Recently, I asked one of my partners, a big, strong father of three, what he had done over the weekend. He explained that while his wife was out one rainy afternoon, he and the kids baked blueberry crumble, then assembled a confection known as an "ice box cake" and also tried a new multi-step red quinoa salad recipe. When I asked Thad why we've never sampled his creations, he sheepishly mumbled that they weren't really that good and that he didn't want to ride the subway carrying a pink Tupperware container. Why not, I wondered?
In this era of celebrity chefs, foodies and foodists, reality TV cook-offs and locavore restaurants, why is it that virtually no men, and almost no professional women, would dare bake or cook anything for their colleagues? Are we still subject to the stigma, well illustrated by Hillary Clinton's much-publicized comment during her husband's 1992 campaign, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies" instead of pursuing a legal career, that domestic-based endeavors and a profession were mutually exclusive? Twenty years later, this view was supported by the majority of experts in an essay on Forbes.com, who agreed that baking "can do serious damage to your reputation and gravitas."
While my career has evolved through the era of women being intensely aware of, and concerned with, projecting an overly feminine office image, I do cook brisket twice a year, and can sense my colleagues salivating in anticipation days in advance. Or maybe that's just my imagination. So, I decided to survey men and women of different ages at businesses, law firms, and other enterprises to find out whether they or others ever baked or cooked for their workmates, and if they felt there was a stigma in doing so.
The results surprised me. I started with women and men who had at least 20 years of professional experience, some very accomplished cooks. They universally reported, with one exception, that they had never brought any self-cooked item to the office and the only people who did were support staff women who were seen as "motherly" or nurturing" and occasionally a man who brought something in that his wife baked. Angelique, a senior women at a financial services firm, who regularly comes in first in her age group in triathlons, said that "over a long career, I have never been comfortable making something for the office. I believe it would diminish me in the eyes of my colleagues." Most other women executives echoed this view.
Most men over 40 had a slightly different take on the topic. Jason, a mutual fund manager, described the payoff as asymmetric: a lot to lose with bad cooking and not much to gain with good. Only Joff, the owner of a furniture manufacturing company, had treated his office to his "killer pear tart," obviously confident in its charm and his executive standing. No man said they would think less of either women or men as professionals if they shared their cooking or baking. Repeatedly, the only concern they expressed was about quality. As Nat, a partner at a major Boston law firm, succinctly put it, "If the food isn't good, you bet there's a stigma."
A case began to emerge that some women, conditioned by past decades of gender bias, might be overly worried about a display of culinary skills, which younger generations saw as a positive example of competence. As Nina, a top executive at an international services company said, "I would think it's really cool, if someone had the skill and guts to bake something to share." Hobbies, whether mountain climbing, fly fishing, or marathon running, tend to generate respect; why not cooking?
The youngest among the twenty five responders were generally surprised by the stigma concept. Darrin, one of my colleagues, is highly respected for her incredible French macaroons. According to her, if a male co-worker cooked something tasty for us, it would "show he's talented as well as brave." One young male trader suggested any quality baked item deserves some kind of award. He ties fishing flies for friends and colleagues, which he sees as similar in that "once you make something by hand, it's an expression of yourself, and you're in a vulnerable position if it fails to impress."
Maybe it's because I'm a CEO, and have the luxury of not worrying as much about my professional status, but I believe that if you only share the food you're proud of, don't beg for compliments, and pay attention to whether people seem to enjoy your offerings, bringing home-made food to work is unlikely to make you seem unprofessional -- whether you're a man or a woman.
Sharing food as a group is often a great way to reduce barriers and bond as a team. In fact, research has shown that sharing a meal while you negotiate actually increases the value of the final deal. So let's replace the stigma about homemade food being too "domestic" with respect for a wider skillset, a show of self-confidence, and the courage to be judged.
Now, who wants brisket?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Review