Women in Foodservice | June 2013 | By Julie Knudson

All Fair in Foodservice?

Women stake their claim in the future of the restaurant industry.

Cinnabon president Kat Cole is one woman who has risen the fast food ranks.
Cinnabon president Kat Cole is just one female who has risen to the top of the ranks in the foodservice industry. Cinnabon
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The foodservice industry has come a long way since the days when it was dominated by men, with more than half of the restaurant talent pool now made up of women. From the front counter to the corner office, women are increasingly influencing the future of the industry.

Women’s standing in the quick-service sector, along with their ability to receive and seize on opportunities, has improved drastically over the last 10–15 years, writes Carrie Luxem, president of Restaurant HR Group in Arlington Heights, Illinois, in an e-mail to QSR. She says much of the ground that’s been gained may relate more to women’s attitudes than to the breakdown of gender biases, however.

“It is different today, because women are taking the restaurant industry and the opportunities more seriously,” she says, adding that more women are approaching foodservice as a career, rather than simply as a way to pay the bills. If women’s perspectives have changed, so have the viewpoints of many companies. “Very often, we hear that women make great leaders, and [owners and operators] would like to have more of a ‘female presence,’” she says.

Kendra Brennan, a franchisee with The New Miami Subs Grill in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says she believes men and women today are on equal footing in the quick-serve sector. Brennan hasn’t experienced bias based on being a woman, and she says the same was largely true when she started in foodservice in the ’70s. Pushback, she says, came then—as it does now—more from a lack of credentials than gender.

“It’s a matter of if you have the experience necessary to do what you want to do,” she says. “That’s more important than anything else.” To build credibility at the beginning of her career, Brennan attended culinary school and says she noticed a big change in people’s perception of her in the industry.

Just 15 years ago, when the number of women in foodservice leadership roles was smaller than it is today, Kat Cole, president of Atlanta-based Cinnabon, says she didn’t feel discriminated against.

She adds that gender parity within the foodservice industry mirrors trends found in nearly every other business sector, where entry-level positions are often filled equally by men and women. But because quick service lends itself to a transient contingent of employees, Cole says, many are simply looking for a way to pay for college or otherwise support themselves on the way to a career in a different industry.

As these employees leave or choose not to seek advancement, the numbers begin to skew toward men farther up the ladder. “As you move up to general manager, multiunit supervisor, franchisee, and corporate executive, [the presence of women] starts to thin out,” Cole says. “That really follows the pattern of women in the workplace.”

While she says there is no shortage of opportunity for women in today’s business environment, Cole does still see more men in top positions. Part of that trend may be related to women choosing to leave the sector—sometimes because they planned for a career in another industry all along, and other times because they don’t think the avenues for advancement are what they’re looking for.

“In general, as women move up and look at opportunities to take on more management responsibility, they find themselves questioning whether that is what they want to do,” Cole says. “If it is what they want to do, is it possible to manage the things they want to do in their personal lives versus their professional lives?”

Though she says foodservice often provides the schedule flexibility that some industries don’t, the direct-to-consumer retail sector doesn’t lend itself to telecommuting or other arrangements from which a work-life balancing act might benefit.

This tradeoff may cause some women to reconsider advancing their careers if the result is less time dedicated to family matters. Luxem says issues surrounding family and quality of life are potential roadblocks preventing equal gender representation in the upper echelons.

“Too often we hear that ‘women can’t handle this industry’ due to long hours, hard [physical] labor, and managing their family obligations,” she says. “There are still operators that believe this is a man’s industry, and women are more suited for the restaurant office or support positions.”

Cole says the foodservice industry holds just as many opportunities for women as any other industry, and while men continue to occupy C-suite roles more than women, the number of females entering the upper realms of leadership is growing.

“Some of that is a function of time,” she says. “There are a lot of women at the vice president and senior director level, and they are the candidate pool for tomorrow’s presidents and CEOs.”

Given time, she adds, this process should lead to even greater diversity among quick serves’ leadership teams.

As women increasingly take on the role of breadwinner in the family, Luxem says, women’s equality in the workplace will continue to improve. In addition, the work she’s seen companies put into hiring and promoting women into management roles is starting to pay off.

“My hope is that eventually this focus will grow into promoting women into senior-level and executive positions,” she says. “With continued focus on this topic, restaurant owners and operators will be more focused on putting effort into ensuring they hire and promote women leaders as they grow their concepts.”