Why can the restaurant industry be so difficult for women? Spoiler alert: Top Chef Masters got it wrong

Top Chef MastersI haven’t really been following this season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, but when I was flipping through the channels this week and saw the DC area’s own Chef Bryan Voltaggio on the show, I decided to tune in. I was intrigued as the latest episode had the season’s remaining contestants paired up and challenged to create complimentary hot and cold dishes with a surprise catch of the day. Shortly into the episode I realized there was only one female contestant – James Beard Award winner Chef Jennifer Jasinski – left in the running and remarked how that’s sadly unsurprising given the male-dominated restaurant industry.

I probably could have left my disappointment there for the evening, if it hadn’t been for a short scene the producers decided to include of the chefs relaxing and enjoying dinner and drinks at a restaurant the night before the challenge. As the chefs chatted, the men remarked to Jennifer that being a chef was a really tough career choice for women because if they stop to have kids they could lose everything they’ve worked for.  Upon hearing that, I stopped. I hoped that the conversation would take a turn, as I really wasn’t looking to get all riled up on a week night, but alas, there it was: a sexist comment in the midst of my supposed-to-be-brainless evening entertainment.

This isn’t the first time Jennifer has been publicly asked the question about her choice not to have children, and she handled it like a pro, talking about how she didn’t want to do anything half-way and wanted to focus fully on her career, and how at the end of the day the staff members in her restaurants were her family.  Now, I don’t know if the conversation continued, if perhaps the male chefs also lamented that their lives were too busy to raise children, and that they, too, made difficult decisions about family and work life balance in the demanding industry, but I do know that if they did, the producers of the show chose not to highlight it on-air. In true pop-culture fashion, Bravo took the road of reinforcing gender stereotypes about the traditional primary caregiver role of women in the household. The producers clearly decided to focus attention on the only female contestant’s decision to not have children, despite the fact that Bryan Voltaggio, for instance, has spoken in interviews in the past about the challenges of being a dad and a chef.

The opening statement by the male chef was true, being a woman in the restaurant industry is tough for a number of reasons, and there are very high barriers to advancement for females in the industry. But insinuating that the path is more difficult for a woman because she would be forced to end her career if she were to have children is downright backwards, as is the decision of the show’s producers to reinforce this archaic idea.

The real reason being a woman in the restaurant industry is hard? Women who work in the industry face systematic discrimination, poverty wages, a lack of sick days, and five times more harassment than the general female workforce, according to a report released by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United).  ROC United has also found that women are paid 21.8 percent less than their male counterparts with the same qualifications. The wages are even lower for women of color, who are paid 28.5 percent less than their male counterparts. Nearly 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed by women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry – more than five times the rate for the general female workforce, and cases of sexual harassment are often ignored by managers in the industry.

These inequalities exist because the industry perpetuates them. Much like hazing for fraternities, enduring terrible working conditions is seen as a badge of honor in many cases. The latest example of Top Chef Masters continuing to subvert female chefs in the industry and reinforce damaging stereotypes is especially damning. Women are incredibly hard working and capable chefs, line cooks, restaurateurs, waiters, general managers, bartenders and more and should be respected as such.

Oh, and did I mention that the talented Chef Jennifer Jasinski won the seafood challenge that evening? Go get ‘em girl.

Want to continue the discussion of the issues facing women in the restaurant industry? Join us September 24, 2013 for a brown bag discussion with author of Behind the Kitchen Door and Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Saru Jayaraman. The event information can be found on our Facebook page, here. Please RSVP to Farrell Barnes at fbarnes@wawf.org.

Marching Great Distances: My Family's Past and Future, and the March on Washington

resized Jess Kim MaiI never forget my dad’s birthday; it’s December 31st, and every New Year’s Eve since I can remember we’ve gathered for dinner to celebrate the past year, the hope of the new year, and the accomplishment of my dad for making it to one year older (or one year younger as my dad likes to pretend).   But there is one New Year’s Eve in particular that has stuck with me all of these years: I was very young and my grandparents were in town to celebrate with us. My grandfather was telling stories of my dad as a youngster, and he began laughing that they used to call my dad “Deduct” since he had been born right before the stroke of midnight, giving my grandparents the child tax deduction for the year, just in the nick of time. He also mentioned that my dad was the last baby born that year in Abilene, Texas, and that he’d received gifts and congratulations from the hospital staff.

I recall my dad looking uncomfortable as this story was being told, and I prodded him about it. He stopped and sheepishly said, “Well I wasn’t exactly the last baby born, but the last baby born was black, so they gave me all the presents.”  He averted eye contact and got up to retrieve another glass of water from the kitchen as someone else changed the subject and the mood returned to jovial celebration.

