just one of the steps the industry can take on this journey. So many female chefs have proven themselves worthy and it is time to realize, when women lead, the entire culinary industry could benefit.

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Dr. Deborah A. Harris is associate professor in the department of sociology at Texas State University. She is the co-author with Patti Giuffre of Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen (Rutgers 2015). Learn more about her work here.

Learn more about our Women’s Leadership Programs.

The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.