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Cooking up equality - The Pitt News

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Cooking up equality

Deborah+Harris%2C+associate+professor+at+Texas+State+Univesity+presented+%22Taking+the+heat%3A+Women+chefs+and+gender+inequality+in+the+professional+kitchen%22.++Nikki+Moriello+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer
Deborah Harris, associate professor at Texas State Univesity presented

Deborah Harris, associate professor at Texas State Univesity presented "Taking the heat: Women chefs and gender inequality in the professional kitchen". Nikki Moriello | Senior Staff Photographer

Deborah Harris, associate professor at Texas State Univesity presented "Taking the heat: Women chefs and gender inequality in the professional kitchen". Nikki Moriello | Senior Staff Photographer

By Alexa Bakalarski / Staff Writer

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As Deborah Harris watched female chefs teetering in heels on a cooking show challenge where contestants thought they were going to a nightclub, she realized sexism is a main ingredient of the culinary industry.

The gender, sexuality and women’s studies department hosted Harris, an associate professor of sociology at Texas State University, to discuss her book, “Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen,” in the Cathedral of Learning 4 p.m. Monday as part of the Year of the Humanities and Harris’ lecture series.

Julie Beaulieu, a lecturer in the GSWS department, said the department chose to invite Harris to campus because her talk aligned with the department’s message and meshed well with the Politics of Gender and Food class the it offers. The class explores the intersections of politics and food, much like Harris’ lecture did.

“Food is something that we do every day but don’t think about critically a lot,” Beaulieu said.

Harris said the societal pressures on women in male-dominated spaces — pressure to prove grit, conform to traditional methods and act less-than-feminine — make for unequal kitchens and thwarted female talent.

“Why is it the gender we typically associate with cooking in the home? Why is it when it cooking is a profession, it is so male-dominated?” Harris said about the focus of her research. “It’s this higher echelon of cooking that has been dominated by men.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2012 report, women only made up about 20 percent of executive and head chef positions — and Harris and co-author Patti Giuffre found there are even fewer female chefs than female CEOs. In Pittsburgh, too, only one female chef made Pittsburgh Magazine’s Chefs of the Year 13-person list in 2014, the last year the Magazine published the list.

Beginning in 2008, Harris and Giuffre researched and analyzed more than 2,000 chef profiles and food reviews, and conducted 33 interviews with female chefs for their book, which came out May 2015.

As she combed through food media articles, Harris saw a difference between adjectives commonly used to describe male chefs — “experimental,” “visionary,” “decadent” — and those used to describe female chefs — “pleasing diners,” “homey,” “like a home-cooked meal.”

She said this tangible separation is the product of a society that associates home-style cooking with women and elegant, gourmet cooking with men.

According to Harris, female chefs often feel they’re only expected to be capable of cooking for a household setting — and that, historically, this feeling comes from male oppression in the culinary industry beginning around the French Revolution.

When that household structure meant people could get free, high-quality meals without the hassle of traveling to a restaurant, Harris said, male chefs began to fear that the association between culinary arts and women would devalue the art.

“There is always this threat of [women’s] work being devalued because of this constancy of associating cooking with women’s work, unpaid work in the home,” Harris said.

To challenge this, male chefs drove a rivet between high-end “haute” cuisine from home cuisine, which initated an effort to exclude women from culinary school, large competitions and high-end restaurants, according to Harris.

“At this point in history, chefs were just servants,” Harris said, referring to the French Revolution. “Today, chefs are the new rock stars.”

Taylor Abbonizio, a senior psychology major, said she notices sexism when she kicks back to watch competitive cooking shows between classes, so she was interested in a sociological, research-based analysis of kitchen misogyny.

“I always think it’s interesting that all the women [on competitive cooking shows] are talking about how they have to work so much harder and prove that they’re good cooks in relation to the men,” Abbonizio said.

Fifth-year senior Elise Fengler said Harris’ research will “get the ball rolling” on issues of gender inequality in professional kitchens — something she said she didn’t consider as a problem until she heard Harris speak.

“I don’t think it’s gotten as much spotlight as it should, so I think this is a good jumping point to get people more aware of the topic,” Fengler said.

Harris said the solution to this insidious gender inequality lies in seizing the “hot pop culture moment” chefs are currently in and demanding change in kitchen subcultures.

“A lot of the women have made this part of their work and are reporting really good results from that in their kitchens,” Harris said.

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Cooking up equality