Most professional chefs are men. In the US, less than a quarter of chefs identify as female. In the UK, it’s less than one in five. But at home, women are traditionally expected to do the cooking. Why is it so much harder for women than for men to put food on the table by… well, putting food on the table? And what does this tell us about the link between gender and how we value work?
Throughout history, most of the cooking in domestic settings was done by mothers, grandmothers, maids and daughters – those in serving or caring roles. Cooking earned little prestige and money. It was a form of invisible labour, routine work, simply part of running the household and often unpaid.
All of this changed with the professionalisation of cooking, which moved it from the private to the public sphere. Relevant in explaining today’s gender gap in professional kitchens is the rise of restaurant culture and experimental cooking in the twentieth century. The more cooking came to be seen as an actual job requiring skill and expertise, the more men entered the culinary field – with haute cuisine as the most prestigious and male-dominated domain. The exclusion of women was integral to raising the status of the profession.
Today, professional kitchens generally are not friendly environments for women. Female chefs report experiencing sexual harassment like sexist jokes and unwanted touching. They also suffer from sexist prejudices. One such prejudice is that women don’t have the stamina to work under the high pressure of restaurant kitchens. But women can totally stand the heat, so there’s no reason to stay out of the kitchen. Another prejudice is that female chefs are nurturers who follow traditional recipes. Male chefs, by contrast, are said to be inventive perfectionists; they are inspired by their grandma’s cooking, but their expertise and skill enable them to go beyond tradition. Such stereotypes serve to downplay women’s skills and mastery.
Women also face difficulties finding work as a chef. Gender-based employment discrimination is real. Women job applicants are sometimes told they simply aren’t welcome. Another set of barriers are the long and late working hours. Since childcare facilities are not open at night, single mothers and mothers who are expected to look after their kids may not be able to work as a chef. Besides, some restaurants don’t offer paid maternity leave.
There is a bunch of obvious solutions to closing the gender gap: actively challenge sexist prejudices; install proper report systems for cases of sexual harassment and employment discrimination; equally share childcare tasks between all parents and caretakers. Besides, we must stop underrating work done by women. A good place to start is the household: unpaid work in the domestic sphere is work, worthy of recognition.