When professional chef Caroline Jann Dunbar, 24, began working in kitchens, she tried to fit in the best way she knew how: by acting like one of the guys.
“I thought if I try to join in on the crude humor or be more traditionally masculine that it would make me more successful,” said Dunbar, who attended Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas, and has cooked in kitchens all over the world.
Dunbar is one of many female chefs who have had to find ways to negotiate success in an industry disproportionally dominated by men.
Even though working women cook at home twice as much as working men, there is still a more gaping disparity in the food service industry than in most other contemporary workplaces: Only 19% of chefs are women and on average, they make $18,000 less than their male counterparts.
“The lifestyle of the chef — working very late most days of the week in a physically rigorous environment — has historically belonged to men,” said Dunbar, Director of Service at Ann Arbor, Mich. restaurant Vellum. “A kitchen atmosphere doesn’t allow for an easy personal life, so it doesn’t attract a lot of women. That doesn’t mean that women in the kitchen aren’t as capable. If anything, they’re more driven because of the challenge.”
Mary Ellen Griffin is president of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, an invitation-only organization founded to promote women in the food industry. Griffin said that more female chefs are attracted to catering, pastry cooking and baking because of the professions’ more lenient hours.
“Women are also still on the younger end of the experience scale, which means they make less pay,” said Griffin, who said she has seen vast improvement since the organization’s 1970s beginnings. “As time goes by, they’ll rise to higher positions.”
Some chefs chalk the numbers up to sheer physical discrepancy.
“In a commercial-sized kitchen, everything is huge and really heavy,” said Jennie Goins, 30, a recent graduate of the Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts who, at 5-foot-1, has difficulty reaching some stovetops. “Just being a female in the kitchen is physically a challenge.”
“It’s not an industry that accommodates women very well, but as my instructors told me, ‘This is how it’s going to be in the real world, so get used to lifting 50-pound boxes’,” said Goins, a Charlotte, N.C., native who works for nutrition company Chartwells.
Anita Lo, owner of and executive chef at New York City restaurant Annisa, attributes women’s lack of visibility in the industry to society’s influence.
“Women aren’t really trained to make sacrifices for their career — it’s the way we were raised,” said Lo, an author who also appeared on the first seasons of Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef America. “It’s also a stereotypical female thing: Women aren’t good at demanding things for themselves, so it’s probably harder for them to ask for funding and promotions because of societal norms.”
In Lo’s opinion, people are less likely to invest in female chefs, which contributes to the wage gap.
“I’ve known women who have done amazingly well under other people, but were unable to obtain funding to go out on their own,” Lo said. “The kitchen is a traditionally male-dominated, macho place.”
Kevin Walker, a Certified Master Chef, manager of the American Culinary Federation Team USA and executive chef at the Vintage Club in Indian Wells, Calif., said that he has seen a shift in kitchens over the last five to 10 years.
“It was definitely more male-driven before, and certainly not a place I’d want my sister to work,” Walker said.
The soaring popularity of shows such as Top Chef, Chopped and MasterChef are driving “the back of the house” into the public domain, which, Walker said, is triggering a change in attitudes.
“Things that were acceptable in the past — now that you bring them into the light of day, they’re just embarrassing,” Walker said. “The shift in attention to the kitchen started making progress for us, and opened the industry up to a lot more people.”
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