It’s no secret that the culinary industry — like many industries in America — is male-dominated. With the increased awareness of gender-based inequality, however, one might think that the gap is closing.
In this special Women’s History Month edition of Weekly Bites, we’re taking a look at the latest gender statistics in the industry, as well as covering two stories of women making waves in some of the most male dominated parts of the culinary industry.
It’s still a man’s world in the kitchen
With the increased public-facing representation of women in the culinary industry, it can be easy to think that we’ve “solved” the problem of gender inequality in the culinary industry. To see if that’s the case, Lunchbox reviewed the statistics for 2021.
According to Zippia, almost half of the people attending the Culinary Institute of America in 2021 identified as women. This seems to indicate a shift towards equality, but the problem is that only 20% of head chefs identify as women. That means that although more women are being trained to be head chefs, the top positions in the kitchen are still held by men.
Even more puzzling is the statistic that 60% of women report having worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives. If that’s the case, why aren’t we seeing more women head chefs?
In the culinary industry there’s a popular “rags to riches” story of successful (male) chefs that start out as a dishwasher, work hard, and advance to sous chef and eventually chef de cuisine. The problem is that back-of-house positions are filled mostly with men, while front-of-house positions (like host or server) tend to be filled by women. And there’s no host/server-to-chef pipeline.
This gender divide between the front and back of the house mirrors a larger gender divide between household and social labor that falls mostly to women, while outside work (usually creative and/or physical) falls mostly to men.
It’s clear that there’s still a lot of work that we as a society and industry need to do before there will be gender equality in the culinary industry. Read the Lunchbox article to learn about some organizations that are doing the work to change the future.
The American whiskey industry is booming, with women leaders
As consumers demand more quality and locality from their spirits, the American whiskey industry has exploded in the past decade. According to this NY Times article, American whiskey sales have almost doubled in the last ten years, and sales for bottles over $50 have increased by 139% in the past five years. Bourbon is becoming more popular outside of Kentucky or Tennessee, and rye is on the rise as well. Even single malt (Scotch-style) American whiskies are enjoying popularity.
Who’s at the helm of this success? Andrea Wilson of Michter’s and Nicole Austin of Cascade Hollow are two women leading the American whisky industry to success. Whiskey is an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, with less than 1% of distilleries in America owned by women.
In an interview with the NY Times, here’s what the two women have to say about being a woman in the whiskey industry:
Austin: “I don’t think one industry in particular is rising above, or immune. And I think it comes back to what Andrea said earlier, that it’s really down to the individual people, and the leadership and the culture of a particular company that makes all the difference. It’s not a particular industry that’s going to change your experience as a woman, it’s a company culture.”
Wilson: “Sometimes it’s not always super comfortable for me to be as visible as I am, as a woman in this industry. But it’s something I think is important to do, because that visibility creates sort of an implicit invitation for other women. I know seeing women early on in my career made a real difference.”
As Wilson states, visibility is an important step to increasing diversity in any industry, because it sends a message that all kinds of people can succeed in that industry. We’re keeping our eye out for great whiskies coming out of American distilleries.
Less is more when it comes to shellfish fishing
When it comes to fishermen, we often envision gruff old men doing the back-breaking work of operating large fishing boats. Even the word fisherman has an implication of “man” baked right in.
Ana Shellem of Shell’em Seafood paints a different picture of fishing — one woman, one small boat, and just as much shellfish fished as needed. Ana operates her sustainable boutique shellfish company just off of the North Carolina coast. For six days a week (fishing is illegal on Sundays in NC), Ana is on the sea for 3-8 hours. She catches just enough shellfish to fulfill the orders from her 10 clients, and not a shellfish more. She then personally delivers her orders to the local restaurants that order them.
The focus of Shell’em is on cultivating a sustainable model of fishing. With her popularity, Ana could hire more people to fish and or distribute the shellfish, but she’s happy with her one-woman model for now. The selling point of Shell’em is the hyper freshness that comes directly from the sea to the kitchen, and Ana herself.
The fishing industry is dominated by men, but women have always participated in fishing and more recently, marine sustainability. Still, less than 9% of commercial fishermen in the U.S. identify as women.
Ana felt the pressure of being one of the only women in the industry. In this NY Times article, she talks about how she was criticized by fishermen. “I had several tell me that they didn’t think I was strong enough to do the job and that I was wasting my time.”
Ana Shellem does what she does out of a deep and profound connection to both the ocean, and the bounty it provides. Restaurants around North Carolina hope to get on her client list, and she was recently appointed to be a commissioner for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries — a recognition of her commitment to sustainability.