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The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in restaurants, disproportionately impacting women
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in restaurants, disproportionately impacting women
Heedayah Lockman

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‘As a Woman in the Kitchen, It’s Traumatic’

How the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing gender inequalities in London’s restaurant industry

“As a woman in the kitchen anyway, it’s traumatic,” Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare, head pastry chef at Tavolino, said in March 2021. The London Bridge Italian restaurant was due to launch just days after the first coronavirus lockdown was announced. “That’s not me being dramatic. Every female chef I’ve spoken to has had some sort of abuse, had to endure something that’s not necessary, or been told they can’t be who they are as a woman.”

It is not news that being a woman in the professional kitchen is hard or, indeed, rare — the most recent statistics available show that less than a fifth of U.K. chefs are women. As London has now reopened after what the industry hopes is the last COVID-19 lockdown, there are sure signs that the last year has exacerbated existing inequalities faced by women in restaurants.

Despite making up a smaller proportion of the overall workforce, figures show that 52 percent of U.K. workers furloughed between March and August 2020 were women, and that women were a third more likely to be employed in sectors shut down by the first lockdown. That disparity was only exacerbated in the world of restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars, itself one of the worst-hit by COVID-19’s impact on employment.

At the beginning of this year, hospitality had the highest number of furloughed employees by industry, a rank it has held for much of the pandemic. A report compiled by Women in Hospitality Travel Leisure found that 65 percent of women had been furloughed, put on reduced hours, or made redundant in the sector during the pandemic, compared to 56 percent of men. These figures point toward a U.K.-wide regression in gender equality, but hospitality’s place as one of those shut-down industries — hampered by the mandatory closure of dining rooms — coupled with a working environment already difficult for women, means it has more concerns to address than most.


While pivoting to takeaway was essential for many restaurants to survive, the fact that women are far less likely to be in the kitchen meant this strategy came with significant disadvantages. While women made up 56 percent of the U.K.’s hospitality workforce in 2018, just 17 percent of chefs were female. A 2017 report found that 71 percent of waiting staff were female — a role virtually wiped out during lockdown. “It [was] mainly kitchen work,” said Alexis Noble, chef-owner at Stoke Newington restaurant Wander, of the roles which were far more likely to be retained by restaurants that pivoted to takeaway. “The front-of-house role [was] super limited. It’s probably going to be a restaurant manager doing that one-person role, handing out deliveries, and the rest of the work is in the kitchen.”

For female chefs, the specific pressures they have been under for so long — logistical and financial difficulties surrounding maternity leave and childcare and a perceived connection between one’s ability to do the job and physical strength — have been compounded to a new degree by the widespread workplace impact of the pandemic. While Sessegnon-Shakespeare is clear that the problem is systemic — “I think it’s almost expected of women that, if you’re going to be in this man’s world, we need to see you be a bully” — the unforeseen challenges of the last 16 months have brought with them disproportionate burdens on women, which are, for many, entirely and depressingly predictable.

One chef Eater London spoke to who wished to remain anonymous said that she was still expected to work throughout the week on menu development despite being furloughed for certain days — technically an illegal arrangement, but one that she said she had also seen happen to friends in many other restaurants. In fact, a survey from June last year estimated that a third of U.K. employees had been asked to commit furlough fraud by their employers. The chef’s frustration was exacerbated by being paid less than her older, male peer who was expected to do the same. The chef highlighted, however, that she agreed to do the work because there was simply so much to be done, and it was impossible to keep all aspects of the job to the hours she was allowed to work.


The pandemic has piled extra pressure on women trying to juggle their careers with motherhood — which has always been a more difficult balance to maintain for chefs and restaurant workers than those in most industries, largely due to the profession’s unusual working hours. Long days and the prevalence of double shifts require arranging a significant amount of childcare before and after typical school and nursery hours. Lockdown also made many forms of informal and formal after-school childcare impossible. Workers couldn’t as easily rely on family and friends from other households, nannies, or their children’s extracurricular clubs for support. This presented chefs who’d become accustomed to balancing those responsibilities and means of support with new logistical and financial obstacles to overcome. Then there is the question of whether school is even the relatively safe harbour it once was. While chefs are classed as key workers, and were therefore technically still able to send their children to schools during lockdown, safety fears around COVID have made whether to send their children at all a difficult decision for many.

