Gender biases create issues for women in the culinary workforce

Tesa Williams, 28, a culinary arts student wants to become a chef when she finishes at WCC. Courtesy | Tesa Williams

Tesa Williams, 28, a culinary arts student wants to become a chef when she finishes at WCC. Courtesy | Tesa Williams

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A great irony exists in the world of culinary arts. For so long, there was a commonly held belief that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, yet all the while, women were not, and still aren’t, held to the same esteem as men in the culinary work world.

“It’s still a very male-dominated space,” said Alice Gannon-Boss, a professional faculty member in the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Department at Washtenaw Community College.

When Boss participated in competitions as a culinary student when she attended WCC, she was one of only a handful of females competing on the “savory” side of things at the time. Boss explained that women were also generally seen as bakers, not cooks. She says this perspective is slowly changing, but the issue of gender bias is still present in the culinary realm.

“Societal change is slow. Obviously we’re still fighting for equal pay, equal right to be heard, and equal opportunity,” Boss said. “We’re struggling with that as a society in general, so I would say that our industry is no different. Even though we’re second largest worldwide, we still have a long way to go.”

One of Boss’s current students, 28-year-old Tesa Williams, exemplifies a working woman in the culinary world. Sadly, this also means she is well accustomed to the presence of gender bias.

Williams has been in the restaurant industry since 2005, and as she says, has worked in every type of restaurant role there is – from assistant server to line cook. Williams dreams of being a private chef, or possibly starting an online food distribution service. She does admit, however, that she is weary of how gender bias will affect her career going forward. She already perceives herself as being overlooked in her professions because of her gender.

“I’m still doing the duties, just not getting the pay,” said Williams.

As a hopeful private chef, Williams plans on having a no-bias attitude when it comes to picking her future team.

“If I hire anyone under me, if they’re putting in work and they’re showing me this is what they want to do, I’m going to help them get to my level,” Williams said.  “If they have the skill, I don’t care if they come in with a mohawk… if they have passion for cooking, of course I want them on my team.”

Alice Gannon-Boss and Derek Anders Jr. both make a case for women in the culinary field.

Alice Gannon-Boss and Derek Anders Jr. discussed working in a diverse environment

The American Culinary Federation, founded in 1929 by the three largest culinary organizations in the United States, is the largest professional chef organization in North America. ACF has yet to issue a National Chef of the Year award to a woman, but by the same token, has given the National Pastry Chef of the Year award to a woman three out of the past five years.

Chef Kimberly Brock Brown is a member of the American Academy of Chefs, which is the “honor society” of the ACF. Brown is currently the Academy’s only African-American female chef inducted in its 30-plus-year history, Brown said.

Brown said this is something she has seen while working across the country, “I live in the culinary mecca…Charleston, S.C. I can not easily name three executive female chefs. We have well over 300 restaurants in our small peninsula city.”

The kitchen, once seen as the woman’s place in the household, is now a seriously competitive workplace. “This is a very demanding and rewarding profession for those who go all in,” said Brown. “Sometimes we are our own worst enemy by passing on opportunities because we don’t feel qualified or don’t see the bigger picture.”

Although women are still not perceived as equals in the workforce, Boss and her fellow culinary faculty member, Derek Anders Jr., both cited movement in the right direction thanks to things like the food network.

“I think one of the most notable, recent historical events that I can see can be based with looking at television, with the likes of Food Network,” Anders Jr. said. “We have a lot of great names that are women, well respected as a matter of fact…It’s those kinds of pushes behind the scenes for folks to get to the point where it’s commonplace.”

As a male in the diverse work environment of the WCC’s Garrett’s restaurant, Anders Jr. said that working with all different types of people only benefits his own advancement.

“It’s awesome now that I can say, as a male, I’ve had a chance to work with plenty of (women), and I think that’s an awesome aspect to my development and my career as well,” Anders Jr. said.

Boss pointed out how utilizing the diversity of a group can benefit the whole system, and not even just the individual employee.

“So again, change is hard, change is slow, but we’re bringing something to the team that makes the team stronger,” Boss said of women in the culinary workforce. “And smart chefs and smart organizations know the more diversity, gender wise, as well as cultural and religious, and all those things, really does make a difference.”



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