My sister is a restaurant owner and head chef, which is not only impressive because it is impressive (she opened her restaurant before turning 30) but also because she’s a female in a male-dominated industry. According to data, women only make up around 21 percent of head chefs, with men making up over 78 percent of this professional demographic. The restaurant is an interesting working environment for many reasons, and one of those is that it can be a traditionally gruff place, where the employees don’t exactly act like “employees,” the language is far from professional, and the pace of work is frantic. Walk into any commercial kitchen and it always feels like there’s a fire—figuratively in addition to literally. It takes some bold and brave types to not just work in a kitchen but to be the head chef. And it takes especially bold women. Here are the real struggles of being a female chef in this male-dominated industry.
It can be a toxic masculinity environment
This is completely speculative but it is something I’ve gathered from working in plenty of restaurants, and from gathering stories from women who work in kitchens: restaurant kitchens tend to attract some toxic masculinity. They tend to attract men who, quite ironically, have a “women belong in the kitchen” mentality but, like, the home kitchen.
And the staff struggles with a female authority figure
With the toxic male energy in mind here, it can be hard for many kitchen staff members to have a female boss. Perhaps in their own home, they are very much the bosses of their wives and female domestic partners, so having a woman tell them what to do at work can feel foreign.
They try to get away with things
My sister’s staff often tries to get away with things like, smudging their hours, drinking on the job, and just generally doing things they shouldn’t be doing while at work. When her male business partner is around, she sees a surprising decline in this behavior.
Getting respect means being extra firm
In order for her to have respect and obedience from her staff, she has to be extra firm. Her male business partner can say, in a pretty even voice, “Do this” or “Do that” and it just happens. If she uses a measured voice, things don’t get done. Only once she gets angry does she see results.
And being firm means being called a b*tch
And, of course, she hears her staff mumbling under their breath about her being a b*tich or something like that when she does get provoked to anger. It’s infuriating since the staff provoked her. If they just did what they were asked the first (and second and third time), they wouldn’t have to see that side of my sister.
The staff brings their personal life to work
People tend to believe that female bosses will be more accepting of employees bringing their personal life to work. My sister often has employees who are grumpy or broody, later to confess they’re going through a breakup or fighting with their kid. That’s not really their boss’ problem, and shouldn’t affect their work. But they expect a female to let it slide.
And expect you to be their therapist
Male staff can often even expect their female boss to help them with their personal issues, as if she’s a therapist. Just because a woman may have nurturing tendencies doesn’t mean she should have to mother her employees.
Meanwhile, you can’t be emotional
While my sister’s staff treats the work place like an emotional sharing circle, she isn’t allowed to show emotion. She isn’t allowed to be sad or bring her personal life to work because then it’s said that she’s just “being a woman.”
The casual environment leads to confusion
A kitchen is an interesting work place in that, in its essence, it’s casual. There are not spread sheets or power point presentations. Everyone is wearing sneakers or clogs and dirty aprons. Conversations are rushed and gruff. This can lead to employees thinking their boss is their friend.
Even female staff sees you as a friend
It’s not just the male staff who are to blame. The female staff of a restaurant can also feel that their female boss is their friend. This is especially true for my sister, who is so young that she’s nearly the same age as most of her staff. She also went from being an employee with some of those same staff (at a previous job) to being an employer of them, which adds another level of complexity.
They expect you to give more time off
There’s this assumption that, because women value a work-life balance, that female bosses will allow for more time off for things like family vacations, reunions, and graduations. My sister is surprised by how many requests she gets for time off for things like these.
Inappropriate favors are asked
Favors like, “I don’t have a babysitter today—can my kid hang out at the restaurant while I work?” or “My cousin needs work—can he just have one of my shifts?” The staff seems to assume that female empathy will come into play and my sister will just say, “Yes.”
Customers never assume you’re the head chef
As for the customers, they always ask my sister to “speak to the owner.” It never occurs to them that she could be the owner. Even though she’s literally the only one not wearing the same t-shirt as the rest of the staff and even though she’s clearly been giving orders to the employees.
You can’t complain of cuts and burns
If she shows the tiniest response to a kitchen injury, she can be teased for being an overly sensitive woman.
But staff stays home over a headache
And while my sister has to play it cool if she gets a burn in the kitchen, her male staff will call in, crying like babies of headaches and stomach aches, asking to take the day off.