Why is there a shortage of female chefs?

The Staff Canteen

International Women's Day is an annual event and these female chefs have come forward to tell The Staff Canteen about the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world after the release of statistics in February showing only one in five chefs in the UK are female.

Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicates that female chefs are increasingly scarce. The latest figures show fewer than one in five chefs in the UK (18.5 per cent) is a woman, down from the previous year.

Olivia Scarborough
Olivia Scarborough

In London the picture may be even bleaker: research from, The Change Group, shows that of the registrations received over the past three years, only one in eight applicants for London chef jobs is a woman. And while the number of chefs employed in the UK grew by over 20,000 new jobs in the past year, the number of women working as chefs has declined by over 350 in the same period (ONS).

Chef Olivia Scarborough, pastry chef at The Ledbury, says that a big deterrent to new female chefs is the lifestyle involved with it.

She explained: “I think you’d have to start with changing part of the industry and make it more manageable to have a life outside of work - the work-life balance would need to improve.”

This is in line with the survey results - one of the most challenging things about being a female chef are the difficulties that come alongside long working hours.

Long working hours 

Over half of the women chefs who took part (51 per cent) were aged between 21 and 45, the key age group for starting a family, but only one in four have children. This could perhaps explain why 52 per cent said that more flexible working hours would make it easier for women to pursue their career as a chef long term, as well as career opportunities specifically designed for working mothers (66 per cent).

Chef Luciana Berry, private chef and restaurant consultant, said: “You know that sometimes they say that full time will be like 45 hours but at the end of the day it’s not like that. In the week we do more like 75. So I think the shifts are too long for when you have a kid, for when you have a family.”

Julie Walsh, pâtisserie chef at Le Cordon Bleu, believes that this could be changed to make it easier for chefs who have a family and ‘you shouldn’t have to give up one or the other’.

She said: “I think for the industry to flourish the government also needs to get on board and offer a decent childcare alternative for women who work. It’s not just the industry it’s everywhere. I have a 10-year-old son, but I’m lucky I have a very good childminder who’s been with us a long time and it’s a good support network but it’s tough, it’s really tough.”

Luciana ended up altering the area of industry she worked in so that she could spend time with her son.

Data from The change Group

She explained: “That’s why I decided to work in the industry but to open a teaching company, where I can do my hours. If you go to some restaurants, if you say you have a five-year-old son they know it will be difficult for you to work in a restaurant so sometimes opt to take men for that reason.”

When asked, women see many aspects of being a chef that make it a particularly good career option for women, including shift working (40 per cent), part time and temporary opportunities (41 per cent) and the fact that it’s easy to take a career break (46 per cent).

When Julie’s students ask her how she manages she says: “Well often when you have a family you have to make sacrifices and you have to make a choice, but you don’t have to say that my work is going to change. Your family and your work life have to be balanced”

She gives Monica Galetti as an example, saying: “She’s got a child that’s the same age as mine and she’s just about to start her own business. It’s a lot of balls in the air a lot of the time but it’s possible.”

The roles of a professional kitchen

Julie says that you have to first understand what role you want to have in the kitchen and then make adjustments to suit your family. She advises that it’s best to speak to your boss and see what they can do to help with flexibility.

She said: “It’s the same in every industry anybody who has children at some point you have to have a conversation and say ‘this is what I need’ and ‘this is what I'm going to do for you’ and ‘this is why I'm employable’. It shouldn’t be at the sacrifice of family but it is a very fine balancing act between the two.”

This isn’t the only thing preventing women from heading out and becoming a chef; the atmosphere in the kitchen is tense and not everyone can handle it.

Julie said: “I think often becoming a chef is not portrayed as the most feminine of past times. I mean if you look at TV coverage you’ve got Gordan Ramsey’s shouty, sweary environment. It’s not necessarily something a young lady would look at, or the parents of a young lady would look at for her to go into that kind of field.”

Julia Walsh

She added: “The reality in the real world though is far different from that in most places. Once you actually see inside a proper kitchen that’s run professionally that is staffed properly, it’s not as bad as is portrayed.”

Olivia agrees and said: “It’s such a male atmosphere in the kitchen. There’s a lot of machismo but also it’s just a dominated male industry.”

Working in large kitchens almost half of which (47 per cent) have a brigade of seven or more chefs, the majority are working in kitchens with only one (44 per cent) or two women chefs (19 per cent).

Despite the male domination, the survey revealed a mixed picture in terms of the positives of being a female chef. Whilst almost one third (32 per cent) said being a woman had affected her career negatively, around the same number think being female does not make any difference. In fact, around one in six female chefs interviewed felt being a woman is an advantage: they said they had been given more opportunities (31 per cent) and were treated with more respect (56 per cent).

Working in a kitchen is tough

The kitchen can become too difficult. Juliana explains how she powers through because she wants to do the job and has to be strong - whatever it throws at her.

She said: “There are a lot of times if I wasn’t strong enough, sometimes I’d cry on my way back home. But the next day I turn up again and we do it again and that’s the way we have to do it, we have to fight for our position in our particular kitchen.”

Overall, being a female chef is seen as a good thing. When asked, a resounding 72 per cent said they would advise other women to become chefs, and 63 per cent want to work as a chef for the long term so would the industry be much different if there were more women chefs? Olivia believes that it would reform the kitchen atmosphere.

She said: “I think it would make it less hostile. It would obviously have more perspective and the more people involved always makes it better.”

Alongside Luciana and Olivia, Le Cordon Bleu has had many successful female alumni such as Peggy Porschen, who has made

Luciana Berry
Luciana Berry

creations for Madonna and Elton John, Adria Wu, owner of Maple & Fitz and Caitlyn Paxton, owner of Paxton Chocolate.

Julie said: “I know we’re certainly helping to storm the industry with our graduates. We have a lot of female chefs now going out of here into the lower ranks of the industry and working their way up. It’s about having the stamina, the techniques, the confidence to work their way through the levels up the ranks and having the stamina to stay there and to carry on even though other things are happening in their lives.”

She added: “I’m very proactive in trying to make sure that the students here, when they leave us, are absolutely clear on what the industry expects and what they can offer. There’s no point us training people if they go into a hotel kitchen or a restaurant kitchen and six months later they say ‘oh my god I didn’t know it was going to be like this, I don’t want to stay’.

“Even kitchen to kitchen, I always say to students to go and volunteer, go and see what it’s like to work in a kitchen, even if it’s free for a couple of weeks so you get the feel of it, because every kitchen’s different. Every kitchen has a different dynamic and just because you don’t like the feel of one kitchen it doesn’t mean they’re all going to be like that. Everywhere has its own personality.”

 By Kellie Wyatt

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th June 2016

Why is there a shortage of female chefs?