I 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.