As the world suffers from the second wave of the pandemic, millions of people continue to face layoffs, furloughs, and ongoing uncertainty. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come in terms of gender diversity, but it’s also a stark reminder of the journey we still have ahead of us.

I count myself as fortunate having been able to develop a career in something I enjoy and feel passionate about, but it’s not been an easy ride.

From an early age I wanted to have a career in the food industry. I was inspired by my parents; my father was a farmer and my mother worked in the hotel industry. That was until she was married, of course, because at the time you simply couldn’t be married and have a job outside of being a housewife!

Although my mother left her job to become a wife and mum, food was a constant theme when I was growing up in Ireland. It inspired me to want a career in the food industry and, despite my mother’s attempts to convince me otherwise, I decided to go to catering college in Galway. My mother was sure the intensity of the course would put me off the idea of a career in food; but actually I loved it!

In the mid- to late-1980s, the economy in Ireland was tough and I had to find a job. It was a great few years at the beginning of my career; I was young, I was learning, and I was travelling across Europe developing my expertise in the some of the greatest restaurants.

However, there was a glass ceiling for female chefs at the time. There were no female role models in the industry; there were no development programs or mentoring opportunities and for someone like me, who was very much a minority in this male-dominated arena, but with the passion and drive to develop further, there were simply no opportunities.

The conditions were inhuman too. The hours were tough with long shifts; it was a toxic and very sexist environment in which people were bullied and, in some cases, the victim of sexual abuse. I saw lots of women colleagues in the industry put into very difficult situations, where they felt their only option was to leave. Women had two options – toughen up and be like the guys or quit the industry.

I chose to go back to studying and pursued a course in hotel management at Dublin Technical University before applying for a management job at Gardner Merchant in 1991. I was earning decent money as a chef, but with no prospects and no incentive to work in such an awful environment, I had to shift my career choices and take a big pay cut.

Even as I made that shift from restaurants to corporate catering, I noticed that kitchens were populated by men, who were pursuing a career in food and women, who were generally part-time cooks, who were just there to earn money. Becoming a chef wasn’t really a career choice for women.

Thankfully, the culture of the industry has changed enormously over the years. When I look at Sodexo, specifically, I see many more women in head chef roles; I see far more women competing in culinary competitions; and there is little doubt that policies around gender have really helped to shift the needle. We see many more celebrity female chefs, role models to inspire young women looking to begin their career, which can only be a positive thing for the industry.

Despite this, there’s no denying that the kitchen environment is still extremely tough. According to research from Fair Kitchens, a global movement fighting for a more resilient and sustainable industry, 74% of chefs feel sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion; 53% of chefs feel pushed to breaking point; and 1 in 4 chefs has suffered physical abuse.

These are worrying statistics and something that the industry as a whole must address to ensure it continues to attract, develop and retain both male and female talent.

At Sodexo, our global gender balance strategy is a key driver in ensuring that both women and men have equal access to growth and opportunities in our workplace. Gender diversity across all roles and at all levels of seniority is something we consider to be a real differentiator. In order to improve diversity, we must embrace inclusion and ensure that culture shift is authentic and felt by all of our employees, including those working in challenging environments, such as kitchens.

Our focus at Sodexo is very much on creating an inclusive working environment, where our employees feel valued, appreciated and recognised; where there is equity in opportunity for everyone; and where people feel confident to call out unethical behaviour without fear of prejudice or judgement.

We’ve made huge strides as a business and I’m hugely proud to have been part of that evolution at Sodexo. However, while I reflect on my early career and see how much we’ve advanced, there’s clearly some way to go to achieve gender parity and an inclusive culture across the broader food industry and we all have a role to play.

This article was published for the first time on the personal LinkedIn account of Margot Slattery, Global Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Sodexo

Discover our inspiring female colleagues.. International Women’s Day

 

March 11, 2021

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