‘Female Owned’ [The problem with gender spotlighting in the food industry]

Ah yes, we’ve all grown familiar with the beloved pink pussy hats and posters shining with empowered fists and sparkly uteruses.

Feminism has become a frequented–dare I say trendy– term we’ve gotten comfortable with throwing around. When looking at marketing, a plethora of brands and establishments have tried on the ‘women empowerment’ schtick for size, highlighting the fact that these businesses are female owned and founded.

While representation is cool, and women owning successful businesses is a good thing, it has become a kind of “theme” applied to restaurants — we become hyper fixated on the fact that the chef is a woman, rather than actually focusing on the food. As someone who grew up in the kitchen, the thought of me, a cis-gender female, working in the food industry doesn’t seem unattainable. So why is it that we need to underline ‘female’ or ‘woman’ in bright black letters every time before the word ‘restaurant’? To me, this feels like reinforcing the fact that women are still not accepted as capable of running businesses or being in power — whether that be restauranteur or head chef.

I mean, if you expect a woman to cook you dinner, can’t she run her own damn restaurant? 

While I think supporting females is phenomenal (I mean hello, we’ll take all the attention we can get), using ‘female’ as an adjective reinforces aspects of the gender binary, imposing traditional gendered stereotypes on women through its use of gender spotlighting. So I question- is using the phrase ‘female owned’ before a business, or more specifically, a restaurant, tacky tokening or a genuine stride towards equality? 

During the pandemic, LA food guides jumped on the feminist bandwagon, creating guides with titles such as ‘top ten female owned restaurants to support’ on platforms such as The Infatuation, Resy, and the LA Times. Yelp even created its own ‘woman owned’ filter to seek out restaurants with female executives. 

 In these cases, we see a sense of gender spotlighting. Spotlighting is a term used to describe the singling out gender in a role, implying it is out of the norm. This can be applied to both men and women: ‘male nurse’ institutes that it’s bizarre a male is found in this occupation, and thus, you’d never say the alternative ‘female nurse.’ This is especially the root of the problem with using ‘female owned’ to describe women working in the food industry. 

Using the female gender as an adjective drives home the idea that males are the standard.

This is problematic in the sense that it creates a disproportionate share of power in the restaurant world; we frequently find chef culture dominated by men (seriously, Guy Fierri?). Not only are male executive chefs found nearly 6 times more than their female counterparts, they’re paid substantially higher, and receive far more press. 

On the same note, keeping males as standard stuffs females into stereotypes. We commonly see the butch, tattooed macho presenting chef or the domestic mother chef: the Rachel Ray’s teaching us how to make after school snacks and dinners ‘in a pinch.’ 

‘Women owned’ also emphasizes the ubiquitous ‘girl boss’ culture. While it appears to raise women up and carve out space for us in a male dominated working world, in reality it diminishes female leadership and agency. To suggest a female restaurant owner or chef is a #girlboss directly infantilizes her. Because our pseudo progressive society is *still* afraid of females in power, we use terms like ‘girlboss’ to make the idea of a strong woman more digestible.

Ultimately, using ‘female’ as an adjective plays on the neoliberal savior complex — that women need ‘saving’. Not the knight in shining armor type of saving, the type of saving where everything they do should be supported, because they’ve ‘beat the odds’ to get there. Especially during the pandemic, this talking point that women owned businesses and restaurants especially needed our support was extremely familiar. Can you imagine if the roles were reversed? “Show your support for these male owned businesses!” Well first of all, I would never seek out a specifically male owned corporation.

But more importantly, when looking at gender as a relational concept, ie: a woman is only a woman when compared to a man, we’re still met with stupid, traditional values that constantly set the male as the default and anything a woman does as an anomaly, or in this case, needing our help. 

More specifically, and equally bothersome, is that the California Public Utilities Commission allows for companies to apply for a certification if one believes that their company qualifies as a women, minority and/or LGBTQA-owned business. Yes, these are groups that often need assistance, but continually placing them under this category insinuates that they will stay at the bottom. Rather than actually addressing the systemic roots of the discriminatory problems against these groups, companies just label them as ‘needing our assistance’ which actually doesn’t do shit. These assumptions cause us not to see their skill and mastery for what it is, but instead minimizes them down to solely just their gender, race, or sexuality. Using these identity markers as adjectives is just slapping a bandaid over a larger, deep-rooted problem.

But I digress, of course it’s fine to support these businesses. Doing your research as a consumer to support and uplift marginalized communities can be genuine, rather than trendy. While it can be challenging today to distinguish between gimmicky marketing campaigns that cash in on the women’s movement for clout versus businesses that actively support women’s rights, there exists legitimate restaurants that attempt to shed light on the importance of a female in charge. 

There’s nothing sexy about the gender pay gap, harmful stereotypes in the food industry, or the domestic pressure for females to stay home and cook for their kids rather than for the public in a restaurant. Addressing these problems is the only true way to achieve equality; placing the ‘female owned’ marker simply undermines all of this. And at the end of the day, a female who owns her own restaurant is not a #queen or an oddity to be marveled at. She is a human being, capable of being in a power position just as much as her male counterparts.