It was one small instance, many years ago, but it has been lodged in my memory all this time. We never really talked about it again, but it’s been on my mind constantly in the past couple of weeks as we’ve been gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. My dad was six years old when the March on Washington took place, and that small sentence about the night he was born has spoken so much to me about how broken America was in 1963 as Dr. King gave his famous speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. As I joined my co-workers, our supporters, friends, and family on the National Mall last Saturday to commemorate that great day 50 years ago, I thought about how things had changed. I’m getting married in two months to a Vietnamese-American man, and I was blessed to be joined by him and his mother on Saturday as we stood side by side to fight for equality. I thought about our future children, and how blessed I am that they won’t face the discrimination present in the hospital the day my dad was born, and how thankful I am that my fiancé and I are not ostracized for our mixed-race relationship. I thought about how beautiful it was to see the tapestry of different races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations in front of the Lincoln Memorial, joining together to fight for the inalienable rights of us all.

There is still work to be done. There is still reason to march. Yes, injustice still exists, inequality still exists, and true unity has not yet been attained. But today I find myself more thankful than enraged. I am thankful to those that marched before us, because though there is marching still to be done, we really have come a long way.

We March On: Diversity, Unity & the March on Washington

MarchOn Saturday morning, I joined a group of colleagues, our family members and friends to create a Washington Area Women’s Foundation contingent for the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Despite the early hour (I am not a morning person), I was excited and enthusiastic about being able to participate in such an historic event. As we approached the National Mall, it was clear that the excitement and enthusiasm were shared by the many, many other activists who were also there. And as we convened around the reflecting pool to listen to the speakers lined up for the morning’s rally, and had the chance to look around at those with whom we were sharing space and purpose, I was struck by the diversity that surrounded me. Yet, the audience, issues and messages from the speakers created a bizarre contradiction. On many levels we were marching on this day for many of the same rights and issues that our foreparents marched for 50 years before us – equality, access to jobs, etc. Yet, it was apparent that this was not the same movement as it was then. The increased visibility and vocalization of issues affecting women, LGBTQ, Asian American, and Latina/o communities, etc. was a clear indicator that while we have not come as far as we would like, the past 50 years have been significant in creating the space and voice for people from so many different communities to come together to be recognized and heard.

But despite the camaraderie and energy that was with us all, there were two noticeable voids for me. The first was the absence of the power, passion and clear purpose that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to the original march with his “I Have A Dream Speech.” I don’t think that in the 50 years since the original march, there has been any speech quite so profound as his, nor any speaker as moving. I own that perhaps it isn’t a fair expectation, because people like Dr. King don’t come along every day. But even to replay that speech and remind us all of that power, passion and purpose, would have elevated the day that much more to me.

The other thing that I struggled with was that even in the diversity of the communities represented on Saturday, I still felt a siloing of communities and identities. I felt we were missing something – that sense of underlying unity. That thing that transcended race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class…that thing that made us all brothers and sisters in a movement for humanity overall. That thing that reminded us that we could not divide the essence of our being into artificial buckets of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. And that our communities and identities were not distinct and separate, but inextricably linked. I was missing that call to action that said without a collective vision, a collective movement, and a recognition that if any one of us gets left behind, it means all of us fall behind, we would be here 50 years from now fighting many of the same battles. Despite the absence 50 years ago of some of the diverse voices that were present on Saturday, I think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to capture that vision for the future that saw us all sitting around a community table with a shared sense of our value for who we were and what we brought. And a recognition that the problems that we are solving require solutions that reflect the intersections of our communities and identities.

I walked away from the march with mixed emotions for the reality of our country today – appreciation, sadness, frustration, drive, disappointment, and hope. What I wish I had gotten from the podium is that feeling that we were here together because, in the words of Dr. King: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” And so, we march on.

“I Still Have a Dream:” 50 Years Later, March on Washington Remains Relevant

MarchonWashingtonAs we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been re-reading and thinking a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I’m simultaneously in awe of and distressed by the timelessness of the speech. It encompasses feelings and aspirations that far exceed the boundaries of race. But so many of the challenges outlined in the speech are applicable today. I don’t say that to minimize the impact that King or the March on Washington had – but I’m struck by the fact that if you replace the word “Negro” with words like “poor,” or “black,” or “Latino,” or “undocumented” in the text of the speech, it’s still so relevant.

