IWD19: Women in Hospitality. Has anything changed?

Photo 11-11-2017, 12 22 46.jpg

‘Stop walking in like that! Have you seen yourself? How you walk in? Like tap tap tap! Like you own the place! Have you seen yourself!’

I think he was talking about my heels, which made a noise against the hard floor when I paced down the long galley to the chef’s pass. Or my purposeful stride. That’s the way with heels really, especially when the chef is shouting SERVICE. The fact is, I was in charge, and didn’t have any intention of shuffling in apologetically.  

At 25 I was a restaurant manager working for A Very Angry Chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in a different city. I was also 3 months pregnant.  

I felt awful. But I was also good at my job, and as yet, nobody knew my secret. Why did this guy hire me if he didn’t want me to… walk? 

Young women at a senior level of hospitality are too often treading a tightrope between a deferential attitude to the chef, feigned amusement to a certain type of customer (oh no sir, I’m not a student, this IS my real job) and their own accomplishments.

A first-class degree, an encyclopedic knowledge of the wine list, and inexhaustible levels of patience for dealing with the emotional outbursts of a professionally frustrated man-baby were all necessary qualifications in my role.  In addition, of course, to the stamina required for 15-18 hour working days.

Has the restaurant industry changed in the 7 years since I left that job? There have certainly been glimmers of real hope. Some higher-end restaurants have recognized that improving working conditions for staff is the only way to keep hold of them. In 2015 Restaurant Sat Bains announced that they were switching to a 4-day-week, and soon after many others followed suit.  

Hell’s-Kitchen style tirades have gone out of fashion too, in the public eye at least. They have been replaced by the productive hum of the ‘open kitchen’: a line-up of excellently pruned beards and brisk plating. A Very Angry Chef went on to open such a restaurant, in fact, a couple of years after I left. Jay Rayner described it as ‘patrolled by heavy-browed, unsmiling cooks looking like they’re preparing to go over the top at Mons.’

I never did make it to maternity leave. I bowed out because it just wasn’t the right environment in which to germinate a human. Taking a toilet break was greeted with such horror that you would have thought we were on-duty air traffic controllers.  Getting through the day was a case of just surviving: opening, tasting, spitting and then serving wine to customers before shuffling back to the cellars to be sick. Snatching a break by curling up behind a box of cheese in the walk-in fridge. The melee of unctuous, meaty smells in the kitchens and wafts from the fat-trap, swimming through my senses, whilst I stood, proud, at the receiving end of another tirade.  

My case may be an extreme example, but nevertheless I’m certainly not the only woman to experience this side of the hospitality industry during pregnancy. Many women put off having children, others change professions, a huge number get sidelined to menial roles and some keep it a secret until the last. Someone who has recently given birth told me, 

‘It’s awful that we feel the need to [hide it]. We shouldn’t have to but I feel that there is a perception we are less effective or more emotional. And then there is the pressure of how to represent being a mother and what it means if you still want to work.’

How can the restaurant industry support women better? Now I’m off the front line and a mother to 3, I’ve had to create my own role in the industry - but I deeply miss the buzz of an evening service.  I also recognize that i’m far, FAR more effective now as a manager and as professional, not in spite of –  but because of – balancing work and family life.  

So on International Women’s Day I’m wondering, have things changed in the restaurant industry since I became a parent? Has it begun to embrace the idea of #balanceforbetter (this year’s IWD theme) or is there still a very long way to go?