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Head Chefs Versus CEOs: An Analysis of the Women in Charge

In this Food-Stuff essay, Hannah Koper examines the difference between how four notable women chefs and CEOs frame and discuss gender bias and representation in their respective fields.

Published onNov 11, 2017
Head Chefs Versus CEOs: An Analysis of the Women in Charge

The James Beard Awards are known as “The Oscars of Food.” Introduced in 1990, these coveted annual awards recognize the best and brightest chefs in the American food world for their skill and cuisine. They are a true representation of our nation’s culinary climate, particularly the tradition of men consistently dominating as winners. Over the 27 years the Awards have been given, just 81 of 361 award winners have been female, around 22 percent.[1] This statistic, though, is actually considerable when compared to the overall percentage of female head chefs: according to the 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 18.7 percent of chefs or head cooks are women.[2] It is easy to conclude that these numbers simply illustrate the sad truth for women in positions of authority or power in the U.S., but the same data demonstrates that a higher percentage of chief executives in business and industry are female, at 24.2 percent.[3] Chefs and CEOs are very comparable positions; the word “chef” comes from French origins meaning chief.[4] What accounts for this discrepancy? Why are there 25 percent fewer women in top chef positions than in head executive jobs?

While it is true that women in both the corporate world and the kitchen are subject to significant gender biases in rising to top positions in the workplace, the historical, structural, and environmental barriers of the kitchen further amplify this gender-based inequity. Moreover, female chefs’ attitudes and practices around their positionality tend to accentuate total equality with their male peers in an effort to make the workplace gender-blind. In contrast, female CEOs make conscious efforts to promote and advocate for themselves as well as their female colleagues. Drawing from interviews with and the memoirs of four notable women chefs and CEOs, I seek to understand why there are so few women chefs by comparing these two different worlds of professional women. I acknowledge that these four case studies provide a small and perhaps not wholly representative sample. These women in charge are representative, however, of general trends and clearly articulate the prevailing attitudes and mindsets of women in their similar positions.

Background: Gender and Corporate America

Despite the continuing proliferation of women in higher education and in the workforce, negative biological perceptions, sexist environments, and gender stereotypes that women face have led to only a small number of women being able to overcome the “glass ceiling effect” and rise to chief executive positions. Women receive 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and make up over half (51.4 percent) of management and professional positions,[5] yet there is a considerable drop-off at the highest level. Feminist scholar Ann Morris defines the glass ceiling metaphor in this context as “women as a group who are kept from advancing higher because they are women.”[6]

Women are kept from advancing for a variety of reasons. Despite progress made, women are still held responsible for the majority of household work and family care.[7] This leads to decisions by many women to reduce hours, travel less, or in the most extreme case, quit their jobs when starting or raising families. The standard of corporate advancement currently focuses on “a significant amount of availability, commitment, and consistent performance,” which does not necessarily fit with being a mother in our society today.[8] A recent study conducted by the Washington Post found that over 60 percent of mothers have “had to quit a job or switch to a less-challenging one” because of parenting demands, whereas less than 40 percent of men made that same sacrifice.[9]

Blatantly sexist work environments also shape gender bias in the workplace, such as the “old-boys’ club,” meaning, among other things, that male corporate leaders are more likely to promote people who are “as much like themselves as possible.”[10] In this “old-boy network,” men are “significantly more likely” to find a mentor than their female counterparts,[11] putting women at a clear professional disadvantage, as mentorship or sponsorship are “crucial for career progression.”[12] In addition to unequal treatment within their own company, women struggle with sexism and sexist attitudes from those with whom they work and do outside business. For example, investors have less confidence in women to lead risk-filled ventures.[13] Extensive research in economics and psychology conclude that women can be “more risk averse and less likely to thrive in competitive environments when compared to men.”[14] These characteristics are vital to attaining executive level positions, which means a further disadvantage to women.[15]

Gendered misperceptions also negatively affect women in the corporate workplace. In general, men’s communication and leadership styles are more broadly accepted, whereas women are often judged as being too demanding.[16] Further studies posit that this may be due to the lack of women in leadership positions, so investors would rather go with the “proven product”—in this case, men.[17] This circumstance of the “old-boys’ network” becomes a classic chicken and egg dilemma, where the barrier to the situation is the situation itself.

