Women in the culinary world & what we can do to support them

Photo By Clay Williams

A Women's Place is in the Kitchen....

How many times has that been “jokingly” said to ambitious women, thrown in the replies of a random woman’s tweet, or meanly spat in school hallways? Though I cannot quantify it, the phrase certainly has a profoundly negative reality associated with it. Years of data have shown that global professions are male-dominated and foster deeply toxic environments for most women and misogyny-affected non-men. 

This includes the culinary industry. According to 2018 statistics, only about 23.9% of Chefs and head cooks in the US are female despite making up 50% of the population. A woman’s place — it seems — isn’t in the restaurant kitchen; it’s just the one at home. So, we will take the time to examine the condition of women in the culinary industry.

A Brief Historical Overview

In colonial and early post-colonial times, husbands and wives often ran taverns together — and when the husband could no longer assist in day-to-day operations, women took over. For example, Elizabeth Fraunces, historic NYC’s Fraunces Tavern owner Samuel Fraunces’ wife, took over the tavern when Samuel went to serve as George Washington’s steward. However, as time went on, working as a tavern-owner — an industry dedicated to serving traveling, working men — became viewed as raunchy and unladylike. 

With the onslaught of the Civil War, Restaurants hired single white women to work out-of-sight in restaurant kitchens while men worked upfront. Similarly, as WWI continued to demand young men, many white women rose to fill the ranks of dishwashers and waiters. Women also began approaching the number of male servers — 102,495 males and 85,798 females nationwide. Around the same time, in the early 1900s, the home economics movement gained traction and, in turn, pushed women to the culinary industry. These trends don’t necessarily mirror African-American women’s reality — who dominated the personal chef industry, catering industry, and community-oriented kitchens within their neighborhoods. Statistics from the 1910 Census show that roughly 1 out of 6 restaurant keepers were women. Black female restaurant keepers represented about a fourth of those women. However, it is essential to note that most of these restaurants were tea rooms and cafeterias. 

The roaring ‘20s were known for opulence and economic prosperity. But it was also known for the peaking Women’s Suffrage Movement and a rise in first-wave feminism. Cafeterias and tea rooms, and the women that ran them, began to garner visibility and prominence. Restaurant Management magazine even added a column called The Woman Executive in the 1930s. 

The advent of new technologies in WWII and the post-WWII United States meant that the U.S.’s food culture took a dramatic departure from what existed before. Freeze-dried and convenience foods, TV dinners, and chain restaurants shaped food culture. Convenience and a return to “American values” meant eating out at mom-and-pop diners (small, family-owned businesses) became less popular. The shift in “American Values” furthered this with the fast-food phenomenon. Fast food, particularly fast food franchising, presented new challenges to women wanting to enter the culinary world. Women were often overcharged for restaurant supplies, refused loans, charged high deposits, and were actively turned away from banks entirely. Even staffing was challenging to find; men held much distaste when employed under women. Ultimately, lack of access to capital would burden women into the 1970s and beyond, resulting, for instance, in their underrepresentation in fast food franchising. In 1971, only 6.3% of franchises were held by women

Contemporary Issues

It is only recently, though, that women have been making significant strides in some parts of this industry. According to data from 2017, women of every racial category earn more B.A. degrees in Culinary Arts & Chef Training than their male counterparts. This is good news! Women are pursuing an education in a field that men have consistently gatekept. Still, women have immense trouble joining that industry, and when they do succeed, it’s not without enormous trial and tribulation. 

“Not every woman in the restaurant industry has endured the type of harassment outlined in [the] exposés [about harassment in kitchens run by nationally recognized chefs like John Besh and Mario Batali.] But most of us have experienced its misogynistic culture, the concrete floor — and the glass ceiling — upon which so many restaurants and careers have been built,” Tiffani Faison writes for Eater, outlining for us the barriers women face in the industry. 

From behavior to appearance, women have insane misogynistic expectations pushed onto them from the moment they enter the kitchen. They have to be non-threatening (imagine if we said that to Gordon Ramsey), they have to smile, women can’t be smarter or more talented than men, and most importantly, they have to be likable. It is not enough for women to be good chefs. They must be adored — liked — to achieve longevity and success in their careers. But even being admired is not enough to prevent the harsher, more tangible forms of discrimination women in the industry face: the wage gap, mistreatment and disrespect, lack of maternity accommodations, and — most notably — sexual assault.

The restaurant industry has the country’s highest rate of sexual harassment reports. A whopping 90% of all women in the industry said they had experienced some sort of sexual harassment. Several factors enable this behavior, but the most notable remains the constant power imbalance women face. Women of color are likely to occupy lower-status jobs at lower-paying employers (quick-serve and family-style). Fear of unemployment and continued harassment prevent women from speaking out. Compounding the problem of power imbalances, the high restaurant turnover rate (70%) means that women are more likely to leave — or be discharged— before a customer or client can make any complaint. The industry heavily relies on a “customer is always right” attitude and prioritizes their female waitresses, chefs, and general staff’s physical appearance. These attitudes often allow victim-blaming mentalities to prevail — not only among those who sexually assault their female coworkers but among women who have accepted this behavior as “part of the job.”

“We are quick to attribute the lack of ascent in women’s culinary careers to the desire for families, but in the post-Besh, post-Batali moment, we are finally considering that a culture of misogyny can be toxic enough to push women out — regardless of whether they want to have children.” It’s easy to understand women’s low retention rates in professional kitchens at a workplace this toxic. It’s even easier to understand how women might be driven away from the industry in general, preferring self-made social media and influencer platforms. So how do we even begin to address it?

Some Hope for the Future

I’ve just painted a pretty bleak picture, and it can seem like there isn’t much being accomplished to address the various systemic issues women face in the restaurant industry. Thankfully, this isn’t true. Many people are doing some fantastic work to make the industry a more welcoming place. 

For one example, Lindsay Ofacek and Chef Edward Lee have been working towards a change since 2016’s #MeToo movement. Together, they launched the LEE Initiative — an organization seeking to improve diversity and maintain equality in the restaurant industry. With nearly six programs, LEE has been helping women and minorities succeed. Through the Women Culinary & Spirits Program, LEE hopes to address “this void in leadership, bringing qualified women into the kitchen and equipping them with new skills, expanding their capability and elevating their career pathway.” To do this, the program offers women the chance to complete several externships, training, courses, and mentorships. Another similar effort is seen in Chefs Breanne Butler’s and Adriana Urbina’s The Table. A series of global pop-up dinners, The Table pop-up dinners were entirely staffed by women. Everyone from the dishwashers to the bartenders to the chefs. Of course, The Table is momentarily halted by the pandemic, but we’re eager to see if they will resume their operations. 

Of course, everyone doesn’t have the funding, time, or ability to create a non-profit to help women in the restaurant industry. Still, there are always things we can do to help. Support women-owned restaurants in your area! Treat female servers and waitresses with respect! Encourage young girls and women to pursue careers in the culinary arts! And ultimately, refuse to support the institutions — restaurants, culinary schools, people — that enable these injustices