by Aadya Chaturvedi
This article explores the gendered divide in labour force participation, with a special focus on the restaurant industry and female chefs. The paradoxical exclusion of women from a sphere that capitalizes on skills that they are expected to dutifully perform in a domestic setting is analysed through real-world examples, media portrayal, and research conducted by experts in the field. A high-pressure work environment and the burdens of unpaid domestic labour together create a vicious cycle that inhibits their professional growth in the industry, with sexist stereotypes forming an added hurdle.
In the popular Bollywood film English Vinglish, the protagonist is told by her male friend, a chef, that cooking is an art. She responds by asking, “Why is it that when men cook, it’s art, but when women cook, it is a duty, a task they are just expected to perform?” These sentiments are echoed by Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre in their book which revolves around a startling yet seldom-explored paradox: how is it that even though cooking has historically been characterized as a woman’s domain, professional and commercial kitchens are dominated by men and female chefs are scarcely seen in these positions. This discourse was recently reignited after a tweet by Burger King UK received criticism for subverting a sexist remark in order to advertise its scholarship for female chefs; it said, “Women belong in the Kitchen,” and followed it up with “if they want to, of course.” It then went on to list the abysmally low statistics of female labour force participation in the culinary industry, wherein only 20% of chefs in the UK were female. In the same year, the overall female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) of India was 20.3%, and the culinary industry is likely to be a reflection of the same rates.
While the percentage of women chefs in India was pegged at approximately 10-15% in 2018, the marginal female participation in this field is fraught with more complexities than just a generally low FLFPR. These complexities stem from the paradoxical exclusion of women from a field, which, when supplanted into the domestic sphere, falls squarely on women’s shoulders. The very structure of the gastronomic field is founded on undermining domestic, ‘feminine’ cooking in order to legitimize the training and skills of the professional chef in the commercial restaurant kitchen. Harris and Giuffre have analysed this dichotomy, in which a gendered distinction is made between a cook, who cooks a nourishing meal to sustain her family, and a chef who innovates and exercises his artistry to prepare refined dishes for his patrons. Through this cultural method of evading the perceived threat of feminization looming over a lucrative field, the image of a professional chef is masculinized, by both restaurants and food critics, and female culinary talent is successfully relegated to the domestic sphere. This article explores the discrepancy between the two spheres and the treatment of women’s cooking in both. It does this through academic studies of the reasons behind the low number of female chefs and their real-world applications.
VIABLE SKILL VS. DOMESTIC RESPONSIBILITY
At the outset, there are barriers to women’s entry into restaurant kitchens. Firstly, they are rarely placed in positions of authority regardless of how well-trained or educated they may be since it has traditionally been difficult for male subordinates to take orders from a female boss. Further, at the entry-level, female chefs are subjected to much harder initiation rituals by their colleagues and seniors, the majority of whom are male and are conditioned to question the competence of their female counterparts for tasks that they would expect their own female family members to perform smoothly. The key issue here seems to be that with a female-coded work description, i.e., cooking, male chefs feel the need to distinguish their technical superiority and financial viability. This only adds to the general level of sexist undertones that already persist in the behaviour meted out to women in any field of work. Several accounts from an Indian context highlight how the ability of female chefs is repeatedly and publicly probed in the kitchen, for tasks as basic as cutting an onion, when none of their male counterparts is similarly interrogated. This appears in sharp contrast to the rampant stereotype prevailing in India where girls must be adept at making perfectly round rotis. An inverted form of this suspicion appears in repeated offers of help made by male chefs to their female colleagues and superiors. Parallels can be drawn from this behaviour to Indian time-use statistics which point to a mere 6.1% of men that help with activities like cooking in a domestic setting. Of course, this has to do with the fact that a higher percentage of men engage in paid employment which leaves them with no time to assist with unpaid domestic activities. However, these parallels support the inference that even on a level-playing field, i.e., a restaurant kitchen, where both the male and female chefs are employed for the same purpose, the work environment differs starkly for both. As soon as a skill is picked up from a domestic, unpaid, unvalued setting and placed in a commercial, highly competitive, and professional environment, it is the female employee’s competence that comes into question. It is required, necessary, and presumed in one sphere and precarious, questionable, and open to ridicule in another.
The purpose behind emphasizing this domestic-professional dichotomy is to expose the double standards that exist in the culinary industry, as well as the paradoxical reasoning that serves only to reinforce the home-public divide to suppress female engagement in paid employment. The focus on the culinary industry is an ideal tool to achieve the above.
UNFAVOURABLE WORKING CONDITIONS
Another layer inhibiting the progress of female chefs is the additional work they have to put in to achieve the same milestones as their male counterparts or even to be taken seriously in the kitchen. Firstly, they are held to a higher standard of behaviour, under which they cannot afford to succumb to the pressures of the high-strung, tense environment of the restaurant kitchen. Research has found that there exists a gendered leadership double standard, whereby terse words or instructions would be considered mere assertiveness when coming from a male head chef, but the same behaviour would not be well received when coming from a female. She would subsequently be branded as harsh and angry unless she smooths her instructions with politeness and a pleasant demeanour. Further, she cannot risk confirming the stereotype that views women as less professional and more emotional or weak. Thus, female chefs must constantly be conscious of their colleagues’ perception of them, and mere professional competence is not always sufficient. These constant pressures are part of the very institutional mechanism of the restaurant industry, with the time-bound, high-tension atmosphere being a part and parcel, but distinct expectations of acceptable reactions from male and female chefs. The cumulative import of such conditions creates unfavourable working conditions for women in commercial kitchens and discourages them from continuing.
BALANCING UNPAID LABOUR AND PROFESSIONAL PERCEPTION
The role of the primary caregiver that is socially imposed on women is another key inhibiting factor in women’s professional progress in commercial kitchens. Domestic responsibilities, most of which are shouldered solely by women, create a double burden, i.e., a strained division of time between paid and unpaid work. Women have a statistically lower chance of being promoted or even hired due to apprehensions that such responsibilities will interfere with their professional performance. This becomes especially relevant in a time-consuming job like that of a chef, where the working hours are longer than those at normal desk jobs. Furthermore, the culinary field, by virtue of being both male-dominated and demanding complete dedication, is not conducive to the growth of female chefs who are constantly compelled to “balance” work and family. This issue remains without a resolution because the implementation of policies favourable to female employees is hindered by their reluctance to accept them. The reason for the above is that if they begin to avail the policies put in place to ensure they can better fulfil both professional and societal obligations, it will greatly affect their colleagues’ perception of them. As already discussed, their competence is always in question, and if any preferential treatment is shown to them, they will be viewed as not having earned their position in the kitchen, and studies have shown that this is a key obstacle in the acceptance of concessions. It then becomes part of a continuing project on the part of female chefs to prove their merit to a peer group that is blind to merit and discriminates based purely on gender.
Social aversion to women’s engagement in paid employment, though diminished in modern times, still operates in most professional environments. When it comes to female chefs, a plethora of small businesses operating from home is now a booming industry. But in competitive spaces like restaurant kitchens, much is left to be desired to bring women to par when merit takes a backseat due to misogyny. This issue has a profound bearing on matters of policy as well since the execution of women-friendly policies considerably alters the power dynamics of a restaurant kitchen and may lead to the emergence of even more deterrents than those that already exist and constantly depress women’s participation in this industry.
Author’s Bio: Aadya Chaturvedi is a student at Jindal Global Law School, pursuing B.A.L.L.B. (Hons.) in the batch 2020-25. Her areas of interest are feminist economics, gender studies, Human Rights law, and child rights.
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