Insensitive comment during competition illustrates gender inequality persists in culinary arts.
By Amanda N. Miller, CC, CPC
I feel compelled to write about a recent incident that happened to one of my female students. Issues relating to gender continue to be an important topic within our industry and are especially timely as we just celebrated Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day.
Female inequality in the culinary industry is an important topic to me, not only because I am female but because I am a culinary educator who works hard to build confidence in my female students. This industry is often brutal and can be significantly more challenging for females. I learned from my Army career that in a male-dominated industry I had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to get noticed for anything. This work ethic has translated into the culinary industry as a civilian. I am familiar with the territory.
However, does that make it acceptable that females must work so hard just to get noticed by their male counterparts? Or even worse, to have their work undermined by misogynist behavior? The answer to both of these questions is obviously no, and yet the evidence of such problematic behaviors continues to be persistently pervasive in the field.
Trigger warning: this may make the reader as angry as it made me. I will set the incident’s stage. It has been a year since COVID-19 shut down the world. We were excited to have the opportunity of going back in-person into the culinary lab classroom following strict safety protocols and even more excited to compete in culinary competitions once again. My student put herself out there and made herself vulnerable to be judged by industry strangers and professionals. She spent weeks preparing and practicing for the competition, getting better and more confident each time she practiced.
She was nervous when it was time to compete. But she practiced so much that she went through the competition like a well-oiled machine. After completing her competition run a male in the room complimented her on her cake decorating skills stating that he couldn’t do that. Then he followed that up with the comment: “You are going to make a great wife someday.”
Comments like this one are incredibly inappropriate to say to any female and especially a student. While some might think he was just trying to give her a compliment or it comes with the territory, it is this kind of language that has sparked this gender equality conversation.
I was enraged when my student told me what happened to her. I was also saddened because I knew it would not be the last time a male in this industry would say something gender-based to her that could take the wind out of her sails.
Unfortunately, I was not in the room to immediately correct him and remind him why this was inappropriate. There was also nothing she could do in the moment because she was being judged at a competition. My young female student was in an unfamiliar kitchen, with no familiar face in the room with her, and she did not know if he had any bearing on the outcome of her competition score.
She forced a smile and moved past the comment. The code of professionalism – the same one that many males in our industry are proud to uphold - failed my student in that instant. The repercussions on her self-esteem, confidence, and desire to compete again or even continue to pursue this industry could have been irreparably damaged. In addition, she could deter others from competing in the future by describing her experience to fellow students. All it takes is one student’s negative experience about a negative comment to deter other female students from competing. Something my student spent so much time working toward was degraded in an instant because of a man’s ignorant comment. I am saddened by the high probability that this will not be the last time she will experience something like this in the industry.
The idea of gender in the culinary arts is incredibly skewed. Why is it “a woman’s place is in the kitchen at home” but in the professional kitchen the balance between genders is still wildly unequal? More than 50 percent of culinary arts and baking & pastry arts students are female. I see a change on the horizon, but there is still more work to be done. It will still be an uphill battle for gender equality, but many strong female culinarians are up to the task.
Fortunately, my young female student was able to brush-off the comment with support from her fellow female and male classmates. She had faith her coaches/instructors/mentors would not let the comment slide. I am fortunate to work with, look up to, and interact with many male professionals in this industry. My fellow male coach/instructor took care of the situation in a consummately professional manner before I could.
In the end, my student went on to win a gold medal in her category and is already practicing for the next competition. She will no doubt make an impact wherever she goes and is a force to be reckoned with. These are the female culinary professionals you want in the kitchen with you. She is fierce, strong, confident, able, and deserves every ounce of your respect.
Amanda N. Miller, CC, CPC, is a culinary arts/baking & pastry arts Instructor at the Culinary Institute of Michigan – Muskegon, which is a Division of Baker College. She is also the winner of the 2020 Postsecondary of the Year award sponsored by CAFÉ and the Sysco Corporation.