While the sexual harassment epidemic in Hollywood, competitive sports, and other industries continues to make headlines, it has always been an open secret in the food industry; just ask the women who work in kitchens and dining rooms across the country. Julia Child may have spurred a food revolution in the 1970s, but women were not the prime beneficiaries.
The women’s movement, anti-discrimination laws, and corporate sexual harassment training programs lulled us into thinking things would be different in this brave new culinary world, but it was our male counterparts who became food celebrities, opened restaurants and had wildly successful careers. Women, however, were relegated to second-class roles — yes, there were exceptions like Alice Waters, etc. — and suffered in silence in environments where institutionalized misogyny, sexual abuse, and gender-based wage discrimination made the workplace feel more like a battlefield than a place to pursue a passion for food.
Four decades later, the restaurant industry continues to be a testosterone-fueled incubator that fosters or ignores gender bias, injustice, and sexual harassment. Nowhere is this imbalance more evident than in kitchens, where women fill a paltry 19 percent of chef’s positions. As celebrity chef Tom Colicchio recently said in an open letter to male chefs, “Something’s broken here. The recent ‘revelations’ of rampant harassment in the restaurant industry weren’t exactly a shocker to the women working in it. Or the men, for that matter.”
The “back of the house” is still a male-dominated bastion where sexually explicit slurs, sexual coercion, financial blackmail, and even assaults are part and parcel of a culture where women are objectified and considered less qualified merely because of their sex. Woe to any woman who dares to report abuse, fight back, seek protection, or demand restitution — retaliation is more than just a threat; examples of it are widespread, and most women in the industry have personally seen them. This situation exists for many reasons, but at its heart is the dearth of female leadership, the ineffectiveness of anti-discrimination and sexual harassment protections, and the persistence of Neanderthal attitudes about gender.
Although women food service workers represent 52 percent of the national restaurant industry’s workforce, National Restaurant Association statistics show that only “33 percent of American restaurants are majority owned by women and … another 15 percent are equally co-owned by women and men.” And until there are more women chefs, restaurant owners, and managers industry-wide, we will continue to see power imbalances that put women at a disadvantage and create a culture that excuses bad behavior.
The lack of legal or administrative protections teaches women that if they want to keep their jobs or move up the ladder, they have few options. If they complain, they risk retribution, blacklisting, and other forms of professional sabotage, but if they stay and keep silent, women end up protecting the perpetrators of their abuse and contribute to a toxic workplace. The long-term effect of this kind of stress is demoralizing, destroys a woman’s self-esteem, and forces her to endure a culinary version of battered woman syndrome.
As a result, women, in droves, often give up and leave the restaurant industry because they know that no matter how talented they are, they will never have the same opportunities as men. If they choose to stay, they often pursue careers as writers, teachers, PR pros, or consultants rather than endure the hellish conditions typical in restaurants. But it’s time for that to change.
One woman alone can do great things, but together, we can change lives and transform the food industry, and the first step is making our voices heard. To start this process, women from across the food industry are gathering in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, November 15, at an open forum designed to shine a light on issues of sexual harassment and females in the workplace. "There’s no reason why restaurants should be exempt from treating employees with respect and professionalism,” says Kristen Hartke, a member of the industry professional organization Les Dames d'Escoffier and a co-organizer of the event, who sees it “as an opportunity to bring the discussion to a public forum where women can not only share their stories but also seek advice and support.
Women are encouraged to attend and participate in a lively discussion about our rightful place as culinary professionals.The event is being produced jointly by Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and Les Dames d’Escoffier’s D.C. chapter. It’s designed to be a town hall discussion and will be moderated by Nycci Nellis of Federal News Radio’s Foodie and the Beast with a panel that includes: public relations expert Simone Rathlé of Simoneink; Washington Post reporter Maura Judkis; Washington chef-restaurateur Ruth Gresser of Pizzeria Paradiso; director of human resources Clare Parker of Neighborhood Restaurant Group; owner and psychotherapist Jihan Madyun of The Fulfillment Project; and other panelists to be named.
Summer Whitford is D.C. Editor and a food, drink and travel contributor at The Daily Meal, sharing what's cool and hot in the D.C area's dining scene. When not writing for The Daily Meal, she runs her company, The Food and Wine Diva.
A Q&A Session will follow the panel discussion. Proceeds from this event will support the scholarship, mentoring, and educational programs of Les Dames d’Escoffier’s DC chapter.
Date: November 15, 2017
Time: 7 p.m.
Venue: The Hill Center
Location: 921 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003
Ticket Price: $10 per person