By Safiya Young

Most of us would be familiar with the stereotypical notion that a woman’s place is in the home. Or more specifically, in the kitchen preparing sustenance for her family. However, in the outside world, only 17% of professional chefs are female, according to the Office of National Statistics. And, in spite of the recent push to address the gender bias, this figure has declined from 20.5% in 2015. You’d think, with the gender pay gap, that women would be in high demand. But why pay them less when you can exclude them from your workplace completely?

“Historically, women have always done the cooking at home, but that has been seen as ‘domestic’ and not a ‘real’ job,” says Sheila Dillon, a food journalist and presenter for BBC Radio 4’s food programme. She also points out how even her chosen career of food journalism is seen as a ‘soft subject’ in the UK. This generalisation also extends to men, as it is often presumed that fathers who cook for their families have simply failed to enter the profession and must make do with ‘women’s work’. As a nation, we love our mother’s cooking, but we would never dream of sharing her talents with customers; meaning her skills remain as unpaid labour. Perhaps she doesn’t want to become a chef, it is a high pressured and stressful environment, but businesses make it difficult for her to have the choice. Likewise, this could be a result of stereotypes that people apply to themselves from a young age. Some evidence suggests that young women are put off being chefs by their pre-conceived ideas of which careers would suit them. And whose fault is that, society?

Many employers seem to be concerned that women will drop out of professional kitchens in order to settle down and have children. It would appear that they get around this concern, as do various other businesses, by steering clear of female employees. Sheila Dillon continues that: “investors don’t seem as interested in investing in women as they do men. It’s a finance thing.” In a recent study, 40% of managers admitted to side-stepping young female candidates to avoid the cost of maternity leave. An exception to this is, chef-proprietor Anna Henson, who is not preoccupied by this issue, possibly due to empathy. She states “I wouldn’t hire a female candidate over a better male candidate per se, but I definitely make sure that I’ve got lots of females in [my] kitchen.”

The difficulties faced by women entering the cooking industry have been highlighted time and time again. “Women are doing such amazing stuff – yet we’re still fighting to get recognised in the industry. It’s still all about male chefs,” says Romy Gill, the first female Indian head chef to open her own restaurant in the UK. Like fellow female chefs of colour, of which there are few, she still has to endure “long hours and sexism and racism”. Head chef Sabrina Gidda was asked if she was “actually the chef”, while other female restaurant owners say that often a male sous-chef is presumed to be in charge. And if the customers have that much internalized sexism, is there even hope for the industry?

We are aware that this issue is in need of a good tackle. Sybil Kapoor, now one of Britain’s most respected food writers, stated “I would ring up for a job and they’d say that the job has gone, and you would know it was because you were a woman.” This was in her early career as a chef, but women seem to be facing almost identical problems today. Therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to support our local female-owned restaurants, to expose lazily sexist employers and make way for change. 

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