May 08, 2014

Gender in Home Kitchens and Restaurants

SjwBy Stacy J. Williams

Sociology Ph.D. Candidate, UC San Diego

American women still do most of the cooking in the home. In 2012, the American Time Use Survey found that women spent over 5 hours per week preparing food, while men spent only about 2 hours per week cooking. However, women are only a small proportion of head chefs in restaurants. A 2014 Bloomberg study of major restaurant groups noted that women were 6% of executive chefs. Other studies put women at 5 to 15% of executive chefs.

Why is there such a stark gendered division between home and professional kitchens? Since women spend more than twice as much time in home kitchens than men do, it seems strange that there are so few women in professional kitchens. Many social forces, ranging from the organization of professional kitchens to cultural ideas about women and cooking, can help explain the phenomenon.

Mary Blair-Loy has written that there is a cultural “family devotion schema,” or a widespread cultural belief that women’s primary commitments should be to home and family. These expectations do not apply to men; instead, men are expected to have women partners who complete this care work. These cultural beliefs, combined with the historical definition of feeding the family as women’s work, contribute to the continued tendency for women to cook more often in the home.

Schemas of family devotion create a lot of conflict for women in jobs that demand a worker’s full devotion. Restaurant employees must put in very long hours to prove that they are good at their job. Working long hours late at night is not compatible with caring for one’s children. Additionally, as sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre explain, monetary constraints often require restaurants to operate with the bare minimum of employees, making it nearly impossible to miss a shift if one’s child gets sick. Because women face more pressure to care for the family, restaurants’ workplace demands often pose more of an issue for women than they do for men. If women have to violate any of these workplace demands and take time off to care for family members, bosses and co-workers will view women as “not having what it takes” to be a successful chef.

Many professional kitchens also have a culture of masculinity that is not welcoming to women. In 2011, 37% of the sexual discrimination cases that were reported to the federal government involved restaurants. In his ethnographies of professional kitchens, sociologist Gary Alan Fine explained that the male cooks and chefs frequently make obscene sexual jokes. These men often sexually tease or try to “pick up” women employees. Further, these men are concerned that women can’t “pull their weight” in a fast-paced kitchen environment that is built on teamwork and camaraderie. To prove that they are a useful part of the team, women often have to go above and beyond the required work and take on extra shifts. These behaviors and attitudes among the mostly male cooks and chefs make many women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, turning the professional kitchen into a workplace where women feel they do not fit.

Additionally, the dominant cultural understandings about women do not mesh with what people believe it takes to be a professional chef. In 2009, New York Magazine quoted chef Mario Batali as explaining that women “don’t cook to compete, they cook to feed people.” However, competition lies at the heart of the restaurant business, with chefs competing for customers and media attention. One needs to be competitive to be a successful executive chef. Batali’s comment demonstrates the strength of the idea that women are more suited to cook to feed their families—not for a salary or prestige.

Of the women who make it as professional chefs, many are portrayed as home cooks and mothers rather than successful competitors in a cutthroat restaurant industry. Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis, and Paula Deen, some of the biggest stars on the Food Network, are portrayed as mothers or as sex objects, and are shown cooking in a home kitchen. These portrayals of women in the food industry are not limited to the U.S.; the British Stylist magazine’s 2011 sultry cover photo of Nigella Lawson is a perfect example. The cover is a close-up image of Lawson’s face. Her eyes are closed in pleasure as caramel drips down her forehead, off her heavily mascaraed eyelashes and slightly parted lips. In the competition cooking TV shows like Top Chef or Iron Chef America, we see women cook in professional settings—but women are a very small proportion of the competitors.

Chefs who are men, however, are often portrayed on television as expert chefs cooking in professional kitchens. Alternatively, men like Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri are portrayed as adventuresome explorers who display masculine bravado by trying exotic or exceedingly unhealthy foods.

The cultural understandings of women and food, combined with a workplace structure that is inhospitable to women and employees with family responsibilities, present significant obstacles to women chefs. Even though women are considered the authorities of home kitchens, they have a more difficult time gaining equal footing with men in restaurant kitchens. Despite these obstacles, there are women who defy these cultural expectations and compete in the restaurant world. Yet when these women aren’t portrayed as mothers or sex objects, they receive media attention for being outliers in a male-dominated occupation. Many women chefs can’t wait for that to change. In 2008, executive chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli lamented, “When women chefs get media attention, it’s for bucking the norm… how about we just become part of the norm? Can we qualify for norm status?”

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Comments

Must women can't handle the pressure in a big Resturant. It's just as simple as that.

Every woman should have an equal opportunity

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