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Women, Cooking and Culture.

This week's blog is from the Chair of Sibéal, Ellen O'Sullivan. Ellen discusses an important issue in the value afforded to professions dominated by certain genders.



Pink Collar Ghettoization is a little-known theory in gender studies, but one that has quite visible effects. I had never previously heard of it but came across it in a gender and media studies lecture one October afternoon. It basically describes how an influx of women into a certain sector diminishes the prestige and monetary value of that sector (our lecturer gave the example of the publishing industry: an influx of women with degrees in literature and languages in the early 20th century diminished the social prestige of working in the publishing industry).

I’ve noticed this effect in reverse; the influx of men causing a sector to flourish and gain respect. This is especially prevalent in cooking. While the domestic, private kitchen remains the domain of the women, public and commercial kitchens are much more male dominated. It can be inferred from this that women’s place is only in the kitchen if that kitchen is in the home, and she is providing for the family. When it comes to professional kitchens, men typically are more dominant and visible in higher-up positions. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, only 22% of professional head chefs are women.[1] This disproportionate representation is mirrored in food media and is especially visible in cookery programs as of late.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, mainstream cookery shows tended to be hosted by women, such as Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, and Darina Allen. Currently, it appears that a huge amount of food shows are hosted by men, like David Chang, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain, and Gordon Ramsay. Particularly in recent years, there has been an abundance of cooking/food shows on Netflix, and the most popular have been hosted by men, such as Ugly Delicious and Somebody Feed Phil. Although shows are getting more diverse in term of culture and exploring the gastronomic canon outside of ‘fine dining’ (i.e. French cuisine), all too often traditional dishes are marketed or pigeon-holed as ‘street food’ (Mexican, Turkish, Korean, etc). Cuisine produced in certain countries or regions are often seen only as a result of hardship/famine/rationing, rather than innovation. Granted, recent shows such as Ugly Delicious have given more voice to food and cuisines based outside of the Western canon, but they are still not considered fine dining, and the absence of women is palpable.

Another thing that I’ve noticed when engaging critically with food television is that shows hosted by women are focused on ​manufacturing ​food: food is made, often with a focus on preparing food for the family or festival setting. The women presenting these shows also don’t tend to eat what they’ve prepared, but rather sit in a charming tableau of family and food at the end of the program, and watch others consume what they have made. Shows hosted by men, on the other hand, are nearly entirely based on consumption. Sometimes, the host prepares and eats food, but often he will engage with other (male) chefs, with an entourage of friends, and eat what others have made for him. The nuances in this trope of manufacture and public consumption carries over to the reality of the commercial kitchen: women make up nearly 60% of food preparation workers and just over 40% of line cooks in America.[2] Women are under-represented at head chef level as we have seen, and the majority of women in the commercial kitchen are concentrated in food prep and serving.

The industrial kitchen is not a welcoming place for people with additional needs or those who are pregnant, owing to the fast pace and stressful environment, and these elements layer ableism into the mix of systemic racism and sexism present in the food industry. The under-representation of women and minorities in Western food television is telling of discrimination at all levels of the food industry and serves to maintain the experience and expression of white men as normative, the zenith of culinary power. This shift of gaze from feminine provider to male innovator has kept pace with the exponential growth of the restaurant and dining industry in recent decades, and the way we present gendered and racialised roles supports the continuation of such biases not only in representation, but in the lived reality of workers and creators in the food industry.

[1] https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm [2] https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm

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