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Mixed messages for women

Two seemingly unrelated articles caught my attention last week. The first is probably complete rubbish, but the second shows how, or why, certain people feel excluded from specific jobs and roles.

The Daily Mail website, alongside pictures of women ‘wearing outrageous bikinis on holiday’, ‘looking a bit nippy’, or ‘concerning fans with excessive weight loss’, claimed that women, wearing low-cut tops are almost twenty times more likely to land a job interview.

Forget the stringent and rigorous scientific research and peer group studies, the only important fact here is that researchers at a French university found female applicants boosted their applications with a low-cut photo of themselves. So, ladies, forget polishing your CV, just invest in a low-cut dress and you will be 19 times more likely to get that interview.

It certainly begs a few questions; who sends a photo with their CV for a professional job, is it all the rage in Paris? Dr Sevag Kertechian, a researcher at Paris-Sorbonne University, wanted to look at the impact of clothing in the recruitment process, specifically in securing a job interview in sales and accounting positions.

They used two similar looking women with near identical experience on their CVs, they each applied for 100 roles wearing conservative clothing and another 100 roles pictured in a more revealing outfit. The study took place over a three year period.

Out of the 200 roles that were applied for, the submissions which were accompanied by a low-cut dress received 62 more interview offers than their more conservatively dressed counterparts.

Dr Kertechian said: ‘Our results showed interesting trends as low-cut dresses significantly influenced the choice of the recruiters, even for accounting positions.

“Regardless of the job, whether customer-facing saleswoman or office-based accountant, the candidate with the low cut clothing received more positive answers. The results were quite shocking and negative but not necessarily surprising – they show we need to conduct more research.”

Well, I doubt people are really crying out for more research into this sort of rubbish?

Of more concern in the real world, according to the Guardian, is the question: “Why are there so few female chefs?”. Let’s face it, for the majority of us, it was our mother who cooked for us as a child, yet in the professional kitchen, less than a fifth of chefs in the UK are female, actually down on last year. Is its reputation for being a tough, male-dominated job still putting women off – or is that image unfair?

The UK is greedy nation and our food fixation seems nowhere near sated, with new restaurants mushrooming at a gobsmacking rate. So it’s no shock that according to the Office of National Statistics, there are 21,000 more professional chefs in the UK this year than last, a total of 250,000. But what is unexpected, is that only 18.5% of them – some 46,000 – are women, a decrease on the previous year’s percentage of 20.5%.

It’s surprising when you consider the hospitality industry’s recent efforts to make itself more, well, hospitable to all. This is a modernising profession with more employers working to create teams and nurture talent, give people the time to have relationships outside the kitchen and offer support within it. That might not be industry-wide yet, but it is on the upswing as a generational shift slowly takes place. So if things aren’t really that bad, does the restaurant world have an image problem that is keeping potential candidates away?

“The next generation of chefs and restaurateurs aren’t people who left school at 15, worked as a commis chef in a three [Michelin] star until they’re broken and then perpetuate the same thing in their kitchens,” says Sabrina Gidda, head chef of Italian restaurant Bernardi’s. “It’s people who gave up degrees and business and other things to do what they really love.”

She agrees that there’s too much focus on the reputed hardships rather than the rewards, whatever your background. “A lot of people all over the world work long hours and, yes, it is hot and can be tough, but the thrill of being in a busy service with your entire brigade absolutely nailing it is unlike anything else.” Gidda is mindful of a distinct lack of diversity and hopes her recent appearance on Saturday Kitchen might encourage young Asian women to consider a career in cooking. “Where are the young female Indian chefs who want to come through? It’s highly regarded to have culinary aptitude in a domestic sense, but to be a senior chef running a kitchen isn’t. And that’s relevant to me, to make it more acceptable.”

Angela Hartnett is one of the nation’s very best chefs and joint owner of five excellent restaurants, three of which have women installed as head chefs. She points out that hospitality is not isolated in its gender-imbalanced staffing. “I find it bizarre that it always comes up, as I don’t think catering is the only industry where there are fewer women. It just seems like everyone hones in on it. I think it’s great to have a balance of genders and a mix of young and old too.” She’s also taken aback at the stats, noting the industry’s improving conditions, support initiatives such as Hospitality Action and more awareness among employers that staff need looking after. “It’s a no-brainer: create a great environment where the staff food is good and people want to work together. Go into your restaurant, chat to your staff, know their names. It makes a big difference.”

Anna Hansen, chef-proprietor of two The Modern Pantry restaurants, also employs a mixed brigade, “I wouldn’t hire a female candidate over a better male candidate per se, but I definitely make sure that I’ve got lots of females in the kitchen.” The idea that women might depart to start a family doesn’t daunt her either. “Everybody has to work and if we want the population to grow then, as the child-bearers, women are going to have to continue to have to do it. Everyone is entitled to make a decision and that applies to every career.” She’s also adamant that fostering an inclusive working environment is the best way to keep staff in the business. “Girls do get harassed, so you have to be aware of it. Not that people are inherently negative, but it’s easy to shift a vibe if you’re constantly pecking away at it.”

Anna Tobias, head chef at Rochelle Canteen, points out that pieces that discuss gender, can further isolate women. “There’s constantly articles about women and tough jobs, which might make people think: ‘Why are they getting so upset?’ Also, if men aren’t included, it’s not helpful. All of the men I work with are incredible feminists.” But, she allows: “Women do need better rights and to be viewed with more respect. I just hope it’s an inclusive discussion.”

And it needs to involve more than just the profession, it seems, as sexism can come courtesy of customers. “Occasionally they will thank my sous chef as they just assume he’s the head chef. It’s disappointing,” says Tobias. Further proof is provided by Gidda. “When we opened Bernardi’s, we must have had 10 or 12 tables over the course of the opening weeks that said: ‘We really love the food, can we meet the chef as we want to tell him how good it was?’ When I walk up the stairs, they’re like: ‘OK, that’s not what we were expecting’ and ‘Are you actually the chef?’ So, it’s not necessarily the industry and the environment, it’s the guests’ perspectives too.”

So, taking these two articles in the round, it seems that there are still anticquated notions about the role of women in the workplace; one influenced by employers, who even now tend to be men, and the second, held by women themselves who refuse to believe that some age-old stereotypes of particular industries have actually changed.   

Hopefully before too long, these points will no longer need to be made.

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