During the first lockdown in spring 2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated that women took on two-thirds more childcare than men, while a survey by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed found that almost three-quarters of women had needed to cut work hours as a result.

“Women have suffered enormously,” said Asma Khan, the chef-owner of Covent Garden Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express, whose all-female kitchen team includes a number of mothers. “Many have had to let go of their work ambitions, and all the plans they had,” Khan said. Khan says she let her staff choose whether or not they wanted to be furloughed. “Everybody suddenly being at home — the cat, the dog, the husband, and the children — has been a balancing act and, of course, it’s the woman who’s doing it... Some did have children and wanted to work, and I completely supported them,” she said. “It was quite funny, because they were like, ‘Let my husband look after them for a change; let me come to work.’”

Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare of Tavolino
Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare of Tavolino
Tavolino

Sessegnon-Shakespeare also recalled a female chef feeling the need to ask her if it was even possible to have children and still work at the restaurant. That chef wasn’t the only one grappling with what was presented as an impossible union. “I was told at a pretty young age in the industry, that you either pick kids or you pick work,” said Spasia Dinkovski, founder of Mystic Borek and former operations manager at King’s Cross-then-Clerkenwell sandwich shop and deli Bodega Rita’s. “It was a woman that told me that, in a very matter-of-fact way. And of course, it’s standard — maternity leave is six months, and paternity leave is two weeks. It’s clear who can choose to work and who has to stay at home. The system is set up so that the childcare is left to the woman.”

The U.K. government introduced its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in March 2020, which allowed employers to furlough employees, with the government initially paying 80 percent of wages. As the scheme did not take into account any tronc earnings — tips, gratuities, service charges — most hospitality workers found that their furlough payment equated to significantly less than 80 percent of their take-home pay. For workers who still required childcare while on furlough — due to a second job or being on flexi-furlough, for example — this aggravated loss of income made affording care hugely straining, if not impossible. What’s more, the issue of decreased pay wasn’t necessarily resolved once they returned to work.

“How do you keep up with childcare costs if you’ve been furloughed?” said Dinkovski. “A lot of people I know went back to work, and the first thing they were told before they went back was that their salary was going to drop.” Dinkovski said three people she knew returned to work after the first lockdown in the summer of 2020 on a reduced salary “just so the business itself could survive,” she said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Elizabeth Haigh, chef-owner of Borough Market kopitiam Mei Mei and mum to 3-year-old Riley, was able to balance the role of mother and business owner. “It’s very difficult to have children and be doing the work that we do,” she said. But the daytime hours of operation at Mei Mei pre-pandemic — and Haigh’s ability to determine those hours herself, as the owner — were what made it possible to manage those roles. During the past 15 months, she balanced the need to furlough staff, pivot first to takeaway then to meal kits, and deal with nursery closures. In the midst of those changes, she and her husband have had to rearrange childcare on numerous occasions, and rely more on her parents for help.

“If it was working normally, Riley would be at nursery and then I’d go home and be able to spend time with him. Instead, we’re online doing meal kits, and I’m working six days a week, instead of the normal five or split shifts. It’s been just quite intense.”


Before the return of indoor dining and the so-called reopening of hospitality, a number of the chefs and restaurateurs Eater London spoke to were hopeful that the universal struggle across the industry and beyond to balance domestic and work life — along with more visible conversations around mental health in the U.K. media — would bring greater understanding to the barriers facing women.

“I think there’s been a break in the chain, a realisation that when women also do childcare or domestic work, it is exhausting,” says Missy Flynn, co-owner of Bodega Rita’s. “Maybe they’re not clocking in the 60 to 70 hours of the chef in the basement of a restaurant, but they are exhausted.”

