International Women’s Day (IWD) is observed annually on March 8th to celebrate the achievements of women across social, political and economic spheres. It’s also an opportunity to highlight the challenges women continue to experience, and advocate for change. 

Gender Inequality in the Restaurant Industry

The past few years have exposed the world to how difficult being a part of the restaurant industry really is. For women – the struggle is two-fold, with the added weight of inequality, bias and harassment. 

Despite women making up half of the workforce in the foodservice and restaurant industry, gender inequality remains an ongoing challenge, as the foodservice industry continues to remain an example of ‘the higher the fewer’. Significantly, women occupy far fewer leadership roles in top positions within the industry. 

This trend is prominent with back-of-house positions, where only 6.3% of head chef positions at well-known American restaurant groups are women, and also at the C-suite level within larger franchises and foodservice companies – where only 1 in 5 foodservice industry executives are women – constituting only 20% representation at the c-suite level

The past decade has seen more and more women fulfill the leadership roles they deserve. While the progress is inspiring, only 30% of women in foodservice believe an executive job is attainable for them, according to Statistics Canada. 

In an industry that is infamous for aggressive management tactics and a ‘hard chef’ persona, women do not always receive the acknowledgement, career support or promotions to succeed as quickly. 

And notably, gender representation remains an issue in food media with less than 30% of women being included in press-related events, media, and awards programs. 

Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, says about gender disparities in the restaurant industry; “the challenges are deep and systemic so this isn’t a quick fix. Moving more women into leadership and ownership positions is going to take time”. 

Celebrating Women in Foodservice

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquity, a campaign which encourages us to reflect on how true inclusion requires equity. Equity is about acknowledging that not everyone starts with equal opportunities; rather each person has different circumstances, and therefore may need more resources and opportunities to attain an equitable outcome.

Although there is work to be done to increase the equality, equity and representation for women in foodservice, over the last few years there has been promising change.

Importantly, almost half of the students at the Culinary Institute of America identify as women, showing the growing amount of women interested in pursuing a culinary education, and there is an increasing number of women in high-level leadership positions globally

There is also a growing presence of organizations across North America that focus on providing resources, networks and career support for women in the industry, such RestaurantHER, The James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Program, and Canadian Women in Food.

And, the majority of last year’s recipients of Restaurant Canada Awards of Excellence were women, increasing representation for women in foodservice within the press. 

To celebrate IWD this year, we wanted to uplift voices of influential women in foodservice, to celebrate their achievements and contribute to the media representation of women within the restaurant industry.

So, we asked eight female restaurant and hospitality professionals who are in top leadership positions what advice they might give their younger selves. Here’s what they had to say.

What is something you would tell your younger self about how to face challenges relating to gender & equality within the hospitality industry?

Don’t change for the industry.

“Be yourself. Don’t change for the industry. Have conviction and believe in yourself. You will find a place doing what you love, the way you want to do it. I spent too many years with the “hard chef” persona trying to make it in the male-dominated industry, and I hated it. Once I got the courage to let that go, I really started loving what I do. Restaurants have evolved a lot in the last 20 years, A LOT. 

However, I get so few female applicants for Sous Chef and Head Chef roles, honestly 20/1. We need to support and nurture the women in our industry, there is still so much work to do.”

Jennifer Ruszczak 

Director of Culinary Operations at Banff Hospitality Collective

Play to win, don’t play not to lose.

“I take pride in being a woman executive and Pan-Asian leader and use my platform to help others see diversity in leadership and promote inclusivity in all its forms. For my younger self, I would tell her to play to win, don’t play not to lose. The former is about giving it your all and taking calculated risks along the way. The latter is an avoidance strategy that protects oneself from failure and negative feedback. Your self-confidence begins first with self-belief, always believe and bet on yourself. 

Leadership today should focus on people. We need to elevate the human side of leadership, connect with others, show empathy and compassion, be inclusive and resilient, and excel even in uncertainty. As leaders in hospitality, it’s important to be present with your team as they want you to care just as much about them as you do the four walls of the business.

Learning from the past we know that periods of downturn are followed by periods of prosperity and as an industry, we have lots to look forward to!”

Christine Cruz-Clarke

CEO at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters 

Be your authentic self.

