Globally women do 85 – 90% of the cooking. They also do most of the grocery shopping and invest more of their money in buying food than men do. Moreover, women comprise a significant part of the workforce in the food and restaurant industry. With many restaurants all over the world having closed permanently or temporarily since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the future of the food and beverage service sector remains uncertain. Even when restaurants reopen slowly, they often do so with limited capacity in line with physical distancing guidelines and uncertain consumer demand. What is clear, however, is that women in the industry are likely to be among the hardest hit.
Why does it matter?
The coronavirus pandemic has opened many diners’ eyes to just how precarious things have been for workers in the industry, particularly women. What the pandemic has reinforced is the idea of a restaurant as center of a community. The risk of losing a food establishment has galvanized professionals within the restaurant industry – but also consumers – to imagine and think through what a better future looks like.
“Women have always played an important part in the culinary world” says Ashley Rose Young, historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Whether it is as restaurant owners, chefs in the kitchen, front-line workers feeding America and managing supply chains, women have been and continue to be creative, resilient, and inspiring. I am convinced that we are witnessing another historic moment where daily practices of food production and distribution are shaped by race, ethnicity, and gender.”
Women are likely to play a key role in determining how the food and restaurant industry rebuilds and how long it will take the industry to rebound which will have significant socio-economic impacts. What’s more, the industry cannot afford to forego the recent gains it has made in closing persistent gender and diversity employment gaps.
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Women as Employees
As the restaurant and food industry offers numerous entry-level jobs, the sector has historically been an important employer. Take the example of the United States: here over 60% of American women have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their life according to the National Restaurant Association. In fact, food preparation and service is the second most common occupation in the United States. Waiting tables is said to be the eighth most common.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there were more than 12 million Americans working at over 600,000 food service and drinking establishments nationwide notes the Brookings Institution. Even prior to the pandemic, many restaurant workers were not able to make ends meet – and while one in six restaurant workers lived below the poverty line, African Americans were paid the least. The coronavirus pandemic caused a tremendous drop of customer – leaving employees and business owners to grapple with overwhelming uncertainty and financial risks.
The industry has welcomed many immigrants and refugees as first-time employer which has translated to many communities having benefitted from and been further enriched by culinary cultures from around the world. For many employees, the industry has offered unique career opportunities – though women typically find it more difficult to advance than men.
While nationwide, women in the United States represented more than half of all restaurant workers (52%) and servers (71%), roles for women in management have been limited. Female employees accounted for only 19% of chef positions according to The State of Women in the Restaurant and Food Industry in 2017. This is not unique to the United States. While more and more women have become employed and self employed in the sector than ever before, in the United Kingdom only 17% of chef positions are occupied by women. What’s more, just a handful of female chefs around the world have ever claimed three Michelin stars from the prestigious restaurant guide since the system began almost a century ago.
The 2020 U.S. documentary A Fine Line by Joanna James explores why less than 7% of head chefs and restaurant owners are women despite having traditionally held the central role in the kitchen. Although women make up 50% of culinary school graduates, less than a fifth of executive chefs are female, and even fewer own their restaurants according to the James Beard Foundation. Women of color are particularly underrepresented in the food industry: in 2017, women of color made up only 14% of entry-level positions and only 3% of chief executive roles, a 2017 Women in the Food Industry report by McKinsey found. In comparison, white men made up 37% of entry-level positions and 70% of chief executive roles. The cause? Some point to the industry’s persistent institutional structures that have historically benefited men.
Take for example the brigade de cuisine system of hierarchy that is found in many traditional restaurants and hotels. Developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier in the late 19th century, the structured team system – similar to hierarchies in the military – delegates responsibilities to different individuals who specialize in certain tasks in the kitchen. The military-like structures and culture are also known to be conducive for a rough work environment where bullying is said not to be uncommon. The industry can be tough for both women and men: 2017 research in the United States reveals that 74% of chefs were sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion; 63% of chefs felt depressed, and more than half felt pushed to the breaking point. Yet, while behind many successful chefs there is often a woman (mother, grandmother, sous chef), it is often male chefs who rise to the top as a result of the institutional set-up.
The industry has unique characteristics that make it more difficult for women to advance to the top: it is known for its long working hours and the lack of available, affordable and reliable childcare significantly impacts the retention of parents, particularly mothers. In fact, almost 2 million restaurant workers in the United States (about 15%) are mothers. Within this group, more than half are single mothers. Before the crisis, mothers across the United States took responsibility for a much larger share of childcare than fathers. The coronavirus-related lockdowns further magnified this unequal division: women in the U.S. picked-up an even larger share of the extra childcare duties during the lockdown than men.
The restaurant industry is also known for persistent gender pay gaps: for example, night and weekend shifts are known to garner more tips; however, because of the lack of childcare options available, almost one-third of mothers surveyed for a 2019 NYC Restaurant Survey Report were not able to work those financially more rewarding and desirable shifts.
