“Be a lady in the living room, and a chef in the kitchen.” While this formula might work for some relationships, it rarely extends to the hospitality industry. We might see more female chefs today, but ladies in senior F&B positions are not so common.
As women increasingly take on leadership roles in so many other industries, and with major hospitality brands eager to provide opportunities for female talent to progress, it seems rather odd that the F&B sector is under-represented. Those in the know, however, suggest there may simply be something in the nature of the business that makes the F&B work environment especially challenging for women, as Peter Finnegan, an F&B Vice President with Accor explained.
“A number of factors have contributed to this imbalance such as cultural influences and gender stereotypes – for example in the context of Asian culture, mothers may be reluctant to enter an industry that requires them to work such variable shifts if they are the primary caregiver for their children. Similarly, females might be reluctant to enter the culinary industry if they have a preconception that kitchens are a male-dominated environment with a high masculinity index,” he said.
The work-life balance is certainly one area for which the F&B sector has limited respect. By its nature, it involves long hours at unsociable times, and climbing the ladder to reap the many rewards does involve certain lifestyle sacrifices, as Giovanni Angelini, former CEO of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts observes.
“It could be that males have in the past been more active in traveling to different countries and cultures, learning new specialties, and gaining exposure to different markets or clientele - while females have not been too keen to travel to different countries,” he suggested, before pointing out one specific and unavoidable factor that F&B managers must endure. “The head of F&B of a large hotel has to supervise the kitchens and this is not an easy task as the executive chefs are not easy to handle. They are normally creative, disciplined, precise, and ‘dominant’. In many cases, they are no good at taking directives,” he explained.
With long experience of interviewing chefs for our ‘Chef of the Month’ section, I am well aware that Giovanni isn’t overstating the problem. As a woman, it’s not that we lack the interpersonal skills to handle these characters – in fact it’s a strength – but why would anyone want to?
According to Boglarka Galberki, Food & Beverage Business Development at Carlton Hotel Bangkok, the people who do want to manage chefs are men. Not necessarily because they’re good at it, but because they inevitably have the confidence to apply for any job they think they might be able to do, whereas women are often hesitant to seek promotion.
“Women tend to only apply or push for advancement when they’re certain they can succeed and have the right experience to back them. Men on the other hand will jump at any and all opportunities coming their way, even if they don’t particularly have the skillset or experience yet,” she observed.
One woman who started at the bottom and wasn’t deterred from rising through the ranks is Elena Broms, Regional Director Restaurants & Bars South East Asia & Korea for IHG. Elena’s experience makes her the ideal mentor as IHG today aims to bring out the best in its female talent pool.
“Throughout my career I have met, got inspired from, and worked with a lot of amazing female talents and leaders in the F&B world, many of whom I feel lucky to call friends,” she said. “They inspire me on a daily basis. My first boss/mentor in my first full-time restaurant job in NYC around 1995 was Karen Waltuck, owner of a small, fine dining place, Chantarelle in Soho and Tribeca. She taught me that the worlds of art and food are closely related, and this was long before it became hip or ‘a thing’. She opened a fine dining restaurant in Soho in the 80s when there were only empty warehouses and it wasn’t considered a safe area, and had the vision to combine the amazing art circles of NYC with her restaurant. She had artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Alan Ginsberg paint or draw the cover of menus and walls. The whole restaurant was a fantastic art hub - in a sense a salon with great atmosphere, food, and wine.”
“I'm very proud to work for a global hospitality group, IHG, where a key component is diversity and inclusion in our global philosophy. I take part and mentor in our IHG initiative called RISE – a program designed to encourage women to step up and establish the skills needed to take on leadership roles in their future.”
Meanwhile, at Accor, an initiative called WILD F&B is set to tackle the imbalance of gender diversity in the food and beverage industry by offering support for female talent such as career guidance and thought leadership forums. “We know that we have a responsibility to encourage more female talent to continue their careers in restaurants, bars, and culinary if we are to be innovators in the F&B industry,” explained Peter.
Ranim Ben Romdhane, Senior Director Restaurants & Bars Asia Pacific, Marriott International, explained that initiatives to support women in F&B are now bearing fruit. “The world is changing and we are now seeing many talented women entering, and remaining in, the F&B industry,” he said. One such example is June Baek, Senior Bartender at Madame Fan at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach. The Busan native was the first woman to ever make the Global Top 3 at the Chivas Masters in 2018. June was also ranked in the Top 8 for the La Maison Cointreau Competition and in the Top 10 for the Campari Bartender Competition in Singapore.
One thing that is not in doubt is women’s ability to actually get the job done. When we look at the skills required to succeed in today’s hospitality sector there is no suggestion that women aren’t ideally equipped for the roles on offer.
“We believe that in the food & beverage industry, we are serving both male and female guests in our outlets and we need to understand the unique needs and preferences of both genders - so having a well-balanced team will enable us to serve our guests’ needs better,” Peter Finnegan explained. “We need people that have an ability to create a happy environment for both their colleagues and guests.”
Explaining the Marriott wish list, Ranim Ben Romdhane said that, “We are looking at five key components for a great F&B leader including guest engagement and satisfaction, employee engagement, outstanding finance results, compliance with standards and procedures, and creativity. On top of that, empathy is of great importance when it comes to leading a team and running a restaurant and bar. How to connect well with the team, inspire and motivate them to go the extra mile to create exceptional guest experiences, and the ability to look after the guests and solve guests’ problems.”
Meanwhile, Elena supported the need for interpersonal skills. “Never underestimate the creative talent it takes to transform an angry guest on entry - why is my table not ready yet? - to a purring kitten on his or her way out. Mistakes are human but it’s how you turn it around afterwards that matters - that’s what F&B professionals do well, and often daily,” she pointed out.
Finally, working in food & beverage isn’t only about creating happy moments for guests, however. According to Giovanni, it’s also necessary to create happy moments for owners which is why at the end of the day, it’s important to have people who know how to generate profits.
“In order to maximize revenue and the bottom line, the person must understand all of what it takes, from market and customer surveys, purchasing the right products, the storage, the preparation, the promotion and presentation, consistency, value for money, and of course to develop followers and repeat business. Everything revolves around making profits,” said Giovanni.
For hoteliers, it’s hard to run a successful business without good staff, and it’s hard to find good staff if your talent pool excludes the female half. The F&B sector is crying out for the skills that women bring in abundance, so the efforts of major hotel groups to foster this talent will ultimately benefit their bottom lines. It might also lead to changes in F&B that make for a more pleasant working environment, perhaps with a little more attention to the work-life balance that will also be appreciated by the men.