Does The UK’s Food Industry Have a Sexism Problem? - The Sterling Choice
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Does The UK’s Food Industry Have a Sexism Problem?

The food industry in the UK is going from strength to strength. From manufacturing to restaurants, and everything in between, we British are moving forward in full force. We innovate, create, and lead. There’s no denying it, the British are in love with food. We’ve seen thousands of new food products hit our shelves and numerous restaurants appear on our highstreets year after year, and a quick glance at the figures from the Office of National Statistics highlights the healthy rate of growth the sector is enjoying.

Despite all this good news, there is still a cloud hanging over the food sector in the UK. In this article we’re going to confront the elephant in the room, and ask the question on everyone’s lips… Why are there not more women in senior positions in the food industry? We’ll also explore ways we can start to counteract this trend in ways that are positive for the industry and our nation of food lovers.

How big is the problem?

Whether you look at the number of head chefs, CEOs, food engineers, operations managers, scientists etc, virtually every aspect of the food industry is male heavy.

Food and cooking has historically been seen as a woman’s prerogative, or is that a stereotype? A preprogrammed sexism of sorts? Is it for this reason that we feel there should be more women in the industry than there are, or is it due to the development of food businesses over time, which haven’t grasped the opportunity to evolve like the many other sectors before them?

Recent decades have seen a shift in public perception about the roles women play. Whether it’s motivated by TV ratings, the insecurity of male chef’s, or simply sensationalism, a lot of celebrity chef’s seem to perpetuate a stereotype that highlights the traditionally male traits needed to successfully run a kitchen. This shift creates a set of traits very similar to those we already associate with other roles in the food sector, such as CEOs and managers.

This has created a focus on the discipline and hardships that need to be endured to succeed. It accentuates the aggressive leadership and toughness needed in the kitchen and the boardroom. However, there is a strong feeling this doesn’t reflect the wider reality of the roles within the sector. A successful chef must also be artistic and creative, show passion and flair, and get the best out of everyone in the kitchen. These traits are all either more feminine or even between the sexes, yet they seem to be consistently overlooked in favour of a clip of someone getting a dressing down in a kitchen. The same can be said of the boardroom, where TV focuses on ruthlessness as the route to success.  

While this image might not reflect the first hand experience of many in the sector, it does make for more compelling viewing and establish a disproportionate amount of public perception. You’d be hard pushed to find a head chef or CEO, male or female, that would deny it takes hard work, discipline, and dedication to reach the top level. However, as thousands of successful women are proving, women are just as capable as men in non-domestic kitchens and boardrooms.

However, when you look at some of the roles in general, such as scientists and CEOs, there are less women across the board, regardless of sector. This points to a more fundamental underlying problem in certain areas, one which must be addressed for us to make the most of our pool of talented young individuals looking for career paths.

Whether it’s the armed forces or a commercial kitchen, women can and do lead, inspire, show incredible strength of character, and be every bit as successful as men. In fact, in an industry where a male perspective is dominant, women who reach the top often stand out even more because they bring a different perspective to the art of cooking. As a nation of food lovers we should be doing everything we can to encourage this diversity, as the food industry can only benefit from a broader range of experience, knowledge, and approaches.

What is the industry doing to attract more women?

While it still needs time to become the norm, we are already seeing an industry wide movement aimed at increasing diversity. The industry was quick to embrace the idea of change, but public perception may take longer to change.

A key factor will be to keep having the discussion in a positive way with as many people as possible. There is clearly an appetite for what women bring to the table. This becomes clear when you consider that cookbooks published by males far outnumber those published by females, but the majority of the top selling cookbooks are written by females alone, or jointly authored by a male and female. This highlights a disproportionate preference for cookbooks by women.

Industry associations and individual companies can become involved in one of the many initiatives designed to empower women in the workplace. Weaving the philosophy into corporate structure is the only way to counteract decades of entrenched thought. This will ensure a more level playing field, ensuring the best person for the role has the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

What is the goal?

The eventual goal of any industry initiatives must be to provide an overall better balance in the sector. The one common factor that unites all head chefs, regardless of their gender, is a passion for food. Learning about food, mastering the art of cooking, and being great at what they love to do. Creating kitchens and boardrooms where everyone is able to maximise their potential and benefit from their hard work, effort, skill, innovation, and ability will benefit every aspect of the industry and any human that needs to eat in order to survive.

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