September 27th, 2019
Writer takes feminist twist on phrase "women belong in the kitchen"
SUN. | 10-04-20 | OPINION
The phrase “women belong in the kitchen” reeks of sexism, rigid gender roles and a 1950’s mindset. There is almost no reason to say that phrase in 2020. Or is there?
As a feminist, I think there is room to embrace and repurpose the phrase in an empowering way. Women do belong in kitchens — in professional kitchens, with equal pay for equal talent.
Since working in a fine dining restaurant and meeting local chefs, I have noticed how many of my favorite restaurants have male-dominated kitchens. These same restaurants employ a large number of women, so it is evident
women are interested and capable of
Graphic by Lexi Karaivanova
working in the restaurant industry. The vast majority of restaurant workers I know are women; they work as waitresses, hosts, bartenders and managers. But I cannot say the same for chefs. If you were to ask me to name professional chefs off the top of my head, I could name five or more male chefs to every female chef I name.
I began to wonder if this is just a coincidence or if this is a national trend. According to a Bloomberg analysis, women make up less than 7% of executive chefs in top U.S. restaurants. The digital culinary media site Eater writes that in 2017 women made up only 28% of finalists for the James Beard Chef Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the culinary industry. Why is it that when women do want to be in a kitchen, they are not seen in kitchens? Needless to say, women are severely underrepresented. To make matters worse, for the 7% of women that are executive chefs, StarChefs notes that they make an average of $20,000 less than their male counterparts. Despite sexists telling women they belong in the kitchen, the pay gap seems to suggest otherwise.
While such odds would discourage many women, NPR notes that over half of the students enrolled at or graduating from the Culinary Institute of America are women. Based on the reports from the National Restaurant Association, 33% of restaurants are women-owned, with that rate only rising. Despite how promising that sounds, StarChef explains “their revenues are about 38 to 40 percent of industry averages,” showing there is much more to be done until women are truly equal in the field.
The restaurant culture as we know it was not built upon or for the success of women in the kitchen and the effects of that still linger. I become hyper-aware of this every time I tell someone I work in a restaurant and they automatically assume I am a waitress; in reality, I work on the line with the other chefs. Women do account for 71% of servers in restaurants, so it is not shocking that people assume I am a waitress, but it is a shame that there is such a huge difference in how many women work in the front of the house of a restaurant and how many work in the back of the house. I should not be an oddity for working in the kitchen.
What is even worse than that divide, though, is the rampant rates of oversexualization and sexual harassment towards women in restaurants, especially waitresses. My go-to examples for this are Hooters and even Sup Dogs — both operate under a business model of hiring attractive women to overcompensate for their average bar food. In Harvard’s Business Review, professors Stefanie Johnson and Juan Madera note that the restaurant industry is the largest contributer to sexual harassment claims and about 90% of women employed in the industry have been victim to sexual harassment. If that is not sad enough, many women have accepted such behavior as a norm in the industry. How are women supposed to feel safe and confident in the kitchen when the entire restaurant industry has relied on the harassment and sexualization of women?
Furthermore, think of how TV shows and channels like the Food Network usually portray women. I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of female chefs on TV do pastries & desserts or home-style cooking — things that a 1950’s sexist would have appreciated his wife making. Our culture needs to be rewritten to include women more holistically in the culinary and restaurant industry, breaking down the sexist boxes of what women can do in the kitchen.
More women belong in professional kitchens — but they should be paid and treated like they belong. As one of my coworkers put it, “women belong wherever they want to be,” whether that be in the kitchen of a five star restaurant or elsewhere.