Following a damning report by the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, chair and Conservative MP Caroline Nokes said that her own government’s economic response to the pandemic “overlooked the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women,” and that if that does not take them into account in its economic recovery plan, the U.K. “risks turning the clock back” on gender equality.

Missy Flynn of Bodega Rita’s, which is scheduled to open in Soho in the new year
Bodega Rita’s at Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross
Rita’s/Official Photo

With more women on furlough than men across the U.K., a greater number of them are at risk of job loss. Research by the Trades Union Congress showed that women accounted for 60 percent of job losses in the accommodation and food sectors between December 2019 and December 2020. “It would be good to get a lot more female representation in those higher-up positions [in the hospitality industry], but if you’re getting rid of [women in the lower ranks of businesses], then there will never be enough women in those positions to promote or even get that experience,” said Haigh.

While mass job losses among women in the industry may largely be the result of their standing in the labour market, Asma Khan suggested that a protectionism-fuelled cultural shift may also be to blame. The restaurateur expressed concern that “women feel like they are not wanted back” and that restaurateurs will “jettison all the women because they will see them as liabilities, not physically tough enough to deal with this incredibly hard time that we are going to all face.”

“They think they’re going into battle and are going to self-select this army of mainly men, who are physically fit and look the same, and women who look different, young girls, older women are not going to be hired back.”

Khan put the extent of this issue down to the fact that women are rarely the decision-makers in the industry. “Self-selection happens in hospitality at a huge scale. No restaurant has an HR department. The HR, the head chef — everything is one person. That person will pick their mates, and that is very disruptive... We lose out by the fact that we are not necessarily hanging around with the decision-maker, who’s almost inevitably a male, and white.”

Khan said that this attitude applies not only to women within the restaurant environment, but also for women restaurateurs seeking financial backing or, as she did in 2020, trying to secure a new restaurant site. She says that advancement is a lot to do with social visibility and acceptance, personal relationships, and nepotism.

“People’s attitude is that you feel a safe pair of hands is someone who looks like you. It is pretty much like an all-members-only Mayfair club — even when you’re signed in as a guest, you don’t really feel that you fit in. They want something familiar they can peg things to, and this disproportionately impacts women entrepreneurs, not just in hospitality, but everywhere. How is it that only one percent of venture capitalists’s money goes to women in this country? And I won’t even bother telling you how few women of colour get that money. Almost all the venture capitalists are male, and they see in men this idea that ‘he’s a pretty macho tough guy, he’s gonna make it.’ Statistically, most women don’t go bankrupt, don’t take risks, and repay loans — but no one wants to lend us money, because they think they’re picking a football team.”

Chef Asma Khan at her new restaurant, Darjeeling Express in Covent Garden
Chef Asma Khan at her restaurant, Darjeeling Express in Covent Garden, in 2020
Michaël Protin/Eater London

Sessegnon-Shakespeare said that chefs from minority ethnic backgrounds could also miss out in the mass post-lockdown rehiring. “If there are limited Black chefs, that means there’s limited ones that went to culinary school — it’s just a smaller puddle to pick from,” she said. “So it’s taking a chance on someone that might not have the skill level [according to certain qualifications], but has all the potential. I think now that everyone’s so desperate to get their places open, people aren’t going to take a chance.”


Hiring staff, however, has not been a straightforward task for restaurants in recent months. Research by trade association U.K. Hospitality estimated a vacancy rate of 9 percent in the industry in May 2021, meaning a shortage of 188,000 workers. Restaurants, including Michelin-starred Pied à Terre and Le Gavroche, have cited staff shortages as the reason for reducing their weekly services, either closing for lunch or entirely on quieter days.

U.K. Hospitality’s survey showed that overseas workers who had returned to their native countries amid the pandemic were put off from coming back by travel restrictions — with Brexit presumably also acting as a strong disincentive. A widespread reevaluation of work-life balance has been another contributing factor to staff shortages, with chefs and restaurateurs expressing to Eater London that the appeal of returning to hospitality for women could well have diminished to an even greater extent than for their male counterparts.

