Women in Food: Gender, Equal Pay, Career Advancement, Sexual Harassment and Sustainability

by Deirdre Appel
Women in Food

As part of the Center’s ongoing Food Policy for Breakfast series, we invited four culinary leaders to Hunter College to join us for our “Women in Food” event, a conversation on navigating restaurant and food culture as a woman. Our special guests discussed topics such as gender, equal pay, sexual harassment, sustainablity, career advancement and more.

If you missed the event, you can watch the recording here.

Opening remarks: Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH, Executive Director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center

Moderator: Liz Neumark, CEO, Great Performances


Women in Food

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 60 percent of American women have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their life. The restaurant industry is the third largest in New York City,  (just behind educational services and professional and technical services) and a cornerstone of the city’s culture and economy. Home to 22,282 restaurants and eating establishments, with 302,425 reported and taxed employees,  it the fourth most restaurant-dense city in the United States. 

That said, the restaurant industry also has a reputation for being physically demanding, male-dominated and hostile to women. Those on our panel, along with many others, are leading the charge to change the  status quo — whether by improving employee benefits, not tolerating sexual harassment or mentoring other young women. 

How has the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment impacted restaurant industry broadly and your own career more specifically? Is restaurant culture changing? Is there hope for the future?

A 2014 study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 80 percent of female restaurant workers had experienced harassment from a coworker while two-thirds had experienced  harassment by a manager. The 2019 Hunter College NYC Restaurant Survey Report found that 77 percent of women surveyed reported being sexually harassed at their current job. 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, scores of recent stories have exposed almost a dozen prominent men in the food and beverage industry who have been accussed of sexual assault, harassment and abuse. Based on these reports, the topic was, unsurprisingly, one of the first discussed. 

Moderator Liz Neumark asked the panelists how the #MeToo movement had affected their own work, whether the restaurant culture was changing, and if there is hope for the next generation.

“For us at Lighthouse, [the #MeToo movement] really hasn’t. I’ve worked in the industry for so many years, along with my brother in most places. When we opened Lighthouse, the mission was to change the paradigm of what it means to be a restaurant in this environment. We set up to do things so much in the opposite way of what we have seen in the past. It was about transparency and love and warmth and creating a second home,” said Naama Tamir. 

When asked if she believed the industry could change, Camille Becerra was hopeful about change. 

“Oh yeah. Absolutely. I have seen a lot of changes since being a young cook. I would go to all these restaurants I dreamed about working at and I wouldn’t get hired.”

When asked whether the next generation would have an easier time navigating the challenges she faced during her own youth, Becerra was honestly optimistic. 

“It’s a process. I don’t see it already changed. There are a lot of undercurrents about what women can do or should do or how they are treated and talked to. But I do see there being a change towards a much better way of working .” 

For Katy Sparks it was less about sexual harassment and more about finances. 

“Where I experienced the greatest gender divide was in the financial support. In the mid to late 90s I was having my “it-moment” and I still couldn’t find funding for my own restaurant. I felt marginalized.” 

Do restaurateurs and diners have an obligation to promote better ethnics in the industry? How can policy makers, the public and restauranteurs’ work to ensure the health and safety of NYC’s 3rd largest industry? And are these goals aligned between all 3 segments?

#MeToo has also sparked a growing conversation about ethics in the restaurant industry. Living wages, employee benefits such as mandated sick leave, paid vacation, paid parental leave, humane treatment of workers and even things like animal rights related to the food served are all coming under  scrutiny. 

Tamir believes the ethical conditions in restaurant kitchens should be held to a standard just as cleanliness is. 

“Along with the A [grade] for your kitchen cleanliness, there should be requirements for better conditions for your cooks, for breaks, making sure people don’t work endless hours, and that they are treated well. If you believe in a healthy food system, you should believe in a healthy system for those who work in it day in and day out and work with you and for you,” said Tamir.

When asked whether or not policy can enforce such conditions, Tamir placed the potential for change not on policy-makers but on the consumer.

“It is hard to imagine that change happening in a policy sort of way. Diners should inquire about what kind of place they dine in. The best way to see the world change is to vote with your dollars.”

In 2018, Lighthouse partnered with Unilever on an initiative called Fair Kitchens, a movement involving  chefs supporting chefs to inspire a new kitchen culture that’s kinder and more open. A Fair Kitchen is a positive working environment where staff happiness is as important as diner satisfaction.

Tamir continued. “It is about treating people in-house properly. There is a real difference when people come in and they enjoy what they do and they are paid properly and they have time for themselves and they can speak freely. The food just tastes better. The atmosphere is better.” 

Defending and supporting staff may sometimes require taking a stand against customers. This conflicts directly with the “customer is always right” mentality that commonly colors the hospitality world. Neumark pressed the panelists that piece of conventional wisdom. Is the customer always right? 

“I’ve always sided with my staff and I’ve always listened to them. It is very important to be supported as a worker by your team, “ said Becerra. 

The tipping model of the service industry is a factor contributing to servers’ reluctance to confront customers on inappropriate behavior. The discussion turned to debating whether female servers need to perform for a tip and thoughts on the tipping model in general.

Sparks falls into the pro-tipping camp but believes it should not be allowed to contribute to bad behavior in the restaurant. She explained why. 

“I like the tipped engagement, I have to say. There is engagement between the server and the diner. And of course it can be abused, but the onus falls on management. When you know your staff is being mistreated, there is no room for that. It’s ownership or management that should have an eagle-eye on the floor and know who’s being inappropriate and ask them to move on.”

