Women Chefs & Gender Inequality in the Kitchen

Taking the Heat.jpg

An Interview with Deborah A. Harris & Patti Giuffre

By Stephanie Hammerwold

In today’s media we are inundated with the world of restaurants and chefs. There are several networks devoted entirely to cooking, restaurants and food as a metaphor for culture. This is especially evident in Las Vegas where towering banners display the faces of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, chefs whose eateries serve as the flagship dining experience in the biggest casinos and generate millions of dollars in sales every year. 

In my time there recently, one thing was glaringly obvious: with the exception of a large banner for Giada De Laurentiis and a small sign for a restaurant by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (known as the Too Hot Tamales) the most advertised and most recognized restaurants were all owned by men. In all the focus on high profile restaurants, professional kitchens and the back of the house, one thing is clear: the profession is still largely male-dominated.

In Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen, Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre analyze the history of the culinary industry and how it has evolved to be almost exclusively the domain of male chefs. Their book includes interviews with 33 women chefs as well as an analysis of media data to determine how women chefs are portrayed and perceived. I recently interviewed Harris and Giuffre about their research and new book.

What is your background in sociology and women’s studies?

Deborah Harris (DH): I received my PhD from Mississippi State University in 2007 with a focus in social stratification and inequality. Gender inequality has always been an academic interest of mine.

My early research examined how social inequality was manifested in social welfare policies, particularly how low-income rural women navigated changes in cash welfare programs that encouraged work and marriage as routes off public assistance. Since then I have studied how women are depicted in wilderness recreation advertising and how this might impact how women feel about engaging in these activities. While working on the project that would become Taking the Heat, I developed an interest in the sociology of food and I am currently examining how college students perform gender in their food diaries that describe their daily eating habits. 

Patti Giuffre (PG): I received by PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996. I first became interested in gender inequality in the workplace during my many years working in restaurants as a hostess, cocktail waitress, bartender and waitress. My observations during my restaurant work became the basis of my first study, which concerned sexual harassment in restaurants. I have also conducted research on homophobia and sexual orientation discrimination in workplaces.

How did you become interested in analyzing gender in the workplace through professional kitchens?

DH: This research was inspired by my love of the reality television competition, Top Chef. When I began teaching at Texas State, I had a ritual of coming home Wednesday nights and curling up to watch Top Chef each week. During one episode, the chefs were told they were being rewarded for their hard work and treated to a night out at a Miami nightclub. All the chefs dressed to the nines only to find out, once they reached the nightclub, that it was all part of a cooking challenge that required them to design a menu and cook at a food truck in front of the club. The chefs had to perform all the shopping, running around and cooking in their dressy clothes, and some of the women were very upset that they were having to perform these tasks in high heels, dresses and makeup. One chef even adamantly declared that she never let her male colleagues see her like that (i.e. in very feminine dress). I wondered why she was so upset, but then I started thinking about how, as a male-dominated career, women chefs may want to downplay their femininity to fit in better at work.

While I wouldn’t call myself a foodie at the time, I realized that, while I could name several men chefs, I couldn’t name any women chefs. All the women who I thought of were not actual “chefs” but were Food Network hosts. I was struck by the irony that, when cooking happened in the home it’s seen as a more feminine activity, but in the professional world men did more cooking. I discussed this with my colleague, Patti Giuffre, and we decided to use professional chefs as a case study for examining the mechanisms through which gender inequality is maintained at work. If any job would be more open to women’s entry, it would seem that being a chef would fit, but that didn’t seem to be the case and we wanted to know why. Seven short years later and we had a book!

We found the work of chefs and the culinary industry to be fascinating because no other male-dominated occupations are based upon an activity that is culturally defined as “feminine” or “women’s work” in the home.
—Patti Giuffre

PG: We were fascinated by the current superstar chef trend. We were also interested in how the work of chefs is unique compared to other male-dominated occupations. There are many studies of women’s experiences in male-dominated industries, workplaces, and jobs (e.g. construction, police, firefighting, coal mining, gas and oil industry). We found the work of chefs and the culinary industry to be fascinating because no other male-dominated occupations are based upon an activity that is culturally defined as “feminine” or “women’s work” in the home. We suspected that men chefs might have more at stake in defining their work in the professional kitchen as something that is completely different from the type of cooking that typically occurs in the home. The nose-to-tail and molecular gastronomy culinary trends seem to further delineate the type of cooking that occurs in professional kitchens from cooking that occurs in the home.

How might the restaurant industry (and other employers for that matter) change their approach to harassment training in order to encourage an environment where sexual joking and teasing are not the norm?

DH: The really simple answer to this question is for kitchen leadership to make it very clear about what kinds of behavior is considered harassment and won’t be tolerated. A more thorough answer would have to take into account the different models of restaurants. Our participants discussed how there were a greater number of corporately-owned restaurants these days. On one hand, these restaurants tended to have more standardized menus, so they weren’t the most exiting places to work as a chef. However, because of the corporate influence, these restaurants were more likely to have more formal channels in place for dealing with sexual harassment.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of smaller, chef-owned restaurants where things like HR departments simply don’t exist. In these scenarios, the person complaints would go to would be the chef or owner, which may very well be the person who’s committing the harassing behavior. 

In both cases, what is important is that there is a culture where workers feel like they can report harassing behavior without reprisal or being labeled “too sensitive.” Historically, professional kitchens have earned a reputation as “rowdy” places to work, so workers may feel that this is the kind of behavior that is expected—and even desired—in the kitchen. But if those in charge in the kitchen make it known what the boundaries are and emphasize a more professional atmosphere, this can impact the workplace. Coworkers learn what is and is not acceptable behavior and those who have harassment complaints know they can report the behavior and something will be done to address the situation.