While the words “I have a dream” are the best-known parts of the speech, for me one of the most powerful passages is about America’s obligation to guarantee every citizen life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. King said that the nation had “defaulted on this promissory note” when it came to citizens of color. “We refuse to believe,” he said, “that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

That has never been more true in America’s history than now. When we look at what people are doing in fields like technology, finance and entertainment, the opportunities seem endless. But for far too many people, those great vaults are sealed and secured – those opportunities remain out of reach. The generational cycles of poverty that so many people find themselves in are testament to just how closed our society can be to some people, and so is the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Being mired in poverty is this generation’s chains. Economic security and independence are our freedom. King’s speech reaches back through time to reference the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation – all documents created at turning points in history when people in this country came together to break open chains and embrace freedom. Their efforts propelled this nation forward – we don’t look back on our history and regret becoming an independent nation, or ending slavery or giving everyone the right to vote.

The original 1963 march was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The organizers of that historic event knew that jobs and freedom go hand in hand, but I think that in the 50 years since, we may have forgotten some of that. Without the right resources, networks and opportunities, people can’t get good jobs. And without good jobs that not only sustain families but provide them with a stability and savings for the future, too many people are missing out on freedom, strength, independence and equality.

That’s why Washington Area Women’s Foundation is participating in the 50th anniversary rally and march on Saturday. As we walk elbow-to-elbow with thousands of other people I will be thinking about King’s speech and his unwavering faith in humanity, belief in the American dream, and confidence that by working together, we can live in a country that lives up to its promise.

I invite you to join us. “We cannot walk alone.” Email mcraven@wawf.org for details.

Why aren’t there more apprenticeships for women?

The following post by Zach McDade was originally posted on Metro Trends, a blog maintained by the Urban Institute, a Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner. We applaud the Urban Institute for looking at issues through a gender lens and encourage other organizations and researchers to do the same!

Urban Institute Fellow Bob Lerman posted Wednesday about the role of apprenticeships in preparing workers for success, citing evidence that suggests the government should invest much more than it does now in apprenticeship programs.

That post got a lot of attention and generated a lot of good questions. I asked Lerman a few of them as follow-ups. His responses are below.

Your apprenticeship post got a lot of attention. One question suggested that relatively few women have apprenticeships. Is that true? If so, why?

It is true. The main reason is that apprenticeships have been concentrated in male-dominated industries, especially construction and plant-level work in manufacturing. Governments have sponsored initiatives to attract women to these fields with only modest success.

So why do you think apprenticeships haven’t flourished in industries more popular with women?

Because policymakers have failed to make expanding apprenticeship a priority, and creating an apprenticeship program is complicated for most employers.

Which traditionally women-dominated industries might benefit from increased investment?

Health and finance are two major industries in which women make up a high share of employers. Both could benefit from having more well-structured apprenticeships. Child care and elder care could use apprenticeships to raise quality and build inclusive job ladders.

What are some of the benefits women might expect to see?

If apprenticeships became more widespread across industries, women would benefit for the same reasons men benefit—earning while learning, increasing their skills, obtaining a valued occupational credential, and becoming a proud member of a community of practice. Quality apprenticeships can also upgrade the image and quality of women-dominated professions, such as child care, that currently pay low wages and garner little prestige.

What about minority workers? Would they see the same benefits from greater apprenticeship investment?

Black and Hispanic workers make up about 30 percent of apprentices. They likely benefit more than non-Hispanic white workers because they are currently less successful in academic-only settings. Also, because employers hire apprentices on a temporary basis and watch them work and learn in their companies, apprenticeships can reduce discrimination based on group identities.

You seem to see apprenticeships as a missing link in preparing our workers, especially workers without college degrees, for gainful employment. What are the next steps?

The key is to expand significantly the number of apprenticeship slots sponsored by employers. Moving to scale in this sense is difficult but not impossible. It requires three steps that should be taken simultaneously: 1) engaging political leadership at a high level, such as a president or a governor; 2) launching statewide marketing campaigns, including publicity targeted at specific industry sectors; and 3) selling apprenticeship to individual firms (think of it as a retail approach) as well as providing technical assistance to organize and validate programs at the firm level.

Apprentice photo via Shutterstock

New Documentary Takes on Women’s Work & Worth


Twenty Feet from Stardom, the documentary currently playing in DC-area theaters about backup singers, is on its surface a stereotypical Hollywood tale: ingénue steps into the recording studio seeking fame and fortune, but comes up short – in this case, an achingly close 20 feet short.