Background: Gender and the Professional Kitchen

Like the corporate world, the kitchen is also a very male-dominated space with the same circumstances of prejudice, sexism, and unequal treatment. In fact, women in the kitchen face even more gender biases due to the differences in the nature of the industry itself. Cooking within the home has historically been seen as a women’s job, as it falls under the same umbrella as caring for children and family. These domestic duties have been generally characterized as “unproductive” in our society because no wage is earned for the labor.[18] When cooking shifts to public spaces, as a paid task carried out by men, however, it is viewed as “more high status and important.”[19] This dichotomy dates back thousands of years to males cooking for Ancient Egyptian royalty.[20] Because of this home-professional divide, where the actual activity and tasks are the same, there exists a feminization threat to male professional chefs. This leads to the occurrence of precarious masculinity, which sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre define as “unstable masculinity amongst men in jobs requiring them to perform female-coded tasks.”[21]

As a result, the kitchen became a hyper-masculine environment that emphasized attributes like the military background of cooking and deemphasized “feminized” ideals like caring for others.[22] In order to “protect their occupation from feminization threat,” male chefs are more likely to sexually harass, test, or discriminate against their women colleagues.[23] This overtly masculine, and even brutal, environment—combined with what is often described as the eclectic “misfit” culture of the professional kitchen—serves as a clear barrier and bias against women advancing in the kitchen.[24] It also contributes to the idea that women need to be “one of the boys” to fit in.

Furthermore, the professional kitchen environment is very different from a white-collar office. Professional chef and author Anthony Bourdain describes the people who work in the kitchen as a “dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers” who do not always fit in the outside world but are able to perform their jobs in the kitchen with character and endurance.[25] Bourdain also explains throughout his book Kitchen Confidential that this “misfit” culture leads to a workplace that normalizes the use of hard drugs and excessive drinking, discriminatory slurs, and unsolicited sexual advances. When Bourdain does comment on women in the kitchen specifically, he praises them for their ability to be “tough-as-nails,” spit out the same trash talk as men, and meet any aggressiveness with more of their own.[26] Bourdain’s opinions and observations buttress the conclusion that the restaurant kitchen is a brash and crude environment in which women in particular are disadvantaged from the outset.

In addition to this challenging kitchen atmosphere and working with unconventional coworkers, the physical requirements of a chef’s job can also be a possible barrier for women. Chefs often work ten to fourteen hour days, six days a week with hours extending until midnight to 2:00 A.M.[27] The human conditions within the kitchen are also extremely onerous. While working in artificial climates of up to and over 100 degrees, chefs are expected to continually lift stockpots weighing hundreds of pounds, maneuver their way through a crowded kitchen of open flames and sharp knives, and deal with the constant pressure of getting each dish out perfectly at the exact timing expected.[28] This grueling physical environment is unique to professional kitchens as compared to offices, and it is more in conformance with what society dictates as behavior or work associated with men rather than women. Of course, individual women meet these challenges and fit into this environment; however, the dominant narrative instructs women to adapt, not change expectations, and to “develop a thick skin” in order to be successful in these kitchens.[29]

The Women: CEOs and Chefs

When asked, women CEOs often affirm the gender biases and barriers discussed above as obstacles they have experienced, but then explain their strategies and mindsets for overcoming them. I initially looked at Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert, the first female CEO of a “Big Four” accounting and consulting firm, who has spoken of her doubts and struggles as a woman leader at Deloitte. These issues were accentuated when she was pregnant with her first child and began to think, “Can I actually do this?” Ultimately, she emphasizes the importance of “raising [her] hand when [she] wanted to do something different, asking for flexibility.”[30] Throughout the interview, she weaves in a call to action for other women professionals, advising them to take control of their career: to speak up, make needs known, prevail against challenging circumstances, and employ strategies to succeed.

Much like Engelbert, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is very sensitive to the implicit biases against women in the workplace, as she holds a position of extraordinary prestige and power. Wojcicki recently wrote an article for Vanity Fair entitled “Exclusive: How to Break Up the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club.” She discusses how she has managed to penetrate this male-dominated world, while still being “home for dinner with her family almost every night,”[31] and sees the need for fundamental changes to be made in order to “address gender discrimination in all its forms.”[32] According to Wojcicki, this advancement can be accomplished by hiring more women and providing more resources to groups that support female employees. Unlike Engelbert’s individual approach focusing on what women themselves can do, Wojcicki takes a more systemic approach, honing in on steps organizations can take. However, both share the same common sentiment and overall goal: women are being treated differently because of their gender and action in some form needs to be taken to even the playing field.

Although women head chefs face greater barriers and gender biases than women CEOs, they engage in a very different discourse. Female chefs emphasize the ideal of equality between themselves and their male counterparts. They cite gender-blindness as their ultimate goal, as compared to women in the corporate world who seek to promote women and directly acknowledge gendered workplace challenges. For example, in a recent interview, Mary Sue Miliken, an immensely talented executive chef and founder of the popular Border Grill, explained that as one of very few women throughout her culinary education and subsequent jobs, she coped with inequities by not noticing, and even ignoring, limitations related to her gender. Instead she explained, “I…work circles around my male counterparts to prove that I c[an] do it and never get flustered or lose my cool.”[33] Miliken states that she dislikes questions about being a female executive chef because she wants to be considered without any regard to her gender.