“As much as we may have grown up with specific gender roles, in who we should be or try to emulate, it always works best and resonates most when you’re your authentic self. When we started out as entrepreneurs, we had a dream and kept working towards it. We maybe didn’t approach it with a traditional business sense- with an MBA, or financial and marketing analyses… rather we tuned into our intuitive and inherently female strengths and built our business with a lot of heart, openness, sisterhood (literally and figuratively), creativity and vision.

Having a strong female partner who listens, supports, knows and encourages you is so valuable, and is one of the cornerstones of our success. Women are great at holding each other up and working together towards a common goal. And 19 years later it’s so encouraging to see more leading female chefs, CEOs and designers. 

It’s so important to have women to look up to. Not just for our daughters but our sons too. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of real equality, however, we’re so grateful to be an active part of that change.”

Mandy & Rebecca Wolfe

Co-Founders and Co-Owners at Mandy’s

Don’t accept everything at face value.

“You definitely have to have tough skin in this industry! However, I would tell my younger self not to accept everything at face value. This industry is what you make it. Your job, pay and how people see you are all defined by your work ethic. Don’t be afraid to demand more or equal pay if you’re doing the work.

Know your value and stand by it. There are thousands of hospitality jobs out there, don’t stay at a job that doesn’t value or challenge you. This is how you grow in this industry. The opportunities are endless – be open to finding your niche and following that dream. Make yourself valuable because no one else will. This is your dream your career and your legacy!”

Chef Tawnya Brant

Chef/Owner of Yawékon 

Challenge the ‘norm’.

“Set high standards but realistic goals and expectations for yourself as well as the company you keep, and hold accountability for both. Speak up when something doesn’t feel right and challenge the ‘norm’.

Invest in self growth- whether it be mental, emotional, intellectual or professional. Normalize display of emotions as not a sign of weakness but of security and strength, a recognition of a state of mind.

Know your worth and stick with it – keep those who are genuinely supportive and let go of those who make you question your own values.”

Evelyn Chick

Founder of Evelyn Chick Projects Inc

Owner of Ahma & Simpl Things

You need to be your biggest champion.

“If I had the opportunity to speak to my younger self about how to face challenges relating to gender & equality within the hospitality industry, I’d likely say “Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself”. 

I spent the early years of my career expecting that my hard work and contributions would be noticed. And yet, I was passed over for promotion time and again. This didn’t change until I found myself some incredible mentors who taught me how to speak up and showcase my skills and talents in a way that would get the attention of the senior leadership team but didn’t feel boastful or went against my personal values. It is a skill that needs to be developed but simply sitting back and expecting that dream job to land in your lap is wishful thinking.

We need to be our biggest champions, not shy away from making our career aspirations known, and become comfortable negotiating the salary and benefits we deserve.”

Crystal Glassford

Chief Financial Controller at Aidan Hospitality

Focus on what value you bring, rather than what is against you. 

“You are always aware of the challenges, especially as a woman in a male-dominated  field. However, what I did and some of the best advice I’ve given my daughters who have now entered the industry is to focus on what value you can bring rather than what is against you.

You will always experience adversity and it is unfortunate that it exists but our energy is much better utilized when we focus on what we bring to the table and in part, this creates communities within the industry that will become a more welcoming environment for the future generations of women in hospitality.”

Renee Turner

Co-Founder of Turner Hospitality Group 

Seek out companies that support equal opportunity.

“I would tell my younger self to actively seek out hospitality companies to work for that have proven that they are supportive of equal opportunity. That has women in powerful positions who can act as mentors.  If those don’t exist within your current company, reach out to other women who work in a hospitality setting.

There is a strong community of passionate female industry leaders who will be more than happy to help guide you in your journey and follow in their footsteps.”

Jocelyne Green

General Manager, Play Food & Wine (Beckta Hospitality)

A note from the author 

Hospitality is where I began my professional career – I’ve been immersed in the industry since I was 18 years old. During that time, I was exposed to how important it is to work together to create new opportunities for one another, and to remain cognizant of the parts of the industry that definitely have room for improvement. Especially during this past year at notch, I’ve had the chance to be mentored and influenced by a number of female chefs and restauranteurs across the country – a handful of which were chosen for this piece. 

Thank you for sharing your advice and pioneering the importance of staying bonded as women in a male skewed environment. While us females are far and few between within hospitality leadership roles, it’s so exciting and refreshing to follow the success of both the newcomers and the veterans as the hospitality space evolves.    

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