By Sylvia Tomczak
Throughout history, food has always been a marker of culture, making the ways in which we preserve it equally important. Though the media has changed — from character-laden tablets through ink-written scrolls, vellum-bound manuscripts, all the way to modern-day cookbooks, food radio, gastronomic television, and now social media — one idea has remained constant: woman as the nourisher.
Although this stereotype of females at the forefront of food has been long perpetuated in history, women were actually rarely represented for their contributions to the foodscape. Forced to remain anonymous or mentioned just briefly, little is documented about women despite their vital roles in food both domestically and professionally.
Even now, women are still vying for a place in the professional culinary world and for their achievements to be recognized. Though the last several decades have seen an increase of women in the Canadian culinary workforce, that hasn’t necessarily translated into an increase in female representation.
Just what is producing this inequality?
Barriers to equality
It’s fair to suggest the root cause lies in the patriarchal society in which we live, where men have dominated since our earliest ancestors. While a shift in power between men and women was born out of necessity, which saw men working outdoors while women child-reared to optimize survival, these outdated mentalities have continued to be a direct culprit of female oppression in the food world.
Experts note that men have benefited from the sector’s institutional structures. Based on its long hours and fast-paced nature, leadership roles for women are rare since a woman’s participation in the workforce often depends on the balance of household tasks. But the industry’s historic boys’ club culture itself presents its challenges. Women are often under constant scrutiny, striving to prove themselves due to biased ideas about their level of expertise or lack thereof.
Likewise, the frequent sexual harassment experienced by many female professionals also restricts the desire and drive of many to continue in an industry riddled with sexism. Since those that hold the power are majority male, the harassment and belittlement of women by men tends to go unchecked. This in turn has typically forced women to remain quiet over the injustice or simply step away entirely, continuing a cycle of oppression.
But that’s not all; finances can also act as a barrier. Since our capitalist economy allows those with lesser financial capital (typically female) to be exploited, chances for women to join F&B sectors are also limited. For instance, research suggests women receive fewer loans with lesser value when compared to male-owned businesses, yet women are subject to paying higher rates. The injustice only multiplies for women of colour. Last year, female-led startups received roughly 2.3 per cent of funding, while women of colour received less than one per cent.
Moreover, a report on women in the workforce by Statistics Canada also showed that 70 per cent of women in the food industry occupied the lower-ranking — read: lower-paying — jobs. And of those women, only a handful (30 per cent) believe an executive job was attainable.
Restoring the balance
A solution to fight the trend of executive positions from going straight to males? Hire more women.
Interestingly, many company stakeholders are starting to become more conscious of inequality, asking companies to diversify. Not only is it fair, but it also allows the opportunity for new and fresh ideas and perspectives, which has major benefits in boosting revenue. It could also spark a ripple effect where other women are more inspired to join the workplace, increasing female presence.
The commitment to gender equality is gradually strengthening through various initiatives, especially in a financial scope. Associations and businesses like Les Dames d’Escoffier or Fiera Foods have awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships to women entering the culinary industry, while Farm Credit Canada’s Women Entrepreneur Program provides loans as a means of financial support for female farmers. Even male-dominated beverage sectors have partnered with The Pink Boots Society, an organization that offers scholarships to women interested in making beer professionally.
Supporting the work of Canadian women already in the industry, grocery retailers like Sobeys have collaborated with women-owned businesses from Canadian Women in Food to create the “Local Box”. Some brands are even ensuring opportunities for women on an international level in the case of Cooks Who Feed, a female-founded organization that works to bring food to those in need and create jobs for underprivileged women in India.
But while strength in numbers could mean greater female representation in the food industry, even in sectors that have an equal distribution of women (farmers), or in sectors that are female-dominated (food writers, editors, photographers, publicists), women are often not documented in the media the same way. Men are still consistently recognized for their work in comparison to women, which is why the spotlight needs to be placed on media outlets themselves.
When women are working in food, the media largely ignores them because it is mainly men who control what is diffused. For example, this last August, a recent article featured in Business in Vancouver honouring local chefs and restaurateurs was exclusively composed of men. Supporting this idea, research done by Eater found that less than 30 per cent of women are involved in food-related press events like media series, lectures, or awards.
A theory for the lack of female representation in food media is that for years, industry gatekeepers (typically, white cisgender males) have been influencing public opinion, diffusing media that didn’t necessarily represent women. Consumers were thus unknowingly developing a lack of interest in the representation of minorities like women, BIPOC individuals, and those in the LGBTIQA+ community.
Steps in the right direction
Until society, in addition to those closely working in media, begins to adequately challenge these standards and dig deeper to find individuals and stories that are diverse within the creative world of food, not a whole lot can be done. However, with the rise of social media movements, a sort of foodie feminism has been enacted. Now, more than ever, female voices are being praised and recognized. Alongside social movements like #MeToo and documentaries like “A Woman’s Place” or “A Fine Line”, these efforts have sparked a greater conversation about female representation in food.
Taste Awards Canada has honoured more than twice the number of women in the last five years, while last year’s recipients of Restaurant Canada Awards of Excellence were majority female. Meanwhile, food television programs are beginning to highlight indigenous women like Jodi Robson (The Great Canadian Baking Show) or Siobhan Detkavich (Top Chef Canada). A dining series created by Chef Stacey Patterson called Open Kitchen has also become noteworthy in the press. Working to promote female representation by featuring a different female chef every month, in addition to raising funds for female students at George Brown College’s culinary school, the initiative has inspired many women in the food world.
However, while companies are gradually working to bridge the inequality gap, there is still significant work to be done. From consumers to executives, change must be demanded in order for it to be enacted. It’s time that Canadian women in food were recognized.
Sylvia Tomczak is a master’s student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences studying food culture, communication, and marketing. With a love of words and all things enogastronomy, she is passionate about learning new things through a foodie-focused lens and sharing them both on paper and online. Find her on Instagram at @honeyandtruffles.