The cost of the pandemic to the hospitality industry has made big headlines lately. As brands seek front-line workers to fill positions and satisfy growing demand. But after 18 years in the space, I can’t help but wonder if there is a more significant employment crisis facing the industry.
I’ve been in the trenches of the restaurant industry, spending time building brands and working on their messaging, all the while searching for mentorship and professional opportunities within each corporation I was in service of.
The food service industry has long been criticized for its lack of diverse representation, particularly in terms of its disparity in gender inclusivity at the top, and that has led many of the sector’s largest brands to announce commitments to diversity within the c-level ranks. But the questions remain: will 2021 finally be the turning point for women within the restaurant sector, and what catalysts can propel the industry forward?
Post-pandemic, women are likely to play a key role in determining how the food and restaurant industry rebuilds, as well as a determining factor in how quickly it can rebound from the recent significant socio-economic impacts. The restaurant industry, where women represent half the workforce, ended 2020 with 2.5 million fewer jobs than pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association. Since the restaurant and food trades offer numerous entry-level positions, the sector has historically been an important employer for women specifically.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 60% of American women have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their life. While nationwide, women in the United States represented more than half of all restaurant workers (52%) and servers (71%), roles for women in management have been limited. In comparison, white men made up 37% of entry-level positions and 70% of chief executive roles. The reason? Industry experts point to the sector’s persistent institutional structures that have historically benefited men.
In an industry known for its fast pace, aggressive tactics, and long hours, leadership roles for women have traditionally been rare. A prototype for the typical C-level executive remains pretty predictable and at the highest ranks, there is often a lack of diversity. One challenge that may be hindering organizational change within the industry is subconscious bias—the tendency to hire those that you share a commonality with. Research has said that unconscious bias toward people who are of the same race, education level, economic status and have the same personality, fears, or values influences who you hire much more than you think.
What’s more, work environments like the restaurant industry tend to be feeding grounds for power imbalances for women, leaving them more susceptible to sexual harassment and retaliation. With many more men than women at the top, the restaurant industry has been challenged when it comes to instituting change and promoting safe work environments. A 2014 study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 80% of female restaurant workers had experienced harassment from a coworker while two-thirds had experienced harassment from a manager.
Over the past few years, the segment has seen many more successful women with the goal climbing the ranks and breaking through the glass ceiling in the hospitality industry. Yet, the odds are often still stacked against women in a world that has grown accustomed to male leaders, reinforcing a standard where women are continuously challenged to prove themselves worthy.
But change may be on the horizon. Recent economic drivers, including the rising demands of responding to COVID-19, a growing call for leadership diversity, and the upcoming departures of Baby Boomer men in these roles, could signal significant turnover in the next few years. Corporate leaders and boards are also becoming more aware of changing tides and continue to be pressured by calls for inclusiveness, which could potentially open doors for a new era of more diverse leaders.
And change could be precisely the catalyst that helps brands continue on a growth track. Companies with more than 30 percent women on their executive teams are significantly more likely to outperform those that have between 10 and 30 percent women, and these companies in turn, are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women executives. As a result, there is a substantial performance differential—48 percent—between the most and least gender-diverse companies.
In addition, for many brands rebuilding teams, post-pandemic pressures include promoting positive working environments where equity considerations and staff diversity are becoming as important as benefit packages and vacation time. Carrying the innovation of the past year forward (and building on it) offers true opportunity for our companies and the men and women working in the hospitality industry. With tides changing for the industry as a whole, only time will tell whether a true evolution is on the horizon for women in the workplace.
Brittany Maroney is a senior product marketing manager for Punchh, a customer loyalty platform for restaurants, groceries, and retailers. Brittany is an 18-year veteran of the restaurant industry and specializes in writing thought leadership pieces on the restaurant industry on topics like technology and people development.