The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Women In The Kitchen: The Numbers Only Matter If There is Something Behind Them

By Melissa McEwen in Food on May 6, 2014 7:15PM

Last night’s James Beard Awards ended up going to an uncommonly high number of female chefs. Among the winners were: April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig in NYC; Naomi Pomeroy of Beast in Portland; Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s in New Orleans; Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh; Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza in L.A.; and Barbara Lynch, who runs several restaurants in Boston. Some noticed it was almost like the flipside of the now infamous Time magazine “Gods of Food,” which featured zero female chefs. It’s a victory for fairness and equality, right?

Not so fast: what do these numbers really mean? Focusing on lists and awards, most of which are highly arbitrary, often shifts the attention from real issues. The lack of chefs who are women is not in itself a problem. Despite a few scientifically suspect and borderline sexist paeans to the virtues of a mythical special “feminine touch” in the kitchen, it’s pretty unlikely that the gender of the chef makes a significant difference to the eater. At least, no data supports the notion.

Maybe some groups of people don’t want to pursue the chef career. That’s OK. There are loads of careers that are female-dominated and few people seem troubled by their gender imbalances. The numbers only really matter if there are indicators of something more sinister at work: if they show that women have a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues. That because they are women, they are subject to harassment, passed up for promotions, and can’t get investors for their restaurant-related businesses.

It’s the latter subject that these lists might make a positive impact on. For business, publicity matters and these awards certainly gain attention in the food world.

Balancing one elite list that’s mostly male by stacking another elite list with a bunch of women does nothing to solve other structural problems. But it’s certainly easier and makes people—particularly those in the establishment who influence these lists—a lot less uncomfortable than talking about childcare, sexual harassment or discrimination. A mystical feminine touch in the kitchen might be imaginary, but these problems are very much real.