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.