What’s more, work environments that exhibit power imbalances among women and men are known to be more susceptible to sexual harassment. With many more men than women at the top, the restaurant industry is no exception. A 2014 study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 80% of female restaurant workers had experienced harassment from a coworker while two-thirds had experienced harassment from a manager.
Women’s Business Ownership
For many talented and skilled women in the food and restaurant industry, starting their own business provides a desirable alternative to male dominated cooking hierarchies. Take the example of Logan Niles, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, entrepreneur, and mother. Having founded the Pot Pie Factory in the U.S. city of Seattle three years ago, she now has the ability to work creatively rather than perform the same tasks and prepare the same dishes as part of a line in a large restaurant kitchen. Niles, who identifies as a woman of color, thrives in leading this online retail business and employing other women while promoting a more collaborative, safe and flexible work environment.
The good news: overall women-owned restaurant businesses grew at a rate more than three times faster than the overall restaurant industry in recent years. Yet, access to capital has been a continuous barrier of entry for women in the industry, especially for women of color. “Black- and brown-owned businesses are three times as likely to be denied loans, and those that are approved often receive lower loan amounts and pay higher interest rates,” notes a recent Eater article. “For a population more likely to rent than other demographics, offering up real estate as collateral for traditional loans isn’t an option.”
Over the past years, many have noted that women in the industry have the tenacity to work harder, cleaner, and faster – with no room for failure. Yet, the odds are often stacked against women in a world that is used to seeing successful men – including in the food and restaurant media – which reinforces an (un)conscious bias where women are continuously challenged to prove themselves. Several organizations (often community-based) have therefore made it their mission to support women in the industry to address these persistent market failures. Take the example of nonprofit Ventures in the Seattle area, which adapted the Grameen model and created innovative training programs and financial services tailored to the needs of low-income entrepreneurs, with a focus on women, people of color, immigrants, and individuals with low income. Or the example of Hot Bread Kitchen, which through a workforce development career program and a small business incubator supports women, immigrants, and people of color thrive as workers and entrepreneurs within the food system with a mission to make the system itself more conscious and equitable for all. Among others, Hot Bread Kitchen connects small businesses with a network of buyers and experts, like Whole Foods Market.
The pandemic has not only hit women in the food and restaurant industry the hardest, it has also magnified some of the inequality issues in the sector. Particularly following the Black Lives Matter movement, issues of voice and justice in the industry have come to the forefront. This has sparked an increased call for action be it through targeted advocacy, networking, training and financial support. These initiatives have been most welcome, yet there are also voices of caution. “We need to make sure that this momentum translates to sustainable action that recognizes and promotes all talents. We cannot afford missing this opportunity to affect real structural changes,” says Logan Niles of the Pot Pie Factory.
It is in large parts due to the coronavirus pandemic that restaurants are exploring more “equitable” business models. The well-being within professional kitchens remains a key issue. Some are beginning to embrace workers collectives, mutual aid, and legislation advocacy. Among others, there is a call for change and inspire a new kitchen culture that’s kinder and more open. Initiatives such as Fair Kitchens (started by Lighthouse in partnership with Unilever) sound promising and will have to pass the sustainability test also for scale.
For some restaurants reopening and rebuilding includes the promotion of positive working environments where equity considerations and staff happiness are as important as diner satisfaction. In fact, customers should have an ability to reward restaurants who promote diversity and fairness. To date, many restaurant rating systems are limited by their focus on the food service itself: Michelin reviews the quality of the ingredients, mastery of cooking techniques and the personality/consistency of food service. Zagat evaluates food, decor, and service. AAA Diamonds’ ratings focuses 80% on food and service and 20% on decor and ambiance. In the United Kingdom, the Sustainable Restaurant Association has introduced a new sustainability framework divided under three pillars – sourcing, society and environment “reflecting the need to focus on the food that’s sourced and served as well as the impact that it has on the people growing, rearing, cooking and serving it.”
It is clear that on the issue of voice, notable changes are already happening at the top in North American food media with the appointment of women of color in leading positions: for example, Cook’s Country gets a new editor, Toni Tipton-Martin, who is known for championing the professional skills and generations of culinary wisdoms of black cooks. Moreover, Condé Nast had announced that Dawn Davis will take over as editor in chief of Bon Appétit in November.
Everything food and restaurant establishments can do to rebuild the industry on their own is likely to be a few drops in a bucket compared to what governments and communities can do. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded many of the important role that food plays for society, not only as a job creator. Having been confined to cooking at home, many realize that food allows families and communities to take care of themselves: starting with child nutrition (for which women are almost entirely responsible), food connects people by sharing and eating with each other. Food can be an important catalyst for positive change so long as we remind ourselves where our food comes from and who puts it on the table.