What is the media’s role in highlighting male versus female chefs both in terms of creativity  and exposure to dealing with issues of inequity?

Even as female chefs lack broad access to financial capital, they also seem to lack access to another form of currency, publicity in the media. The press can be notorious for giving women less coverage, fewer reviews by critics, and fewer nominations and awards for “best chef” titles. 

Chef Amanda Cohen called out the media in her Esquire article, “I’ve Worked in Food for Twenty Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?” for their lackluster attempts to cover women in the industry only after the #MeToo movement.

I’ve been in this business for twenty years, and I don’t think I’m owed anything except equality of opportunity. But don’t ignore me, marginalize me, cut me out of your coverage, and then ask me to be your victim. Don’t pack your headlines with the hot young men, the male-dominated restaurant groups, the macho celebrity chefs, and then expect me to be impressed by your sudden outrage,” Cohen said. 

She went on to point out the gender imbalance in regard to reviews of restaurants. 

Over the past twelve months, The New York Times has written major reviews for 44 restaurants. Six of those kitchens are run by women.”

Becerra was also vocal in calling out, name it and shaming the press. She talked about the days of her thriving Soho restaurant, Navy, in 2013. Despite her loyal customers, celebrity-status diners and all-star PR team, she was not getting reviewed by the New York Times. Digging further she found out that few  women were being reviewed and decided to say something about the unequal representation.

“I knew that when I said that I would never get reviewed. But you know what? The next year they reviewed three women and one of them got three stars. I am not saying that I did it, but there is a change happening and sometimes you have to put yourself out there and take the hit. I knew I wasn’t going to be that popular for saying it in some circles,” Becerra explained.

Just like press coverage and reviews, restaurant awards rarely go to women and if they do it is usually under the title of “Best Female Chef”.  Anthony Bourdain questioned the purpose of award categories specifically geared to women. He said “Why—at this point in history—do we need a “Best Female Chef” special designation? As if they are curiosities?”  

Neumark pressed the panel — should we have specific award categories for Best Female Chef and Best Male Chef? Is coverage separated along gender lines a “necessary evil” or just insulting to women?

Sparks was not happy about being constantly referred to as a woman chef.

“Let’s take that nomenclature off the table. We are doing the same job as men. We have the same pressures as men. We have the same stresses and increasingly have the same opportunities.”

For Becerra, the food industry’s removing such titles could be a catalyst for change in other industries. 

“We have that in the Grammys. And the Oscars. Does food have the opportunity to change that?”

 Neumark was less certain.

 “There are so many exclusions in our industry, and it is important to recognize the farmers, the immigrants, the dishwashers. We need to recognize whose shoulders we stand on to make anything successful.”

For a long time gender conversations were related to finding balance between work and family for working mothers– then the real conversation exploded about deeper issues.  Has the work-life balance issue changed/become more do-able?

Any discussion of women in food would be incomplete without touching upon what it means to balance motherhood and a career. 

Almost 2 million restaurant workers in the United States, equating to 15 percent of employees in the industry, are mothers. Among this group, more than half (1.2 million) are single mothers. According to a study by ROC, working mothers in the restaurant industry face barriers to career mobility and meeting their childcare needs, including affordability and accessibility. As our 2019 NYC Restaurant Survey Report notes, night and weekend shifts often garner more tips; however, because of the lack of childcare options available, almost one-third of mothers surveyed in the study were not able to work those desirable shifts. 

Tamir’s experience as a restaurateur speaks to such hardships.

“We haven’t had a mom working at Lighthouse in a really long time. It is a very tough industry to work in,” said Tamir.

Likewise, Becerra’s own experience as a single-mother confirms that assessment. She shared them with the audience. 

“My daughter just turned 18-years old. And I am like, we made it! If it weren’t for my friends and family, I do not know where I would be.”

Neumark spoke about the challenges women face finding a balance between personal and professional life. 

 “The notion of balance is an erroneous metaphor. There are just chunks that you pull away from one thing to make the structure of another hold together. It is very joyful if you have support though,” Neumark added.

Balancing family, marriage and career is not a challenge unique to the food industry, but perhaps it might be exacerbated because of the nature of evening and weekend activities, Neumark continued.

“It transcends the food industry. As long as we have a more traditional view of women, and working moms especially, it is an issue in every industry, from finance to law to medicine.  But as we pioneer this new food industry with a great sense of female participation and voice, there is no reason why you have to be there until 3 in the morning…we need to rethink the paradigm a little bit to see how it can better fit women.”

What does food mean to you? What role does food have in your life outside of the professional side? 

While the panel discussed tough challenges associated with being a woman in the food and restaurant industry, all of the women talked about the love and passion for food that led them to be part of such a challenging, yet rewarding, industry in the first place. 

For Sparks and Tamir, food is about togetherness. 

“Food is about sharing. It is about community. It is a way of transmitting information. It is knowledge of culture. It is a way of connecting,” said Sparks.

Tamir added, “Sharing food is the healthiest and most beautiful thing to see. There is something unspoken about it.”

 Becerra believes food can be an important catalyst for positive change so long as we get back in touch with understanding where our food comes from. 

 “If everyone knew how to cook, the world would be such a different place. You are feeding yourself but you are also taking care of others in a way, and sharing and eating with others. That’s so important,” said Becerra. 

Becerra went on to note how we have lost touch with our food but are slowly regaining that connection back. 

“In the industrialization of America we lost a lot of our ancestral ways of cooking and knowledge those foods. We are starting to understand the power of food again. Food can be medicine, but it is so much more than that.”

Becerra put it so simply for all of us.

 “If anything is going to help the planet, it is food.”

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