PG: Studies suggest that sexual harassment training is rarely taken seriously by workers. And, workers often do not know whether behaviors are sexual harassment or not. Workers in restaurant kitchens tend to engage in a lot of sexual joking and banter. In these types of sexualized workplaces, workers have an even more difficult time identifying what is “fun” and “funny” versus what is sexual harassment (unwelcome sexual behaviors). Management must take it seriously, and inform workers that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They must also enforce company policies (that is, IF there is a policy). 

Corporate restaurants are more likely than small, independently-owned restaurants to offer policies, training, and enforcement. Interestingly, the women chefs we interviewed believe that the presence of women leaders in the kitchen will deter sexual harassment. They say that women ARE changing the kitchen culture to discourage offensive behaviors. Perhaps more women in leadership roles in kitchens will eventually alter the sexualized culture.

In your book, you mention the popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. As you point out, the lean in approach may work for some women, but it tends to uphold the traditional masculine workplace as the norm. How do we move beyond the self-empowerment approach to really transform the workplace? Are visibility of marginalized people and improved leave laws, benefits, flexibility, etc. enough?

DH: In part of your question, you ask if increased visibility and workplace policies enough. For chefs, much of what it takes to be labeled a “success” involves moving up kitchen hierarchies and opening one’s own restaurant (or even multiple restaurants). As a creative career, media and other forms of visibility is crucial for financial success and getting access to investors and other sources of capital. So, in this case, being a chef is more like other creative careers (fashion design, etc.) and having more visibility is a great start. It shouldn’t stop there, however, and more attention (and pressure) should be put on industries and organizations to provide more benefits and support for workers. 

PG: We have been intrigued by and a little skeptical about the “lean in” phenomenon. Lean in compels women to stand up for themselves, “bang the table,” self-promote, and get their voice heard. Leaning in speaks to many women workers around the U.S. who like the individual empowerment messages contained in leaning in. Lean in strategies seem to help some women in the short term but do not contribute to larger changes in an industry. Some of the women chefs in our study described a survivor mentality that was very similar to lean in. Policy changes like family leave or flexibility certainly can help support women but even with supportive policies there are particular groups of women would be penalized if they leaned in (e.g. women of color, queer women, and/or women who work outside of white collar corporations).

Sandberg’s lean in strategies might work best for some groups of women (e.g. heterosexual women, white women, women in the “1%”). The survivor ethic contained in leaning in can contribute to criticisms of less successful women by highly successful women for not being more ambitious. It can also cause women to downplay the bias and discrimination they have encountered.

Sandberg’s book has good intentions but is detrimental to our thinking about gender inequality at work because it focuses our attention on individual-level “choices” or what (certain) women can do to fix themselves. One of our sociology colleagues, Dr. Kirsten Dellinger, Professor at the University of Mississippi, raised a great question at a recent conference: What would it mean for organizations to lean in for gender equality? Organizations leaning in are probably more likely to transform the workplace than individuals leaning in.

I like the example of Thomas Keller’s kitchen and how he maintains a calm environment that seems to go against the wild and chaotic view we often have of a professional kitchen. How do we further this idea that a successful workplace does not necessarily have to be loud and macho? How does an environment like Keller's further add to the professionalism of chefs and allow for the growth of a wide array of people in the field?

DH: I think this case really illustrates the power of media depictions of chefs. Our participants really felt that chef-related media from Hell’s Kitchen to shows on The Food Network gave an inaccurate picture of what is was really like to work in a kitchen. While several women had worked for the yelling, angry chef who threw food or pots and pans around the kitchen, most admitted that behavior was on its way out. If various media outlets started showing a more realistic—or at least a more varied—depictions of what working in a kitchen is like, this could affect how people viewed the occupation. Similarly, culinary schools could help encourage more professional behavior by discussing the realities of life in the kitchen to their students. 

I agree with your conclusion that struggles with work-family balance, long hours, etc. are not unique to the chef profession, and there is a lot to think about in terms of how we balance work and family regardless of gender. How do you think we can take your conclusions from this book and apply them to other workplaces?

DH: Again, I think the relevance of culture is important in this case. One way to increase work-family balance across many fields is to normalize paid leave for both parents and to encourage parents to take time off knowing that their jobs will be safe. This can be helped by larger cultural shifts that emphasize a sharing of parental roles. When it becomes more popular for both parents to share family responsibilities, this will help pressure industries to be more family friendly instead of having more gender-specific policies.

One way to increase work-family balance across many fields is to normalize paid leave for both parents and to encourage parents to take time off knowing that their jobs will be safe.
—Deborah A. Harris

PG: Our findings apply to many workplaces that are highly demanding and want “work devoted” employees who prioritize work over family. Most American workplaces are not truly family- or caregiver-friendly. Many Americans are trying to work AND care for family members and other loved ones. There are some workplaces offering various forms of support for workers, but for now, it really is up to management and ownership to create and enforce policies that are supportive to workers. 

The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t offer federal paid family leave. We need some federal or state policies that would encourage more workplaces to offer paid family leave. There are four states in the U.S. that offer paid family leave (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington). Studies find that workers are happier, less stressed out, and actually return to work more quickly in states or workplaces that offer paid family leave. Furthermore, men are more likely to use family leave in states and workplaces that offer it.

Workplaces can offer other forms of support, for example, paid sick leave. We know of some local grocery stores that offer a sick leave pool. Some workers will never use the sick leave, while others will need more. The pool allows all workers who need paid sick leave to use it without fear of being penalized.

Finally, our research can be applied to other workplaces by asking us to consider culture change so that workers who need to care for ill loved ones can do so without facing penalties, biases, or negative responses that they “aren’t dedicated enough.”

Taking the Heat is available from Rutgers University Press in both print and ebook format.