When Kathleen Marburger had her children more than two decades ago, she was working for a small, mom and pop restaurant in Texas. She received six weeks of unpaid maternity leave after giving birth and had to pay for insurance herself.
“That was kind of crazy, and I didn’t even take my whole six weeks, because I wasn’t getting paid,” says Marburger, now an area supervisor at Chuy’s Holdings of Austin, Texas. “It wasn’t a lot of fun, looking back.”
Her experience reflects the restaurant industry in the 1980s and early 1990s, experts say, when women held fewer management positions and the industry was less tailored to their needs. Today, female managers are the norm and receive expansive health benefits, but experts say restaurants can make more efforts to promote women to leadership positions.
Organizations with gender-balanced teams, from entry-level positions through the C-suite, have better financial results and return on investment, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that researches women at work. Some restaurants, such as Chuy’s, focus on mentorship and development of women as part of their brand identities.
More than 30 percent of Chuy’s general managers are women, but the company says it wants that number to increase.
“The challenge has been that most women don’t see the restaurant industry as the first industry of choice,” says Anna Mason, general manager of the Women’s Foodservice Forum. She says many enter the industry with a temporary job after college, but women who accidentally make it their career actually find it fulfilling and rewarding.
“Women are equal to men in leadership roles,” Mason explains. “What they bring is a different viewpoint, and the more perspectives you have at a business table making a decision, the better outcome you will have.”
Marburger points out how females may bring a community mindset: “I had an epiphany when I was a young manager and I hired one of my neighborhood kids. I realized it wasn’t just about the restaurant business; it was about teaching people how to work and teaching kids in the neighborhood responsibility.”
To that end, Marburger often mentors young, female staff members. She coaches women how to be professionals in the workplace, act as leaders, find time for themselves, and, if they have children, to make time for their families while working in an industry whose hours include nights and weekends.
“In Austin, four of our five restaurants have female general managers,” Marburger says. “If you work hard, you’re valued, you have a voice. It doesn’t really matter if you’re male or female.”