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Women in Food: how Compass is driving equality in the chef workforce

24 February 2017 by
Women in Food: how Compass is driving equality in the chef workforce

Compass has a stated aim: for 50% of its chef workforce to be women by 2020. So the foodservice giant's Women in Food event asked how to champion female chefs and attract more into the industry. Rosalind Mullen went along to the Wellcome Trust in London to listen in on the debate

Compass's target is to ensure that women form 50% of its chef workforce by 2020. The company isn't too far off: women already make up 35% of its workforce - 1,537 out of 4,393 chefs - which exceeds the industry average.

HR food director Fiona Ryland and Matt Gillison, chief procurement officer at Compass arm Foodbuy, reminded the audience that the Women in Food programme was launched last year to tackle the industry's shortfall in female chefs. It does this by supporting female talent from apprenticeship to senior leadership level through development and training. Furthermore, it will help women to build "courage and credibility to best shape their careers".

Ryland said: "We are a people-powered business and we work hard to provide the right support to our colleagues. Through the Women in Food initiative, we hope to maintain and further encourage a fair and inclusive workforce for our female chefs."

Hosting the panel discussion on the challenges was Jeremy Ford, executive chef at Compass's fine-dining arm Restaurant Associates. He took to the stage to interview three high-profile female chefs who run successful businesses: Rosie Dickinson, owner of the Healthy Juice Company; Claire Clark, award-winning pastry chef and owner of pÁ¢tisserie catering service Pretty Sweet; and Dipna Anand, Indian cookery course instructor and co-owner of Brilliant restaurant in Southall.

Ford said that Compass had researched why there were not enough female chefs: "There was strong evidence that it wasn't easy for women to return after maternity leave - either because of the chef culture or because employers are not making it easy enough for them by being flexible."

His first question, therefore, was angled at whether the three panel members had experienced these issues or had witnessed others who had experienced them.

Anand said she comes from an Asian culture where it is not easy for women returners but it is becoming more accepted. "We have eight chefs and one is a woman, working on the tandoor - the hardest section," she said. "In my restaurant, if a women who was a parent came for a job, we would offer a package - I think more businesses have to do that."

Compass Women in Food
Compass Women in Food
Clark agreed, adding that some employers were more accommodating than others. "Women returners want flexible hours for school pick-ups," she explained. "And they can't do evenings because of babysitting problems. But don't forget that those people are skilled. Just because they want flexible hours it shouldn't mean they are not in your team."

Citing a part-time female breakfast chef in her employ, she said: "She was reliable, honest, like clockwork. We should embrace [women who need flexible hours] and not be afraid to take them on. They often have more experience than younger people. They have already been in the workplace and so you have a mature worker you can rely on."

Dickinson agreed: "People who have had children are stronger because they have had to juggle responsibilities." She pointed out that employers across other industries have embraced the needs of women workers, for example, companies such as Google that offer wellness weeks and crèches. "Crèches might be key," she added. "And job shares."

Blokeish banter

The second issue raised by Ford was the fact that kitchens have a reputation for being male-dominated and "slightly" chauvinistic. "Is the culture and banter still off-putting?" he asked.

"In the Indian restaurant sector that still does happen," conceded Anand. "We are happy to employ female chefs, but they see that there are seven males and just one female and that can be intimidating. But I would like to think it is changing."

Clark had noticed a change in her world, but said that there inevitably tends to be a higher ratio of male to female chefs and that this is bound to create a different environment. However, she pointed out that the atmosphere is less sexist nowadays, thanks mainly to enlightened HR resources.

"In 1980, if someone slapped me on the bum in the kitchen, it was seen as acceptable and I would be expected to 'deal with it'. Now, it wouldn't be and something would be done. Now you know you will be listened to."

Dickinson's experience was similar. "Last century it was horrendous - you would be laughed at if you complained. But I have run my own company for 20 years and some banter is harmless and fun. You need a laugh a day."

This prompted Ford to suggest that many kitchens are more female-friendly because there are stronger role models now "Angela Hartnett, Monica Galetti - tons of people". All three agreed that the growth of high- profile female chefs helps. "It's great there are so many role models now and it does encourage girls into the industry," said Dickinson.

"It's about time," chipped in Clark. "Before, people were scared to put professional female chefs on TV, and if they were, they had to be domesticated, like Delia Smith."

Anand agreed, explaining that she was trying to spread the word through social media. "When I started out six or seven years ago there were only three [female] Indian chefs. Now, 15 to 20 chefs follow me. I am inspiring females to come into this industry."

She agreed with her co-panellists (see panel) that more could be done in schools and colleges to teach girls about the potential of a career in cooking. "When I teach, 30 pupils come to do training at the restaurant and, by the end of the day, they all want to be a chef."

All three women run their own businesses, and admitted that they did have to deal with - often risible - chauvinism. Clark said: "People respond differently to a female director. They walk into a production unit and go to the tallest man. And in a business meeting, men sometimes won't look at you directly - particularly if you are a five-foot-two woman."

Dickinson added: "I read about one female head chef who said that when a customer wants to say thank you for a meal they will often thank her sous chef, who is male."

Anand was fortunate as her father started Brilliant 40 years ago and she and her brother, Shanker, now help to run it. "I never felt my dad was encouraging me less," she said.

Back to school

The panel urged employers to do more to inspire schoolchildren. As well as sending chefs out to talk in schools, they suggested inviting pupils into their kitchens to see them in action and offering cookery courses to kids, which would also give many the chance to experience well-cooked, nutritious food.

They called for the industry to raise its profile as a rewarding, structured career.

"It goes back to school. Educating young ones and making this industry something they can be proud to be part of," said Rosie Dickinson.

Girls v boys in the kitchen

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 21,000 more professional chefs in the UK in 2016 than in 2015, a total of 250,000. But only 46,000 (18.5%) were women, down from 20.5% the previous year.

Compass Women in Food
Compass Women in Food

Girl power

The three speakers each shared one snippet of advice on how to be a successful female chef.

Dipna Anand Don't listen to anyone else; listen to yourself. Stay focused; stay determined. Be positive. Negative energy can do damage. There were people in my family who were saying 'be a chef, or be a doctor'. I experienced issues, but I saw them as challenges. Be positive. And use social media to your advantage, because you can get anywhere and everywhere on it. Post every dish you cook on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

Claire Clark Believe in yourself. You will have to try harder as a woman. It is still an issue, but don't give up. If things seem insurmountable, just believe you can do it. Leave it behind and go on to the next day. Be strong.

Rosie Dickinson Stay positive. You can do anything you choose. If you are unsure about how to get there [remember that], there is so much help now. Follow your gut feeling and go for it.

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