‘Get Back in the Kitchen’: Can Women Ever Achieve Equality in Commercial Kitchens?

Cover image by Nahal Sheikh

Note: Sundial Thoughts content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Team or other contributors.

From an age when we can barely stand on our own feet, all of us are directed down a certain way of life according to socially assigned gender roles — a template set by the generations of working men and housewives that came before us. Young girls were presented with tiny kitchen sets, whilst boys were faced with hammers and saws in the not-so-distant past, with no space for either gender to experiment with their identities.  

However, this is not the same for everyone, especially moving into current times; far more fathers take over the cooking at home, whilst taking their daughters to football and teaching their sons how to make the perfect boiled egg. But for the majority, it remains the same – young girls are taught how to make a cake for the school bake sale, whilst the boys play football outside. Research has found that allocation of chores to young children positively influences how they encounter housework as adults, leading to housework divided by their gender identity and experiences as children. As a result of this influence, women are still more likely to take on the majority of household chores, despite the changing attitudes and the prominence of feminism in our society, leading to the classic misogynistic comeback: “get back in the kitchen”.  So why, then, is there such little representation of women in commercial kitchens?

Although rarely discussed, the statistics are shocking. Representation of women within the cooking sector is better than it has ever been, but only 17% of chefs are women. When the majority are brought up learning chores, including cooking, it seems bizarre that they do not play a larger role within the restaurant industry. Before we begin to address the lack of female chefs, we have to understand the atmosphere around professional kitchens, and why they are so unwelcoming to women. Ask any teenage girl who has waitressed and she willgive you a universal representation of an underground world filled with misogyny, crude humour, and, at the worst of times, sexual harassment. 

The sexualisation of waitresses begins before they are even spoken to — a uniform of low cut tops and miniskirts leaves little to the imagination, and makes girls of ages sixteen or seventeen appear much older than they are. The tipping culture around waitressing leads to young women and girls often being advised that they will be tipped better if they show a little more skin, or flirt more with the patrons. These girls are taught from a young age that the way for them to get ahead in professional life is to allow themselves to be sexually objectified by those in a position of power. The importance of looks is a basis for bullying within the workplace; a girl I know was told repeatedly by chefs that she was an awful waitress because she did not smile enough. They would tease her about this, and how she was much prettier when she smiled. One of the chefs, who was significantly older than her, would repeatedly message her calling her beautiful and telling her to smile.

This unsolicited messaging is a consequence of the objectification of waitresses. Too often, all their value is placed on their looks, and, too often, their amiability is seen as an indicator of their professionalism. In the end, those higher up in the kitchen hierarchy begin to view women as objects to treat as they please. The tolerance of this behaviour within establishments does not only have an effect on the women who experience it. In fact, both young men and women are taught that this is something they should have to put up with, effectively reversing the progress towards equality that we, as a society, have been making. 

This problem is even bigger when it concerns female chefs. To tolerate the atmosphere in the kitchen, as well as fit into the team of chefs working, these women are almost forced to partake in the same sexist or misogynistic behaviour, or risk ostracising themselves. I spoke to a former head chef of a restaurant within a large establishment who claimed that, within his fifteen years working in the kitchen, he had only worked with one woman who had been “on par with, if not more crude and sexist than the men in there”. When women are having to put down other women to be accepted in a workplace environment, where is the equality?

So, the question remains, is there any future for women in restaurant kitchens? Arguably, yes. Although the everyday sexism faced by women in waitressing or cooking jobs is unacceptable, with the rise of women-owned businesses and restaurants, this is beginning to change. Interestingly, social media is playing a huge part in establishing female chefs, with women such as @poppycooks on TikTok amassing a huge following of over 1.5 million followers, whilst Kim Woodward made waves as the first female Head Chef of Savoy Grill. Women like these inspire others, whilst reclaiming a place that has been a hotspot for sexual harassment for decades. They provide hope that, despite the current negative statistics, there is the possibility of equality in a place that suffers from hyper-masculinity and misogyny.

Article by Georgia Purcell

Tagged with: