A rallying cry to #ChoosetoChallenge on International Women’s Day

Female restaurateurs and foodservice professionals across the world find new ways to inspire as they mark International Women’s Day during a pandemic

Observed across the world as a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, International Women’s Day also marks a call to action for pushing for gender parity in the workplace and beyond.

This year the theme is #ChoosetoChallenge, encouraging everyone to take action to end gender bias and inequality.

After a year of consecutive lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the day has taken on a more pronounced significance this year. There is evidence to show that the pandemic has affected women more than men. Global data released by UN Women suggests that the pandemic could put gender equality back by 25 years, as a result of women doing significantly more domestic chores and family care.

A critical moment

A 2020 report from PwC, published in partnership with Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure and the MBS Group, titled Guarding against unintended consequences, found that a higher proportion of women (65%) were furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant than men (56%).

“The impact of COVID-19 has created a critical moment for the food industry to support their female talent during these challenging times,” said Therese Gearhart, president and CEO, Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) in the US. “WFF and our partner companies are committed to creating limitless opportunities for all women and developing leaders ready to drive growth throughout the food industry.”

In the US, the James Beard Foundation asserted already in October 2020 that women-owned restaurants were hit harder than other restaurants due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

According to a report authored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, female-owned businesses generally were disproportionately hit by 25%. And, of course, women are intrinsic to the foodservice sector. According to 2018 figures from the National Restaurant Association, 60% of American women will have worked in a restaurant at some point in their career. And while more than half of culinary graduates are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 20% of working chefs are women.

Much more to be done

A report, published by recruitment company The Change Group before the pandemic, found that on average men working in hospitality were paid 6.5% more than female counterparts – though this represents a 2% narrowing of the gap on 2018, indicating some progress.

Similarly a report, sponsored by UKHospitality and co-authored by Jackie Moody-McNamara of Brilliant Women and John Higgins, research fellow at GameShift Consultancy, found there was a lack of women occupying leadership positions in what is the UK’s third largest sector.

The report also highlighted a lack of a pipeline of women moving through the ranks in hospitality.

“Hospitality has done some great work in recent years providing opportunities for women and shrinking the gender pay gap. There is, however, clearly much more we can be doing to get women into senior positions in the industry,” said UKHospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls.

“This report shows that, despite some good work, there are clearly barriers to progression in the sector. We need to acknowledge there is an issue here and we need to act on it now. This report is a fantastic resource for ensuring better female representation at senior levels. UKHospitality will be using it as the basis for our work championing diversity amongst our membership and across the whole hospitality sector.”

But, considering the longer-term picture, Laura Lentz FCSI, design principal of Culinary Advisors and Foodservice Consultant columnist, says she has noticed thing improving for women in foodservice.

”I still see a lot of separation with ‘women’s awards’ and I’d like to think that when we aren’t separating the genders it will be a sign of further progress. I often can think of as many female celebrity chefs as male celebrity chefs. I think that there are now many women owners of restaurants and foodservice businesses,” she says.

“I’m sure it’s not equal just yet but it’s getting there. I still see struggle where women are not equally respected as men and I see this coming from both men and women. It has been the status quo for so long to defer to men that I think it comes naturally for a lot of us. But I do see change and I think we are realizing it. I know I realize it and have conversations regularly on how to combat it.”

Inspiring other women to join hospitality

Despite signs of  improvement and societal change, however slow, the tone of the conversation around equality in hospitality can feel downbeat. It has caused one London restaurateur to extend International Women’s Day to a month-long celebration of women in the hospitality business.

Alexis Noble, the owner of Wander restaurant, will be collaborating with female colleagues from different restaurants, creating five Wander at home menus. Fellow chefs, sommeliers and restaurant professionals will curate retail packs, meal kits and creating wine pairing for menus.

Noble said she was driven by a desire to eliminate the negativity that surrounds women in hospitality, which she found frustrating after opening her own restaurant. “Although it is an important, nuanced conversation that needs to be had, I worry that the focus on the negatives could prevent young women from wanting to become a chef, sommelier, winemaker,” she says.

“All of the ladies involved share the belief that hospitality is an incredible industry for women to work in, and the majority are founders, owners and leaders.”

This year, she says, she wants to focus on the all the female small business owners who have been a source of support and inspiration throughout this past year. “Everyone is feeling really down and isolated right now, and it’s only compounded by the constant ‘Hospitality is Dying’ headlines in the press,” she said.

“My aim for this month is for it to be a real celebration of women in all facets of the industry – who have worked hard, been super creative and hustled so that their business’ could survive, which will hopefully inspire other women to want to join or continue to have a career in hospitality.”

A sprawling movement

Also based on positive action and collaboration, in the US the Let’s Talk Womxn movement (#LetsTalkWomxn) was founded in response to the Covid crisis as a forum for women restaurateurs as a way to share resources and support each other during a very challenging time.

Launched in July 2020 with just 15 members as a space for women restaurateurs, Let’s Talk is spearheaded by Rohini Dey, the owner of Chicago’s Vermilion restaurant who is also a former trustee and founder of the James Beard Foundation Women’s leadership Program. Today the movement counts over 350 members across 12 cities, among them Washington DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Boston.

“Restaurants are the hardest hit sector,” said Dey. “And women entrepreneurs within this segment are hit hardest. Our restaurants are smaller in scale and often undercapitalized. Women shoulder the inevitable extra home workload, and they are isolated as business owners. Let’s Talk is not an organization, it is not an entity, or an association – from whom we women restaurateurs have received a deluge of webinars, guidelines and manuals – it is an action movement by us.”

For International Women’s Day this year almost 100 women restaurateurs spread across nine cities are hosting Dine Together & Let’s Talk, an evening featuring multi-restaurant dining experience for take-out by the members of Let’s Talk and Zoom conversations.

For Lentz, aligning herself with people who are openly supportive of women’s advancement in foodservice has been a successful strategy in her career as has challenging the status quo.

“If I feel that I am in a situation where I cannot thrive, I think the first thing is to fight it and push for equality. I also think that when your own personal goals are not being met or being hindered, you may have to make the choice for yourself and leave organizations behind that do not make it a priority,” she says. “Truthfully, I think men have always done this and, at least for me, it has been a strategy that has worked.”

But, somewhere in there, she adds is the recognition that these things take time. “The good news is that I have seen change even in my career and I’m sure I will see more but I have had to learn patience for it all so that frustration and anger don’t get the best of me. I’m still working on that one.”

Tina Nielsen


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