As someone who has always been proud of the opportunities our industry has provided to women and minorities, I have been disappointed by the small number of women I have seen at industry conferences, especially those with a high number of attendees from the fast-casual and quick-service segments.

Obviously, just looking around the room doesn’t provide a statistically accurate or meaningful sample, but my discussions with respected industry experts and my own research has lead me to conclude that there are indeed few women in high level roles in our segment. This is, unfortunately, one of the few areas where fast casual may not be leading the industry.

After reading the recent White House report “Women in America” (recommended reading for all) and QSR’s list of the top women in quick-service, I was determined to find out what caused the apparent dearth of women leaders in fast casual when compared to other segments. Because of the lack of data on the relatively young segment, it’s hard to quantify what created such a shortcoming among fast-casual companies. Surely your comments below will offer some realistic causes, but for starters we know that the lack of women in top leadership roles isn’t unique to our segment or the restaurant industry. Although the conditions for women in the workforce have been much improved over the last 10 to 20 years, corporate America is still an old boys club at the highest levels.

According to Catalyst, only 25 companies in the Fortune 1000 have female CEOs, and women hold only 14.4 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. More than 27 percent of Fortune 500 companies have no female officers at all. This is quite unfortunate for stockholders as companies with women officers perform better than men in terms of return on equity and return to stockholders.

While most restaurant companies cannot compete with Fortune 1000 companies in terms of resources, we can profit from their failures in promoting diversity. By providing more opportunities for learning, skill development, and personal growth and by allowing and encouraging our employees to learn about our company in multiple areas (operations, HR, marketing), we can provide a breadth of knowledge that large bureaucratic “Silo” organizations can’t.

By not having women in more leadership roles, we are essentially writing off half of the best and brightest of Gen Y.

Large companies may get lots of press, but it is small businesses that propel much of the growth in the economy and create both jobs and wealth. Whether you are looking at mom and pop stores or franchisees, small businesses comprise much of the restaurant sector in this country. According to a recent study by the NRA, 50 percent of restaurant owners are women. In the larger economy, women own only 28 percent of small businesses. Furthermore, our industry is extremely diverse in regards to virtually every demographic statistic you would want to measure. While I am proud of these facts, it is imperative that we do better when it comes to general managers, district managers, and those above them on the corporate ladder. Women comprise the majority of those receiving either undergraduate or graduate degrees, and women are projected to provide 52 percent of total labor force growth in future years. By not having women in more leadership roles, we are essentially writing off half of the best and brightest of Gen Y.

Our competitors in health care and other industries are being smarter. The recession has only temporarily delayed the battle for talent that we will face over the next 10 to 15 years. Demographics are not in our favor. Fast-casual operators need to lead the industry in the recruitment and development of women leaders by making a conscious and determined effort to do so. McDonald’s recently proved it is possible for even the largest companies to do so on a worldwide basis with their “Freedom Within a Framework: Global Women’s Initiatives” program.

Furthermore, my own experience and much of the research I have seen indicates that higher income professional women and soccer moms are the sweet spots for fast casuals in terms of frequency of usage and expenditure. While I would like to think that I can sell anything to anyone, having women in leadership, store design, and sales positions is vital in terms of selling and marketing to these groups and fully understanding their wants, needs, and desires.

Of course, I’m not going to leave you without at least a short list of the great women our segment has. Here are the best and the brightest:

Roz Mallet: Roz is president and CEO of PhaseNext Hospitality, which is a franchisee of several fast-casual concepts. She has had many roles in various segments of the industry and is also vice chair of the National Restaurant Association.

Clarice Turner: Clarice is senior vice president of Starbucks and former COO of Papa Murphy’s. She is also an NRA board member and veteran of Yum! Brands.

Joni Doolin: Joni is the founder of People Report and one of the great thought leaders in the restaurant industry. Although she is not a restaurant operator, Joni has influenced hundreds of leaders in all segments of the industry, especially those in fast casual who share her views on how to run companies, contribute to society, and treat our people. The leaders Joni has impacted have, in turn, impacted thousands of other people.

Sue Morelli: Sue is CEO at Au Bon Pain and had numerous past roles in her 20-plus years at the company, including overseeing catering, marketing, and institutional sales.

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