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Morra Aarons-Mele Headshot

Where Are the Women in White?

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Wednesday, at the award winning Rialto restaurant in Cambridge, MA, I have the pleasure of speaking on a panel concerning women, media, and the food industry. In particular, we'll be talking about why women chefs are missing from the picture in a time when food and cooking is so immensely popular.

I'm no professional foodie, but I've been struck by the current "bro" culture of elite cooking, the intense fraternity of it all. Where are the women in white?

Even a casual observer of food culture can see the problem. Some of you may remember the outrage sparked by Time's "13 Gods of Food" that failed to include any female chefs (though it did include a small handful of women connected in some way to the food industry), perpetuating an image of the top echelons of the restaurant world as an exclusive boys' club.

As Louisa Kasdon, a former food writer for the Boston Phoenix and Stuff Magazine, explained in a recent Cognoscenti piece about female chefs and the reasons they receive less media attention than their male counterparts:

When you interview women, many will talk about their amazing teams and their inspiring mentors. Male chefs talk more about themselves. For a writer, this is helpful.

This is a familiar sentiment for women in the business world, as well. Women are much less likely than men to give themselves credit for a job well-done or to rate their successes as highly as men. And while Kadson may say this can make things more difficult for writers covering female chefs, she goes on to say that any diligent writer can overcome that hurdle quite easily.

But apart from media perception, or misperception, of female chefs, there is also the question of why there aren't more women working in kitchens. After all, cooking has been lumped into the women's domestic sphere for centuries. Perhaps it's the hypermasculinity that many male chefs and their kitchens are perceived to possess (see Gordon Ramsey and his Fox reality cooking show, Hell's Kitchen). Or, perhaps, it's the grueling, non-traditional hours that keep chefs from seeing their families, the lack of benefits like health insurance and maternity leave in many restaurants, and the relatively low pay. Just like in other companies and industries with high turnover, this hurts businesses and costs a lot of money. Certainly the food industry would be better-served by figuring out a way to maintain happy, healthy employees who stick with jobs they love.

But, as the New York Times explains, these things are changing, at least in some restaurant companies. Within these restaurant companies where good pay and benefits are the norm, nearly half of kitchens' staff members are women. In many of the top culinary schools, women are now graduating at nearly the same rate as men. And yet, women still are not being recognized for their work and accomplishments; they simply aren't in the picture.

Amanda Cohen, of Dirt Candy in New York, gives a scathing explanation for why women chefs don't receive the recognition they deserve and the negative impact it's had on women in the industry.

Restaurants engage in a lot of strategies to attract the press. They host special dinners, they hire expensive publicists, they lobby to be invited to the "right" industry events where they can meet journalists. Getting into that world takes a big commitment of time and money, and because female chefs get less coverage, they attract fewer investors, and they may not have the resources to gain entry.

It's a vicious cycle that precludes talented women chefs from getting the coverage they deserve.

While continuing systemic change in the food industry is an important goal, as it is for women in all career paths facing entrenched sexism in the workplace, it is not an immediate solution. For better or worse, women can and should take advantage of digital tools easily available to them in an effort to change public perception of female chefs and to get ahead on their own terms.

The social web is a matriarchy, with women dominating nearly every major social network -- especially those like Pinterest and Tumblr that best showcase image-centric media. And ever-popular food porn is perfectly suited to the image-heavy social medium of Instagram -- there are nearly 23 million images on the site tagged with "#foodporn" right now. While we may joke about people who post pictures of their lunch, they wouldn't be doing it if they weren't also getting positive feedback. For female chefs, social media is just one more implement in their marketing toolbox that many are, and more could be using. To ignore the power of visual social mediums is to give up an avenue of engagement and public relations that can be critical to any brand or organization's success.

While some of our second wave feminist mothers may lament that Generation X and Millennial women love pinning pictures of their dream kitchens on Pinterest, proudly Instagramming the dinner they made, or sharing favorite recipes on Facebook, we live in a world in which women can choose how they engage with domesticity and the ways in which they show it to the world. I think this has played a large part in how women engage with food and the ways in which we forge connections to professionals in the culinary world. We can be culinary goddesses and bad-ass breadwinners.

I can't say that social media is going to solve very real, very deep-seated problems of sexism in the workplace or erasure of women chefs by the media. But in the meantime, I invite women in the industry- and their fans- to think creatively about the myriad of social tools at their disposal and how they can make themselves visible and begin breaking the cycle of invisibility on their own terms.

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