Food service industry’s disconcerting glass ceiling

Gender equality in restaurant management makes strategic sense - how else do you fully understand markets and see new opportunities?

HALIFAX, N.S. June 17, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Gender imbalance within its leadership ranks is holding back Canada’s restaurant industry.

Restaurant Brands International Inc., the Canadian-based parent company of Burger King and Tim Hortons, was recently criticized by a Canadian investment fund for having an all-male board. The board’s response? To carry on with its business without any changes, thus missing an opportunity to send a clear signal that something has to change in the industry.

While more than 70 per cent of front-of-house restaurant employees are women, the kitchen, where many managerial decisions are made, is often dominated by men.

At the corporate level, the situation is even worse. At a recent Canadian Restaurant Association conference in Toronto, more than 80 per cent of the industry leadership were men and many panels during the conference were all male. This is in sharp contrast to what most people know of the food service industry.

The challenge is everywhere.

Cara Operations Ltd., owner of such major Canadian chains such as Harvey’s, Montana’s, Swiss Chalet and St-Hubert, has an all-male board. As well, very few women are involved in upper management. Similarly, the majority of the management at fast-food chain A&W are men.

Yet if you discuss the issue with industry leaders, no one appears to mind. So Restaurant Brands International ’s response to the request to make its board more gender-balanced is anything but surprising.

The result of this gender imbalance is that management practices are often behind the times. For example, many women servers are still expected to wear short skirts, sexualizing food service. Earls Kitchen and Bar recently backed down on its strict dress code for female servers by offering a choice between pants and skirts. Previously, women servers had to make a formal request to wear something other than a short skirt. The chain made the change after the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario stated that waitresses should not have to make a request to wear something other than revealing attire at work.

For several years, women have represented almost 60 per cent of university graduates in Canada, but they have been unable to make inroads in food services management and on boards. Challenging schedules and child-rearing realities are obvious constraints for women, but the industry should find ways to manage these intricacies. Other sectors have.

Grocers face similar challenges but are doing something about it. Beyond board diversity, most grocers are making a deliberate effort to nurture female leadership. The advancement of female talent is at the core of corporate priorities for companies like Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro.

In food service, however, the old-boys network remains predominant.

Gender equality and diversity on boards and in management is not only the right thing to do, it also makes strategic sense. How else do you fully understand markets and see new opportunities?

A Boston-based group suggested recently that the stocks of female-led Fortune 1000 companies are likely to outperform other companies.

And the way women assess market gaps and manage risks is complementary to men.

Time will eventually help women, since most men under 50 don’t carry the same biases as previous generations.

In fact, gender equality is not only expected, it should be proactively sought. The gender-balanced cabinet that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed last fall was hardly a surprise for younger men, who saw it as normal gesture: government should fully represent its constituents.

The same should apply to economic sectors that matter to everyone. The food industry should value diversity at least as much as any other industry. Most families in Canada spend more than $2,500 of their annual budgets in restaurants, and that amount rises every year.

Traditionally, calls for more women in leadership roles in the food service industry have come from women. Plainly, the industry now needs male champions for women leaders. Remaining quiet is no longer an option.

Troy Media columnist Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University. Sylvain is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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