World-acclaimed executive pastry chef Christina Tosi further bolsters the conviction that chefs want to dissociate from their gender differences. Tosi’s statement says it all: “Oh I guess technically I am a female chef, but that really doesn’t mean anything to me.”[34] She does not consider her gender as a defining factor in her success, but rather points out that she worked hard and learned how to excel, irrespective of gender bias. Like Miliken, Tosi wanted to “skip over” the question of what it’s like to be a female chef, saying that it is only a topic because “people want [it] to be a hot topic.”[35] She does not advocate for any special treatment of women like many women CEOs do. In the male-dominant workplace of the professional kitchen, however, women arguably need special treatment in order to gain true equality.

To further explain why women chefs’ mindsets are gender-blind and seemingly so different than their corporate counterparts, we can circle back to the environment of the kitchen itself: a male-dominated, physically demanding workspace with a band of misfits working countless hours long into the night.[36] In her book Blood, Bones & Butter, executive chef and restaurant owner Gabrielle Hamilton explains the “constant negotiating” women do in the kitchen to “get by.”[37] She recounts that she tried “swearing like a sailor…banging out twice as much as [her] male cohorts,” as well as “lipstick and giggling” and acting unable to lift heavy things so her male colleagues would help her.[38] When Hamilton opened up her own restaurant, after many years of this steady, gendered struggle, she felt liberated from the constant calculating and thought put into being the woman on the line. Instead, she felt she was able to focus on the work and her passion for food and cooking without the distraction of gender issues.

This is the essence that drives the answers of the female chefs in this essay. They have contended and battled with gender roles and stereotypes long and hard in often harsh and unwelcome kitchen environments. Their reward for getting through it and establishing their own kitchens is the luxury of fully disregarding the role of gender in their success. On first look, it may seem that this approach is gender-blind, but clearly these women chefs recognize the struggles of women. They fight for equality once they achieve success and have their own kitchen. These are strong, tenacious, and powerful women who do not want to, nor should they have to, constantly refer to their gender in their stories of accomplishment. However, the fact that they have been able to do so well in the face of adversity and gender disadvantage absolutely puts them on a platform for rising young women to admire and emulate. They certainly do not have to go about championing and promoting women in the same way that women in the corporate world do because they come from very different environments. But in order for the entire industry to change, they must be open and willing to help foster that change by giving some voice to the important role they play as renowned women chefs.


Men dominate top executive roles in virtually every area of business in America today. A plethora of factors—inherent societal gender biases, the “old-boys’ club” structure of management, misperceptions and stereotypes about how women act in the workplace, and notions of femininity, motherhood, and family responsibilities—all inhibit women from breaking into these high-level positions. In the professional food world, the demands of the job and the macho, crude, and high-pressure environment of the kitchen further exacerbate these obstacles and this situation. Female chefs and female CEOs discuss these obstacles and how to overcome them in profoundly different ways. Women CEOs maintain that promoting oneself as a woman and helping fellow women along is crucial in becoming successful. Conversely, women head chefs advocate for gender-blindness, seeking no difference in treatment alongside their male counterparts.

The higher proportion of women CEOs over women head chefs in the U.S. begs the question: are the conversations and strategies of these women CEOs working “better” than the gender-blindness sought by women chefs? If there were a Sheryl Sandberg of the professional kitchen world, might women head chefs be more prevalent? Or, are the fundamental differences between the corporate office and the professional kitchen so insurmountable that the same strategies that work for the corporate world do not work for the kitchen? There is no definitive answer to these hypothetical questions, but we know for certain, as Wojcicki so plainly and simply states in her essay: the only way to begin to improve the situation is to hire, promote, and advocate for more women. Women now comprise nearly 60 percent of college graduates in America[39] and, in a huge increase over the past few years, about half of culinary school graduates.[40] Gender-blindness, while perhaps logical, may not be the best approach. The women are there. Now it is up to everyone to fight our history and make a dent in the lopsided and troublesome statistics of male domination in the workplace.


Hannah Koper is a 2017 graduate of Brown University, where she studied Applied Mathematics-Economics. Her passion for food and cooking comes from her upbringing in a large, close, and loving food-centric family in Santa Barbara, California. She was excited to explore this interest in food in an academic context during her senior year at Brown. She loves how the subject of food is ever-present throughout so many areas of our society and culture and serves as a vehicle to investigate and discuss important issues facing us today. She currently lives in San Francisco, working in data analytics.

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