Growing up, women dominated the majority of kitchens that I encountered. In my family, cooking is a woman’s job, and doing it with grace and skill is a woman’s duty. My grandmother’s gendered customs of food service have taught me and other female relatives of my generation how to behave, and how to be valuable as a person. It is the mothers of my family who spend hours making a meal and the daughters who are called upon to help pack the evening away. The kitchen is where we work, and it is the space that we are continually drawn back to. Cooking is what we do, and truly, we do it well.
But the workplace kitchen is a different beast than my grandmother’s four-cornered (and at times, claustrophobic) feminine community. Cooking professionally always seemed like something only men were allowed to do and something only men could handle or understand. For a long time, I struggled with this distinction between private and public kitchens and who was allowed in each. I didn’t understand what made these spaces distinct from one another, but nevertheless, I accepted them as different. Each had its own kind of politics, and its own social climate.
But are domestic and workplace kitchens really that distinct, other than the fact that one necessitates a pay cheque at the end of the week? In all contexts, cooking calls for independence, assertion, speed, and attention to detail. Cooking professionally simply means doing what my grandmother did and does everyday, only having the nerve to do it in the public eye, and the privilege to be paid for it. Perhaps cooking for a living means publicly asserting a kind of knowledge that’s only acceptable to assert in the space of the home. To survive and thrive in a workplace kitchen means having the type of gendered body that can easily affirm itself as respectable, even outside of the kitchen, on a day-to-day basis. It’s no wonder that there are so many straight cis white dudes in industrial kitchens: these bodies hold a societally informed degree of implicit legitimacy and fortitude required for the high-stress zone of the kitchen, qualities that are often dismissed in those who do not fit their physical description.
I am a cook at a startup fast-food restaurant in Toronto. I work alone most nights for shifts of up to nine hours. I am a woman, I am in the kitchen, and I am working, but I still don’t feel like I belong there. My own uneasy experiences in an industrial kitchen setting made me interested in talking with other women who worked in food service environments.
I talked to Rachel Gilmore, a close friend of mine from high school, about her experiences working as a woman in professional kitchens. Rachel has worked in a restaurant kitchen as line cook, in an Ontario university cafeteria as sauté chef, at various fast food restaurants, and in a travelling rib trailer. Even under fast-paced and stressful circumstances, Rachel has had to continually assert herself to be taken seriously. “Although I am six feet tall and stronger than half the guys I work with, I am still treated dubiously, having to earn respect of my skills and knowledge when less qualified new male employees are given equal responsibility as me,” says Rachel. “At the rib trailer I worked at, I wasn’t allowed to participate in the ‘boys’ activities such as moving the BBQ, taking the metal ceilings down, carrying more than one rib box because I was employed in the cash ‘girl’ position. I have been made uncomfortable several times by the head chef’s sexist remarks and overly sexual ‘jokes.’” Rachel’s experience in the food industry has been crucially different from her male coworkers’ in terms of wage payment. “At the rib place, the men were paid more because apparently they worked harder. Not being in the restaurant industry for a very long time, I didn’t experience any sexism in promotional matters, but I believe that would be an issue had I pursued a career in foods.”
Rachel sees employer education as necessary for improvement in the field. “I think better monitoring and reporting of sexist behaviour or insinuative comments would help to dismantle workplace misogyny. More education on the employer’s side of what’s appropriate in the workplace and more efficient reporting programs put in place to reprimand behaviour immediately would help. Equal pay is obviously a huge issue as well.”
Jane Doe, a Vic student and Toronto activist, described her experience working in food service environments as routine debasement. “Due to discrimination, specifically due to being a trans woman, food services was a better time for me than what I had been doing before,” said Jane. “That said, I have been treated derisively, regularly exploited, been made to work in a hostile work environment, mistreated by co-workers and managers, and even people I was supervising to some extent. And then, in both cases, [I was] dismissed on illegal grounds due to disability. I had no legal recourse when this happened.”
