Truth is crucial for creating change. As a former marathon runner I know that throwing your arms in the air before the finish line is guaranteed to ruin the race. On issues of gender equality in professional kitchens I believe we haven’t even reached the 10 km mark in this marathon run. Pratt is right in describing the pace of change as “glacial”. There’s still so much ground to cover.
There are few stats collected on our industry but those we have indicate just how far we have to go. In the culinary world, female representation at the executive chef level sits at about 6.3%. Broadly speaking, in the corporate sector, female representation at the executive level sits at 14%. Some sectors are currently campaigning to increase that figure but we lack that drive, in the main, because we have no governing body (or certainly none promoting the issue of gender parity). Any effort to raise awareness has come largely from media.
I was glad to see comments by Anthony Walsh in Pratt’s “Gender blender” piece. As the corporate executive chef for Oliver & Bonacini restaurants, he is in a good position to continue demonstrating leadership in this matter. Oliver & Bonacini have been exceptional in their advancement and promotion of executive chef Amanda Ray. I would like to know if her promotion is part of a larger strategic plan for promoting women into executive chef positions? Do they have a gender equity policy that is acted on? Where are they in relationship to the statistics? What percentage of representation do female executive chefs hold in their business?
Businesses that have made the most progress on gender equity have started with a plan and a commitment to act at the corporate governance level. The info graph on pp. 20 – 21 in “One Key to Gender Balance”, from 20-First, a world leader in gender consulting, provides a useful demonstration of progress. Where is Oliver & Bonacini on this scale? I’d love to hear them publically commit to increase female executive chefs/sous chefs to match the corporate sector's 14% representation within a couple of years (if they’re not already there). I’d love to know that they had a plan to move well beyond that in five to ten years. The financial services sector is currently leading the campaign to ensure that women are promoted into executive positions. The reasons for acting are many, not the least of which is the fact that we face a generation that is looking to be employed by “companies that not only take a stand on equality, but also live and breathe it.”
Anthony Walsh is also correct in pointing out the positive impact that visible female leadership has on the ambitions of young women. I know from having staged in kitchens led by successful female executive chefs just how important it was for me. But it can’t be understated just how vital the support of men like Walsh is in these matters. Gabrielle Hamilton made this point in her NYT’s editorial about Time Magazine’s the “Gods of Food” debacle. She wondered how it was that none of the "Gods" noticed or protested the absence of women. She also wondered what other celebrated male executive chefs made of the oversight.
If we want to measure our real progress it behooves us to ask young women who’ve been in the industry for three to five years how they are doing. I’d like to know if they’re being promoted at the same rate as their male peers? Are they where they should be? Are they within a couple of years of becoming an executive chef? Are they being paid adequately (or do they even know what that means)? Have they experienced gender discrimination?
I wonder if our “girl chef heroes” like Donna Dooher are mentoring young female cooks into executive chef positions. One of the stumbling blocks to gender equity across all sectors is the fact that young women are over-mentored and under-promoted.
When I’m asked by young female cooks to advise them in career matters I want to know their specific plan for becoming an executive chef. I want to know how they can best spend the six to eight years between graduation and achieving the goal? I guide them in creating a plan that includes rate of promotion, professional development and investment, and adequate financial compensation through the journey. If a young woman has a plan, is encouraged to advocate for promotion and asks for wages in line with her work, the odds of her becoming an executive chef are exponentially increased. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Amanda Cohen rightly states that we need to develop better “infrastructure that supports…families”. In Canada we have some of that infrastructure as it relates to pregnancy. We have laws that allow a woman to take 17 weeks of unpaid time off work with the expectation that she will return to the same or a comparable position. Employees can add another 35 to 37 weeks of parental leave time for either parent. Posting a position to cover maternity or parental leave is standard practice in other sectors, suggesting that it’s not nearly as formidable a task as we’ve made it out to be. Professional kitchens don’t exist in a realm above the law (although on this and other matters they frequently behave as if they do). The laws are in place to be invoked on those rare occasions where a restaurant or chef is in need of just that kind of education.
If a young woman graduates from culinary school at 22 and is encouraged to make a straight line to her goal she can be in an executive chef position before 30 years of age. Some women are delaying motherhood until they have secured the executive chef’s office knowing that making family friendly decisions will be easier.
But the reality still remains that there is a lack of daycare for families working outside 9 to 5 norms. And our long working hours and low wages can heavily impose on family life. Having children as a female cook is hard, not impossible. Real change in family matters will likely come with critical mass. We need enough women to re-create the industry from within.
Cause for celebration will come when our industry begins acting in a manner that resists the “natural inclinations” Arlene Stein points out. Some will consider the questions I raise here impolite. But failure to ask or answer them is a denial of our present reality. It stymies progress. Taking stock of where we are at concerning women in professional kitchens is a vital industry reality check.
I’m grateful, as a female chef, to City Bites and Laura Pratt for continuing to draw attention to this issue. But I won’t be raising my hands over my head until action that supports female chefs is commonplace, not exceptional industry behavior (to paraphrase Amanda Cohen). There’s still a lot of road ahead and I’m glad I have the kind of grit to cover it. I’m hoping that young female cooks, our future executive chefs, will join me and pick up the pace of our progress.
 Ryan Sutton. "Women Everywhere in Food Empires But No Head Chefs." Bloomberg Luxury. 6 March 2014. Web
 “Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace.” Catalyst Knowledge Centre. 3 March 2014. Web
 “One Key to Gender Balance.” 20-first.
 Janet McFarland. “Watchdogs toughen final draft of gender diversity guidelines.” The Globe & Mail. Report on Business. 15 October 2014.
 Michelle Ray. “Why you wan’t more women in your boardroom.” The Globe & Mail. Report on Business. 22 October 2014.
 Gabrielle Hamilton. “Women Chefs: Escape the Leash, It’s Time the Master Howled.” New York Times. The Opinion Pages. 14 November 2013. Web
 “Women Are Over-Mentored (But Under-Sponsored).” Harvard Business Review. Blog Network. 26 August 2010. Web.