It is also, of course, about so much more. It’s about the people – overwhelmingly women of color – whose names you don’t know but who are responsible for the best parts of your favorite songs – the voices with whom you have sung along for years. It’s also about the chances artists – and particularly women artists – take when their career trajectories lie in the hands of the Ike Turners and Phil Spectors of the world (even if you haven’t seen the film, you can imagine how that might turn out). Finally, 20 Feet from Stardom is an exploration of the dreams we have for our lives and what happens when they come up short – at least in the eyes of others.

A number of people interviewed for the film, for example, assumed that Lisa Fischer (who has sung backup for the Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross and Sting, among others) wants and should have an incredible solo career. At a time when we’re so focused on celebrity, on leaning in and on having it all, this seems to be a logical assumption. But if you ask Lisa, she’d likely say that she already has it all. And she’d probably have some interesting things to say about what “having it all” means. In the film, Lisa makes it clear that she has everything she wants – and when she went for some prize that everyone else thought she should have, she discovered that it made her miserable.

Darlene Love had her a-ha moment decades after singing back-up for artists that included Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke and Elvis. After a career that was tightly controlled and limited by Phil Spector, Darlene left the industry and took on work cleaning houses for $100 a week. One day, while cleaning someone else’s bathroom, one of her old songs came on the radio and she stopped and asked herself what she was meant to do. Her answer: “God gave me this talent and I intend to use it.” She asked a couple of friends for a loan and returned to music – only this time she had her own strategy and controlled her own image. After taking any gig she could find, she worked her way up to Broadway and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Most of us cannot imagine what it’s like to be a backup singer, but the experiences and emotions portrayed in 20 Feet from Stardom are universal. I think that many of us can share the feelings of being unrecognized, of not having enough control, or not living up to expectations – whether they’re our own or others’. And that’s when it’s time to listen to the advice given by Dr. Mable John (a former Raelette who sang backup for Ray Charles): “…we need to know our worth; we need to know, as women, we’re important. I think the breakdown is when a woman doesn’t know what she is and she settles for less.”

It’s a lesson that works just as well off stage as on. The fascinating, devastating stories featured in 20 Feet from Stardom are unique because of their glamorous setting, but the lessons associated with them are not uncommon. The women in the film seemed to be happiest and most satisfied when they had control over their own lives, when they were getting recognition for their accomplishments and when they were fairly compensated. These are, of course, “no duh” statements – a fact that makes it seem even more criminal that they were denied these things to begin with, and a reminder that it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we value ourselves and one another fairly.

Photo from NYTimes.com.

Changing GED Could Mean Greater Barriers for Area Women

GEDgirl_courtesyColumbusStateCommunityCollegeI’ve had the amazing opportunity to be a volunteer teacher at Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s Grantee Partner, The Academy of Hope, and can speak to the hard work of the learners who step through their doors each day. This innovative organization provides basic education to adult learners. Though most learners have jobs, families and a myriad of other responsibilities that compete for their time, they still make their studies a priority. In spending time with the learners there, I’ve come to see that the value of a GED or high school equivalency diploma goes beyond the increased job opportunities and higher wages associated with obtaining that level of education (though these are extremely important). Their value is also in the confidence gained by the adults who walk across the stage at graduation, in a mother who is more equipped to help her children with their homework, in that member of society who is more prepared for civic engagement and in immeasurably more ways. In January of 2014, however, the GED is undergoing significant changes that will likely make it considerably more difficult to obtain.

While there are several changes coming to the GED, three of the most significant shifts are the transition from paper-based tests to computerized-only exams, the jump from a $50 testing fee to a fee of $120, and an increase in the test’s difficulty. These changes have been widely debated, and Academy of Hope has been tackling the tough questions around this transition through a series of panels and continuing dialog on this issue. Most recently, they hosted local experts for a panel discussion on July 17th, in partnership with the Moriah Fund and PNC Bank, to discuss the implications of the changing GED for DC adults.

The panel raised several great issues, discussing the challenges and barriers that the changes to the GED could mean for adults looking to pass the test, and balancing these with comments on the need for the GED to remain relevant at a time when many jobs demand higher levels of computer literacy and “soft skills” such as listening, critical reasoning, and inductive reasoning. For me, one of the most relevant comments came from Nicole Smith, a research professor and senior economist at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. She noted that her research has shown that women need an entire layer of education higher than men to obtain the same salary, meaning that when a woman obtains her GED she would still need at least an associate’s degree or certificate just to earn what a man with a GED alone would be able to earn; women with the same educational attainment as men earn about a quarter less than their male counterparts over a lifetime. For the new GED, with the increase in difficulty, greater need for computer literacy and higher financial burden just to take the test, women will face an even more difficult road to higher education and family sustaining wages.

