Compass Group UK & Ireland has pledged to have women account for 50% of its chef workforce by 2020, to help tackle the industry's female chef shortage.
The company made the commitment at the launch of its ‘Women in Food' programme at an event attended by around 150 people in London yesterday (19 April).
Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed female chefs are becoming increasingly scarce in professional kitchens. Fewer than one in five chefs in the UK (18.5%) is a woman.
Compass fares better with a 35% female chef workforce but admits there is still a way to go to redress the balance. The company currently employs 4,393 chefs, of which 1,537 are female.
Guest speakers at the event included female chefs Emily Roux, Prue Leith and Sabrina Ghayour. They discussed some of the reasons why the industry is failing to appeal to women, including inflexible and long working hours within the traditional restaurant sector.
Roux said: "My mum wasn't too keen for me to pursue a career in catering and expressed concern that I would have no life. But I was all for it.
"It's not an easy career for anyone - men or women. There needs to be more communication within the kitchen and people need to be able to say they need a day off or they are tired."
She added: "The industry needs to tackle the split shifts and hours. Sometimes you get pushed to the edge but you have to be strong-minded as that's what gets you through it. Once you have proven you deserve to be there, you get the respect."
Leith said: "There is an issue that the public do not see chefs as top chefs unless they have Michelin stars. But until men are prepared to stay at home and look after the children you won't see many female Michelin chefs.
"It's about an attitude change as well as a structural change. I've been saying the same thing for 45 years but it is getting better."
Ghayour added: "What we do simply boils down to putting a plate of food in front of someone. But we need to remember the plate should not be put above our people within the industry."
Compass will be investing in learning and development for existing female chefs and new recruits.
A Women in Food Board has been set up to roll out the programme and monitor its output. Members include Fiona Ryland, HR director for Compass; Matt Gillison, chief procurement officer at Foodbuy; Melanie Hayes, resourcing and development director and Jeremy Ford, culinary director, Restaurant Associates.
Dennis Hogan, managing director for Compass Group UK & Ireland, said: "We are delighted to have launched a scheme that is actively looking to support female chefs with the right opportunities, development and training.
"We have worked hard to establish the reasons that are discouraging women from becoming chefs or continuing their chef career and hope that by recognising and understanding the issues, we are now able to break down these barriers."
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