HUFFPOST PERSONAL
01/31/2018 05:54 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2018

If We Want Things To Change For Women In The Kitchen, We Have To Change Our Culture

Chef Anita Lo has had to push against binary gender stereotypes in her life and in her job.
Courtesy of Anita Lo
Chef Anita Lo has had to push against binary gender stereotypes in her life and in her job.

In the wake of the profound conversations ― and the burgeoning reckoning ― the #MeToo movement has inspired in Hollywood over the last four months, women in other industries have begun to speak out about their own encounters with sexual harassment, sexual assault and inequality in their workplaces. Here, award-winning chef and author Anita Lo sounds off on gender roles, her mission to combat inequality in her own kitchen and what she believes is required to bring about real change in the restaurant industry.

A really important struggle is coming to light right now, and yet I am having a hard time finding my place in it. I’ve never been a “girlie girl.” Growing up, I was never gender conforming. I’ve always felt like I was “other” in general, even outside of the female category on some level as a gay woman on the butch side of the spectrum, so I possibly have a different perspective than others.   

But that hasn’t precluded me from being treated like a “girl” professionally. If you’re a woman, you’re often considered unequal from the start. Women of every age are constantly bombarded with images of their gender that puts them into little boxes. Women are supposed to be quiet. We’re supposed to be passive. Little girls are taught that they’re less than boys and that they’re meant to please and support men (see Disney princesses or professional football). If you’re watching TV, almost every cleaning ad still features a woman. When I point these things out, people get mad at me for being “too angry” or “too militant” but if we don’t dismantle the cultural system, we can’t have real change.

I don’t think the restaurant industry, or even kitchens themselves, are particularly masculine or feminine but, yes ― it’s hot in there and it’s a fast-paced, physically demanding job: the type of work traditionally relegated to men. Unfortunately, these social constructs have kept many women from deciding to join ― and eventually be successful in ― kitchens.

[I'm frustrated] by how much I’ve had to push against binary gender stereotypes in my life and in my job.

The restaurant world has long been a boys club and, as much as some of the bigger organizations in that world don’t want to admit it, it’s still a boys club. I realized this early on and quickly learned that to get the kind of respect naturally given to men in this field, I would have to work harder and put in more time in the kitchen than most men ever did. We’ve tried to organize as women in the industry and we are building women’s clubs to help confront this culture but it’s hard and I’m disappointed that it has to be so binary.

Even more frustrating is how much I’ve had to push against binary gender stereotypes in my life and in my job. At my restaurant, Annisa, I made sure the culture was different. Service, for instance, wasn’t gendered. For a very long time it was traditional to serve the women first and the men last or to give the man the wine list or the check. I always found these practices demeaning so I made sure to eliminate them when I opened Annisa. I also tried to create a respectful, team-oriented environment where anyone, regardless of their diverse identities, could feel free to speak up and be heard.

But very few of us have been taught to question what our role in society is or to question what every little thing we witness or experience has taught us about how we’re supposed to act as women — and as men. I’m not surprised by any of the recent accusations against men in kitchens. What’s more, this has been going on forever and we’ve been hushed about it. Almost no one sticks up for women in the kitchen, especially in the moment ― not men, who I think probably know better, but often not women either.

Too many women don’t speak up because they’re afraid of the repercussions. Of course it would be better if we all took a stand. If we aren’t alone then it’s much less likely that we’ll be ostracized. But if you’re the only woman in the kitchen and you’re rocking the boat? That’s a really lonely place to be. And I think it’s unfair to put the onus on that single woman in that kitchen. We need to put the onus on everybody — including the men in that kitchen — to speak up. Yes, there are some bad eggs out there but I’m pretty sure that not all men — not even the majority of men — are bad, and it’s time we prove that.

If you’re the only woman in the kitchen and you’re rocking the boat? That’s a really lonely place to be.

But in a country where over 50 percent of white women voted for President Donald Trump after he had bragged about sexual assault, I don’t even know what to think anymore. Even in my own industry, I was shocked and angry when the James Beard Foundation honored Julian Niccolini not long after he was all over the news for assaulting his female server. The foundation is a powerhouse. It’s revered. How does that make that server, or any of the huge percentage of women who have been sexually assaulted, feel? I was a nominee that year and felt afraid, and my small business needed all the help it could get, so I kept silent then. 

I can’t stay silent any longer. The James Beard Foundation says it is looking at the awards process, but as yet has only passed the responsibility on to its voters by asking them not to vote for people “you have concerns about…” I urge it to take a stronger stance and revoke those awards.

I know what it’s like to be called “angry” and “militant” but we have to constantly be vigilant and say something whenever things arise that are wrong, and when we see things that have helped to create this culture, even something as simple as a server being trained to always give the check to the man. That is difficult. It is a constant personal struggle, and it can be exhausting. But for anything to really change, we have to change ourselves, we have to find new ways to think about our roles, and we must teach our kids — our girls and our boys — to do it too.

(As told to HuffPost’s Noah Michelson)

Anita Lo’s second book, SoLo: Easy, Sophisticated Recipes for a Party of One, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Knopf. For more from Lo, visit her official Twitter account.

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