And the Secret Ingredient Is...Sexism

Like many fans of daytime television, I have an ongoing love affair with the Food Network. Chopped, Iron Chef America, Cutthroat Kitchen, Cupcake Wars, and Beat Bobby Flay make my heart pound at rates that would concern any cardiologist. However, a much bigger competition is happening offscreen in the food industry: a battle for gender equality.

…an overwhelming lack of women in executive culinary positions.

While one could argue that more men in the kitchen distances women from traditional limiting associations with domesticity and food preparation, a male-dominated industry is hardly the way to break up the associations of women and the kitchen. Early this week, guest blogger and chef, Anne Taylor, published this article on her decision to leave the food industry after experiencing blatant sexism in the workplace. “When I was promoted to head pastry chef,” she tells Refinery29, “I discovered a man hired to assist me made more than I did.” Taylor was unable to complain because of disciplinary action and repeated instructions to “to discuss our wages with coworkers.”

Unfortunately, gender gaps exist in the kitchen in more ways than wage inequality. Female chefs have cleared some hurdles, but it’s a long way to this finish line. Only twenty-five years ago, women made up less than 10% of culinary school attendants. (source) In fifteen years, this number rose to nearly 35%, and now women make up nearly half of those who will burn a hand for the perfect stuffed squab chaud-froid.

The numbers make the future of the food industry look promising, but the reality is: by and large men hold the highest paying, most prominent kitchen jobs at elite restaurants across. “Women occupy just 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups,” according to Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton. (source)

Working in the food industry is no cakewalk, even if an employee is lucky enough to take home nightly leftovers from a five star establishment. The kitchen is a crowded, messy, dynamic workplace. If you can’t take the heat, you will be told to get out. When Rachel Fiet asked “ a successful New York chef” with more than a hundred employees in his kitchen whether or not he had many women on staff he said, “that he'd had a lot come through, but none of them stayed, ‘because they hadn't had the stamina for the job.’” The need to prove oneself as tough enough seems to be the hurdle that women either can’t get over or are even more limited by once inside the kitchen.

“There is a fine line for what is considered acceptable behavior for women in this ‘macho’ environment. Women described themselves as ‘invaders’ of men chef’s turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.” (source)

Addie Broyles of “The Feminist Kitchen” food blog teamed up with sociology professors, Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre, from Texas University to uncover why fewer women hold careers, especially leadership roles, in the professional culinary world. The three chalk it up to the ways in which women and the world of the kitchen are assumed incompatible. According to Broyles, women must tread carefully. “If they acted too masculine, such as brusquely giving orders like men chefs, this could get them labeled ‘bitchy’” and thus, undermine their own authority. Those women who take what Broyles calls “a more feminine approach,” by caring about the staff on a personal level and working less than desirable duties to demonstrate a commitment with hopes of rising through the ranks began to be viewed as maternal characters and pushovers. (source)

These character associations could render a woman status as a valuable team member on the cooking line, but they could also lead to a perception of her as less capable than her male constituents and less likely for promotion. In the culinary world, a paycheck and personal success are earned in time spent moving up the line. Many women will work the long hours for the low pay and few benefits all line workers have, but only for so long and if they have children the lack of benefits is especially problematic. The average restaurant does not provide paid maternity leave, and according to Broyle, “Women chefs said they felt that they had two options:  either leave professional kitchens or come up with creative childcare arrangements so they could stay in the industry.” (source) These creative childcare arrangements are few and far between, often relying on temporary arrangements that threaten job security or family and friends.

On, an online foodie favorite, Amanda Klunt voiced her outrage when a close friend, who chose to remain anonymous, shared the story of how her pregnancy cost her a position at an unnamed New York trademark culinary spot. (source) After six years, she cut her 60-hour workweek down to 50 before beginning an agreed-upon ten weeks unpaid leave. In the final weeks of her leave, she was informed through a loyal customer that her former position had been filledpermanently. The industry seems to tell women that the titles “mother” and “head chef” are not compatible. A common criterion for hiring in the industry is “active employment,” which mandates that for extended periods of time employees guarantee their presence at work. Even for women not planning a pregnancy in the near or distant future, giving up control over their bodies and life choices is too big a compromise.

Where are the Goddesses?

In a culture of celebrity chefs and cook-off television, it can be easy for the successful minority of female chefs to gain visibility. A closer examination of the stereotypes and obstacles women at work face needs to be conducted in restaurants and dining halls that supply us three square meals a day.


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