“I do worry that a lot of women of a certain age will now opt out of coming back to the industry, because they have decided that, actually, they want things for themselves,” Flynn said. “I think there is a pull to this feeling of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency that people have had to find in this time. If you had found that, I don’t know why you would suddenly give up your freedoms for minimum wage.”

Flynn’s former colleague Dinkovski set up her pastry-delivery business Mystic Borek while on furlough in August last year. Now, she’s working on it full time, having upped her production from 15 boreks — large, stuffed phyllo pastry pies inspired by Balkan recipes cooked by her grandmother — per week to 35 a day to meet demand induced by their soaring popularity. “The industry at the top is always going to be a boys’ club, but I think that there’s a new wave of food happening, which I like to think is way more welcoming to young women and marginalised people who might not feel like they belong.”

“I do actually, finally, have my own confidence now — and if what I’m doing is working, then that’s pretty empowering. It’s been 15 years of an industry telling me that I have to follow the rules, when I really don’t think you do.”

Dinkovski isn’t alone. Just one in four senior management positions in the hospitality, travel, and leisure industry are held by women, but every one of the women we spoke to highlighted that owning their own business either has or would help them to overcome gender-based disadvantages in the industry — pandemic-related or otherwise — and that it helps create a better environment for female employees.

“If you own your own restaurant, and you create your own thing, it doesn’t have to be like that,” Noble said. “That’s my advice to women — if you believe in yourself, and you think you can do it, don’t wait for someone to give it to you. Own your own stuff.”

But not everyone has the means or the desire to do that, so the culture of working, insofar as it is controlled by men, must now do more to serve women. And the somewhat misguided notion of the pandemic as a so-called great leveller could actually help draw attention to just how uneven the playing field currently is.

“I think what’s difficult is that, when it comes to mental health, people tend to care when they’ve experienced it,” said Sessegnon-Shakespeare. She added that she thought, for many, their relationship with mental health and experience of mental illness had changed as a result of lockdown. “I’m hoping that people who have suddenly experienced this, and are a manager or director, will start putting the importance of that in work.”

“[The pandemic has] given people a real perspective on what kind of workplaces they want to be part of and where they feel comfortable,” said Flynn, who is preparing to welcome new employees at Rita’s upcoming Soho site. “I think more and more people are now considering what the team makeup looks like, and I definitely feel like there is a way for people of all genders to work productively together.”

A portrait of Elizabeth Haigh, of Mei Mei in Borough Market, in a grey jumper and brown apron
Elizabeth Haigh, of Mei Mei in Borough Market
Mei Mei/Official Photo

Together and individually, the experiences of all of these women are a trenchant reminder that the pandemic has not affected everyone equally, where job losses have disproportionately affected sectors that employ higher proportions of women and BAME workers. A report by the Office for National Statistics has shown that women have consistently reported significantly higher levels of anxiety than men over the last year.

“There’s so much we [as women] give, and I don’t think the hospitality industry gives that back or even recognises that we have to go through all this,” said Sessegnon-Shakespeare. “What I’m hoping for after this past year is that men are going to have to be held accountable for their bullshit. I’m thinking it’s awakening a new conversation which needs to be had.”

Spring

Lancaster Place, , England WC2R 1LA 020 3011 0115 Visit Website

Pied à Terre

34 Charlotte Street, , England W1T 2NH 020 7636 1178 Visit Website

Le Gavroche

43 Upper Brook Street, , England W1K 7QR 020 7408 0881 Visit Website

Borough Market

8 Southwark Street, , England SE1 1TL 020 7407 1002 Visit Website

Darjeeling Express

2a Garrick Street, , England WC2E 9BH 020 7836 8888 Visit Website

Wander

214 Stoke Newington High Street, , England N16 7HU 020 7249 7283 Visit Website

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