It doesn't seem exactly fair that Gabrielle Hamilton gets to be a hugely successful chef, the proprietor of Prune, which I am going to go ahead and call one of the most charming restaurants in the Western Hemisphere, and be such a fine writer.
You read in "Blood, Bones & Butter" how hard she worked, personally and professionally, to get to where she is, and even if you are the jealous type, you begrudge her less. Then you read chapter 16, and, if you are a woman, or this woman at least, you just want to thank her.
At some point when her two children were still in diapers, Hamilton was asked to be on a panel at the Culinary Institute of America, titled "Where Are the Women?" It's the same panel hosted in virtually every industry where more than half of the top jobs are held by men. At the SXSW Interactive conference last weekend, there were at least two of these sessions focused on women in technology. The speakers were smart, articulate, accomplished, and as a quick scan of websites and blogs geared to professional women reveals, their concerns are on the minds of women like them and women who want to be like them.
A lot of the same themes come up as Hamilton contemplates her own discussion panel, and are also echoed in this chapter.
Remembering how she agonized over whether to don the chef's coat all of the panelists are encouraged to wear -- did it say that she was owning her success, or that she was trying too hard? -- Hamilton thinks, "Would a guy have gone through this kind of soul-searching [about what to wear]? I think he would have just worn the coat." She writes, "I simultaneously sour and cringe to be called one of New York City's top female chefs," a sentiment I heard discussed at a dinner last weekend about women in all fields.
But Hamilton also articulates precisely why these conversations often feel so uncomfortable, and ever-so slightly off.
She recalls, "I couldn't imagine that we were still having this draining, polarizing conversation about where the women are in the industry... Surely this stuff is over, I thought... This topic's a dinosaur."
If we're just talking numbers, it's not: a survey conducted by the American Culinary Foundation found that female executive chefs make $18,000 less annually than their male counterparts, and Maclean's reported in late 2011 that women hold only 10 percent of executive chef positions in the U.S.
Across professions, the numbers aren't much better. A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to increase employment opportunities for women, found that in 2011 women held 16.1 percent of corporate board seats (women of color held only 3 percent), 14.1 percent of executive officer positions, and 7.5 percent of executive top-earner positions.
And yet these "Where are the women?" conversations often do seem tired, probably because we know where the women are, in almost any field. Lots of them choose to take time off to have kids and so lag behind men in terms of earnings and promotions. Lots of women are there the whole time, working at mid-level jobs while raising a family, but get passed over for higher positions. Many women are unwilling to work the long hours required to advance in some companies and so take less prestigious career tracks. (This happens in the culinary world, too, Hamilton notes: "Women have self-selected out of the chef life, which can grind you to a powder, and have become happily married recipe testers and magazine editors.")
Another problem is the sense that in having this conversation, you are highlighting the differences between men and women, as though women need a special space to talk about their special problems. And there is no guarantee that any group of women has all that much in common. She writes that women are "an impossible group to have to represent and presumably, speak on behalf of," and that:
"Identity politics never ends up going the distance for me... Every time I think I can rely on a group or a category... Ruth Reichl frosts me at an even, for the seventh time, or the women on my panel say ridiculous things about women's superiority or the lesbians go out and start voting Republican -- and the whole thing caves in for me, and I start to mistrust my own kind."
And then there's the feeling I get at those things where the conversation feels a little too privileged and removed from the daily challenges of a career. Discussion of lining up one's mentors and sponsors and champions almost never focuses on the work itself. What if, every day, your job itself tests your skills to the point that you don't have much time to think about where you are in the pecking order?
Hamilton addresses this, too, suggesting that the women at the top sometimes forget during these conversations how long it took just to master their craft.
One of the panelists in her sixties talks about the joy of working with local farmers, and Hamilton reflects,
"as if these young cooks were about to enter jobs that would put them anywhere near to the sourcing of the restaurants ingredients. I was thinking about the pleasure, the sheer pleasure of killing the line on a busy night... Why didn't a single one of us mention cooking? Why didn't we say, if you want your cooking career to be recognized, be a great cook!"
Hamilton's stance on the 'women's panel' as an institution is nearly heretical -- aren't we supposed to feel that fellow women are our kind, that conversations about how we can help each other rise in traditionally male fields are essential? She's also proof that we should always hear out our more eloquent heretics. Given her personality -- she embodies self-reliance almost to a fault -- Hamilton is in a unique position not to need these conversations so much, but her critique suggests a better format for those conversations -- to have women who excel at their jobs talk about their triumphs at their craft. Not at negotiating or strategizing or networking but the actual core tasks they set out to master.
Hamilton doesn't share any of this with the women in the audience -- she's too disappointed to speak. But she names for all of us, finally, the conversation missing from these panels, the thing that is assumed and shouldn't be: If you do the work and master the work and with any luck invest real passion in the work, if you focus on expertise, you'll be okay.
And you'll find there's nothing sweeter.