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Top Chef's Recipe for Gender Bias

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Fans of Bravo's Top Chef know: the women keep losing.

Each season starts off with a roughly equal number of male and female contestants. All have been through the same rigorous selection process. Yet as the competition goes on, the women simply don't perform as well as the men. Or so it seems.

A closer look reveals that Bravo's Top Chef isn't meritocratic at all. It's strongly biased in favor of the men -- for three surprising reasons.

First, the judges are influenced by gender stereotypes, and not because they are sexist jerks. They aren't. They've stated that they would love for women to do better on the show, and I believe them. But unfortunately, egalitarian views and a desire to support women have nothing to do with bias. Research has shown that bias operates largely unconsciously, and it is based not on one's conscious ideas about a particular group, but on the stereotypes to which one has been exposed. People who work in the food world -- like the judges -- have been conditioned, over and over again, to think of culinary geniuses as male. Whether they like it or not, that will color their perception of the dishes, the very taste of the food in their mouths.

Does that seem like a stretch? Consider that, for years, symphony orchestras struggled to hire a critical mass of women. Women auditioned, but -- the hiring committees said -- their music just wasn't as good as was their male counterparts'. When hiring committees put up screens during auditions, so that a musician's gender couldn't be known, the likelihood of a woman's selection increased seven fold. Without the opportunity for bias to come into play, the music literally sounded different to the judges. If Top Chef wants to claim they hold a meritocratic competition, they need to taste dishes blindly.

Second, the female Top Chef contestants are themselves affected by the stereotypes evoked on the show. We've got Tom Colicchio at the helm -- a male star chef. He's accompanied by Padma Lakshmi, who, lovely person as she seems to be -- is largely in the role of "gorgeous host." Add to that that most of the famed guest judges are male superstar chefs, and that negative stereotypes of women are often evoked -- one episode featured a visit from scantily clad Vegas showgirls in the kitchen! All of these subtle cues say something about female identity and male identity; they send a message about women as objects and men as competent actors. Research shows that those kinds of subtle cues have a huge impact: student's performance on math tests, for example, is significantly worse if they've been exposed to negative stereotype of their group before the test. The cues on Top Chef impact how contestants view their own capabilities, which in turn affects how they perform.

Finally, the Top Chef competition is fundamentally a solo game. A few episodes ago, competitors were asked to serve dim sum to a large crowd of restaurant diners. Each contestant was responsible for one dish, but the group also needed to act as a coordinated team, with some members fulfilling functions for the group, like waiting tables and expediting orders. Who volunteered, reluctantly, to play the roles of waiting tables, making extra dishes, and helping out fellow contestants? Four women. Notably, the only man who helped with these functions was the one who couldn't be eliminated. Not surprisingly, all four women ended up on the bottom; they didn't give full attention to their dishes. Casey, arguably the strongest female left in the competition, was sent home.

From one view, it looks like these women made bad strategic choices. But a more nuanced view acknowledges that they did what women are socialized to do: care, be responsive to the group's needs, and look out for others. (Not bad skills, I imagine, to bring to a restaurant kitchen.) If no one had taken on these roles, no food would have been served at all.

Yet the judges didn't discuss -- or even acknowledge this -- in their evaluation. Yes, it's an individual competition, but is a competition meritocratic if the rules are set up so that, broadly speaking, women have to act against the way they've been socialized to act, while men succeed by doing the opposite?

If Bravo wants viewers to believe the Top Chef competition is fair, the producers need to look at what really creates meritocracy. The models of success presented to the contestants over the weeks of the challenges and the images of men and women evoked matter. And not tasting food blindly reflects the Bravo network's blindness to how discrimination most often happens -- unconsciously.

Tara Sophia Mohr is a writer and leadership coach to women. She writes the blog Wise Living.