Jane described the spaces in which she worked as highly masculine. “Frequently, my work environments would be dominated by men, and despite being out as trans at work, and with no official gender divide even existing, I would be frequently paired with men to do work, such as heavy lifting and other kinds of industrial labour, despite disability. On top of this, the demeanor of other coworkers frequently involved incredibly objectifying comments directed towards women—they would make misogynistic comments directed towards everyone from celebrities to other coworkers who were not at the time present. In addition to this, transphobic comments directed towards me as well as frequent use of incorrect pronouns were common, especially from men that I worked with. One occasion had a coworker slack off to stand behind me and begin to list names that started with “J” in an attempt to deadname* me. There was nothing I could do about this. Even when co-workers made holocaust jokes at my expense, the work atmosphere was that those jokes shouldn’t be taken seriously, despite the fact that the chance of perishing multiple times over is a very real and continued threat in my life. Getting harassed, being put in situations where regular conversations made me feel unsafe and impacted my ability to trust coworkers, and being forced to act subserviently regardless of what roles I was serving in the kitchen all had a profound impact on my personal well-being.”
Jane sees next steps to dismantling misogyny in the workplace as starting with dismantling the workplace entirely. “It is unfortunate that as an non-unionized worker—first … in very sketchy food service work situations and then as a student worker—there was not a direct forum to vent about my treatment. Regardless, the unions that presently exist in Canada are not sufficient to bring upon necessary change, and even there, women are still mistreated by those who are their allies in fair treatment seeking labour. As a young, physically disabled trans woman, these issues are magnified for me, but ultimately, the only thing I can do is push forward, as well as create communities and build up trust and communication between myself and others so that I can actually have confidence in people to have my best interests in mind. [We are pushing] towards a minimum income and a proper distribution of wealth, given [that] we produce goods and services with a surplus, yet [we] still live in a scarcity economy, where many are exploited. Though my ideas about how to move forward centre [on] communism and anti-capitalism, combating misogynist exploitation is also necessary, or else labour will still favour men.”
Without institutional restructuring or continued examination, the work of combating misogynist exploitation ultimately falls to individual women. In my own experiences in the workplace kitchen, it’s enough to make me want to give in and accept attitudes the way they are. I still wonder if I’m making too much of a fuss. I’m not being groped or sexually harassed, so maybe I should just put up with what seems to be a favouring of the opposite gender, right? Except that trying to prove myself as a competent employee in a semi-professional kitchen has been a thoroughly exhausting and anxiety-ridden experience. The aggravation from being held to such high standards of performance while male employees are given break after break is at times too stressful for me to bear. The daily toll that this repeated disaccreditation has had on my self-esteem has pushed me away from seeking further employment as a cook. I used to think about cooking long-term, but, like Rachel said, sexism would likely be on the horizon if I were to seek a career in the field.
This seems to be the most salient tragedy that misogyny in the workplace kitchen can effect: women cooks stop showing up for work, and careers in the foodservice industry get erased from the horizon of possible womanhood. It’s not that women can’t do these jobs, it’s that they can’t do them without also affording levels of emotional labour that their male coworkers do not have to provide. As Jane told me, it isn’t sharing their experiences that is brave, but the actual act of enduring unfair treatment for as long as they did and with such little support out of economic necessity. A job is a way to survive, and many women are being pushed out of positions that they are more than qualified for simply because the don’t look the same as the other bodies that dominate the space of the kitchen and are marginalized for this fact. Misogyny in kitchen workplaces, whether explicit or subtle, continually works to cut women down from positions of authority, and to cut up our identities as powerful and capable beings. The message is clear: women don’t belong in the public kitchen, making money for their work. It’s a boy’s club.
Meeting the several other women that work at my place of employment has been helpful. These women and I frequently bond over our shared frustrations and confusions in relation to how we are treated in comparison to our male coworkers. Whether on the record or off, talking to other women about being a girl in the industrial kitchen has helped me make sense of my own experience and has made me realize that my personal concerns are valid. Many other women I know had experiences that they wanted to share, but were unable to do so without risking their employment or future reference capabilities. It is women who are entrusted to keep secrets of inequality in the workplace in order to make it as individual professionals. It is women who are made to accept unfair and unequal treatment, and women who must stay quiet in order to continue to earn a salary. But staying quiet shouldn’t be a part of the job. Women aren’t just kitchen objects to be sliced and diced. We are people who deserve to be afforded legitimacy and respect, and not to be chopped down for our gender presentation. We shouldn’t have to risk our livelihoods in order to say that.
*<i>Editor’s note: A deadname is the birth name of a person who has since chosen a new name.</i>