At Timpla we are very open about our love of food and being part of the restaurant industry. It's a rewarding field where co-workers are your closest friends, you pretty much get paid to have fun, and you become part of incredibly memorable experiences. However, there is an important and relevant issue that does not get enough attention: the negative "gentlemen's club" culture of the restaurant industry.
As a woman working in the industry for many years, I became accustomed to the negative culture of harassment, cat calls, and gossip of this male-dominant field, and even grew to think “It is what it is; everyone has aspects to their jobs that they don’t like.” Only recently did I reach an epiphany that my obstacles must represent just one of the hundreds or thousands of stories that women in the industry experience.
The restaurant industry is known for being male-dominant, both in the kitchen as chefs, prep cooks, line cooks, food runners and dishwashers and in the front-of-the-house as servers, bartenders, managers, and sommeliers. Although there has been a great increase in female chefs and overall female representation, there is still a huge gap. In addition to—or as a result of—this male-dominance, it is a very explicit culture with no human resources department—or any outlet really—to help filter behavior and mannerisms. As a woman, this has been one of the biggest problems I have had to face.
For almost 10 years, I have worked in a range of restaurants from diners to casual to fine dining, from traditional to modern. Throughout these 10 years and within all the different restaurants, one thing has remained constant: the inappropriate behavior and harassment from some men. It is definitely not all men—in fact, many of my past and current male co-workers have been good friends and some even more than friends. However, there is that remaining constant where I’ve had to face uncomfortable situations and not known who I could turn to in order to solve the issue.
There are a whole slew of harassments I’ve dealt with over the years: from being cat-called “beautiful” or “cutie” every time I walk by a particular person; to trying to ignore all the eyes and hard gazes when I walk through the kitchen; to hearing snide remarks about me in a different language and simply pretending I don’t understand; to knowing a code name exists for women who are considered attractive at work. These are realities that I’ve faced many times over, and have just told myself to ignore them and be the bigger person.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique. I’ve had female co-workers adjust their work schedule or quit because of the tension between them and a male co-worker. I had a manager who never fired an employee despite multiple sexual harassment claims against him because that employee was his best friend. I’ve heard the guys in the kitchen constantly give snide and crude remarks to the person I was dating about me, trying to push his buttons. I’ve even seen one of my female co-workers punch a manager in the stomach because she was so fed up hearing the kitchen guys jokingly telling her to take her clothes off, while the manager only further provoked them instead of trying to stop it. Furthermore, we’ve all experienced trying to discuss our problems with managers to no real result, conclusion, or change. To my personal dismay, it has become something I have accepted as just part of the job—something I just need to toughen up and accept.
In order to continue moving forward, a real effort has to be made towards improving the treatment of women and to making them feel comfortable about addressing a problem. I personally think the first steps to making a permanent change is for the leaders to truly set an example. The male managers, especially executive and sous chefs, need to set an example instead of falling prey to the gossip and inappropriate behaviors that are constantly going on around them. To say they are not aware of this is an insult. It simply means you are not paying attention or don’t care. The staff of any well-respected restaurant will look up to, admire, and replicate the leader’s behaviors. It will truly make a difference if these leaders set the example to respect all employees as if they were family. One person standing up in one instance for equal treatment will make all the difference to create a better work environment for the future. I strongly believe there are plenty of good men who will gladly stand up when they see or hear someone being treated inappropriately.
I know the industry. I know some people may read this and think I am just complaining; or if I can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. But it’s not about “toughness”—it’s about allowing a person to excel in his or her job without feeling threatened, insecure, or uncomfortable. It’s about creating a positive work environment for an industry that future generations will want to be a part of. It’s about letting people who have good things to contribute actually contribute them. And it’s about calling out the people who have behaved inappropriately to no consequence.
Hopefully, if I am able to change the perspective of just one male manager or chef, or help prevent at least one more inappropriate situation towards a female in the restaurant industry, then F*it—let the haters talk because my mission will be fulfilled.