In a city where, in 2008, 14% of girls did not complete high school, the ramifications for this are serious. The GED test is the most widely recognized alternative to a high school diploma and a gateway to higher education opportunities. The changes to the GED will likely increase the time commitment of adults studying for the test, and will mean a tremendous amount of work for organizations that prepare adults in the Washington area for the GED, as they will need to revamp and adapt their programs to the new standards. At the panel discussion, NPR’s Kavitha Cardoza remarked that with the coming changes in the GED, “this is a really scary time for adult educators and adults in DC.”

As the barriers to higher education for women in the region increase, so, too, do the barriers to better jobs and more opportunities for women and their families to find economic security. This is why The Women’s Foundation funds programs like Academy of Hope and appreciates their commitment to continuing the conversation with great events like this panel!

For more information on what the changes to the GED could mean for area adults, click here for a policy brief courtesy of The Working Poor Families Project.

You can follow Academy of Hope as they continue the discussion on twitter at @AoHDC and on Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Columbus State Community College

Miss Utah Equal Pay Flub Should Be a Call to Action

miss_utah_questionLast week, the media was buzzing following Miss Utah’s flubbed response at the Miss USA Pageant to a question about pay inequity and women’s rights. The question from judge NeNe Leakes was: “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does it say about society?” Miss Utah (aka Marissa Powell) for all intents and purposes could not answer the question, and under the pressure of the lights and the cameras, vaguely responded with allusions to increased education and job creation. I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of this issue as there appears to be some level of outrage, at least across the media, to the fact that Marissa botched the answer to this question, and of course the commentary about the relative intelligence of beauty pageant contestants has been part of the ribbing. ( I found this media reaction particularly interesting given the fact that, in general, mainstream media does not seem to be aware of or interested in women’s rights issues and reporting on the continued inequality in this country).

At the end of the day, I think this contestant’s inability to answer the question is less about beauty pageants, and in fact more reflective of the lackluster state of the women’s rights movement, and in particular, the lack of awareness among young women about the issues that women continue to face in this country. For me, this is a call to action – women’s organizations, policymakers, and leaders need to do a better job of educating the public on the need for continued focus on women’s rights and re-galvanize women of all ages to continue to fight for equality. Only then will we have the voice and power to shift policy and institutions that continue to hold women back.

Nicky is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

No Joke: The Impact of the Sequester is Devastating Vulnerable Families

Capitol Bldg by Amanda Walker_CCSeems like the word “sequester” has become part of our everyday vernacular here in the DC metro region, so much so that not a day goes by without it coming up in some context. Yet, since its implementation, it feels like the sense of urgency to resolve the impact of the sequester has dissipated. It’s no longer front page news and has become the source of jokes and derision. There was the non-“snowquester” in March; the sparring about what was really behind the cancellations of all White House tours; and the reports about how Congress quickly passed legislation to resolve the impact of the sequester on air travel – just as their week-long recess was beginning (really???). And all the while, critical social services that are helping to meet the needs of our poorest communities are being cut. Programs like Headstart, nutrition assistance, child-care subsidies, and health screenings for low-income women all faced significant cutbacks but without the same sense of outrage or swift action that some of these less consequential outcomes spurred.

The reality is that the sequester is not a joke, and though the hype has faded and pundits are saying the effects have not been as bad as predicted, for many people the very real implications and impact of these policy decisions are just beginning. For them, this will be devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by cuts to programs like those listed above; poor people in this country are once again bearing the brunt of bad policy and are finding that their pathways out of poverty have been blocked.

And the sequester isn’t only affecting people who rely on social services. There are also the large swaths of the federal workforce that have been required to take mandatory furloughs. A chief economist for Moody’s Analytics told The Hill last month that one-third of the federal workforce – nearly one million people – “will be furloughed for an average of 13 days through September.” This can have an enormous impact on any family, and for those at the bottom of the federal pay scale – who are probably already living paycheck to paycheck – it is likely crushing and life-changing. Keep in mind that, in the Washington region, the federal pay scale that determines how much most of the federal civilian workforce is paid starts at just over $22,000.

People I know and people you know and maybe see every day could be among those who will have to go without pay for more than two weeks to ease the financial strain on the federal government. It makes you wonder what the average person is supposed to give up to ease her own financial strain.

Our lawmakers need to start putting the needs of those who are most disadvantaged first instead of last and try to put themselves, even for a moment, in the shoes of those who are most profoundly impacted by the policy decisions they are making (or not making as the case may be) from on high.

Nicky Goren is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.