Sisterhood Blog

How Sexism Keeps Women Out of the Kitchen

By Elana Sztokman

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One of the wonderful things about living in Israel is that Jewish holidays are all-encompassing. Around Rosh Hashanah, for example, every commercial — whether for outdoor furniture or dishwashing liquid — somehow includes apples and honey. Around Hanukkah, public displays of light and candles on every street compete with the smell of sufganiyot. Around Passover, seder preparations dominate the news, along with stories from every imaginable angle on the topic of freedom and exodus.

I got that same little thrill when I opened the newspaper this week to find a 48-page glossy cookbook in honor of Shavuot. The beautiful full-color catalog, sponsored by the Gad cheese company, had Israeli chefs sharing their favorite kosher-dairy recipes along with stories of how they celebrate Shavuot. Canneloni, haloumi salad, crispy mozzarella balls, and chocolate cheesecake are interspersed with tales of kibbutz harvest, cheese cakes from Eilat, and grandma’s bourekas. The book can make a person’s mouth water and heart melt.

Yet, as I flipped through these pages, I could not help but notice the absence of women.

Of the 25 featured chefs, only four are women — and one appears alongside a man. Ironically, many of the chefs mention their mothers’ and grandmothers’ traditional cooking. But of course, none of the mothers and grandmothers was featured in a chef’s special, and I’m guessing none got paid for cooking either.

Economic gender disparities are always disturbing, yet there is something particularly jarring about the disparity in the cooking industry.

Cooking! Women’s supposedly natural desire to be in the kitchen has been used to justify all kinds of practices, from reproductive rights policies to women’s exemption from time-bound commandments. Yet, when push comes to shove, and it is time to be recognized for one’s skill, suddenly men are considered the “best” cooks. As if being a professional chef is when cooking gets serious, and therefore when men step in and women are expected to step aside.

Amanda Cohen, executive chef and blogger at “Dirt Candy” commented, tongue-in-cheek, on this phenomenon in response to the current buzz over the James Beard Awards:

Women can’t cook. I thought they could, but after this year’s James Beard awards, I realize: nope. 24 people received awards this year, and three of them were women…Last year, three women got James Beard Awards … In 2008, 5 women got James Beard Awards out of 24 winners… In 2007, four women got James Beard awards (two were shared), and they couldn’t even hold onto pastry…In four years, 93 James Beard Awards have been given out, and 15 of them have gone to women. And it’s not just the James Beard Awards. Food & Wine recognizes 10 of the best chefs in America every year. Since 2000, they’ve celebrated 110 of them and only 15 women have been good enough to make the cut.

This is astounding, really. The situation for women is actually getting worse. Helen Rosner over at Grub Street, analyzed this hidden sexism in the cooking industry:

There’s the “women cook to nurture, men cook to win” line; the insistence that a cooks’ hard-living lifestyle doesn’t jive with the family oriented preferences of the weaker sex; and our favorite, the frankly ridiculous notion that girls just don’t like to play with fire and knives as much as boys do….But of course, women can play with fire, and they do it brilliantly. Chefs like Cohen — not to mention folks like April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, or brand-new Beard Award winner Koren Grieveson — poke all kinds of holes in these theories; they’re as talented, badass, nuanced, tireless, and innovative as any men cooking today. And yet Cohen and Hamilton, who work independently, are largely missing from the breathless media coverage of all things food-related…The more a chef is written about, the more likely he is to win awards, and vice versa — so being excluded from the media-awards continuum hits female chefs coming and going….Hype seems to be the key here, not talent: Women just don’t seem to come by it as easily as men do.

Annie Wang at Salon added some insights to this dynamic:

Volatile chefs and chefs with temper tantrums seem to make a lot of appearances in food sites just because it garners so much attention. Interestingly, I feel like if a female chef did something similar it would automatically be attributed to PMS or that she’s simply “a bitch.” The double standards are immense but it’s not even just in the restaurant industry because you see it almost everywhere… So, what would female chefs have to do to get a little bit of attention?

Part of the answer to this is just in asking the question, talking and blogging about these dynamics. Other useful ideas are in a book recommended to me by Sisterhood contributor Joanna Samuels at Advancing Women Professionals, entitled “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. She says it’s a “must read” for women professionals. After reading it, I totally agree. So all of you out there, go read the book and then we’ll talk more — about how we can make real changes.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Shavuot, Sexism, Kitchen, Cooking, Chefs

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