When it comes to more women in the restaurant workplace, the challenge might actually start at the bottom.

McKinsey & Company has issued its “Women in the Workplace” report every year since 2015, polling close to 600 companies and more than a quarter of a million people.

In 2019, 44 percent of the companies said they had three or more women in the C-suite, an impressive leap from 2015’s 29 percent. Yet the overall representation of women at the top level remains far from parity. About one in five C-suite executives are women—and only one in 25 are women of color.

If you step back and look at this conversation from a five-year vantage point, these kind of good news-bad news data points emerge often.   

But clear opportunity also surfaces for employers, especially amid today’s ultra-competitive, restricted workforce, where the unemployment rate has sat at either 3.5 of 3.6 percent for six straight months.

Mainly, more companies, restaurants included, need to focus efforts earlier in the pipeline to inspire change and address the reality women continue to be underrepresented at every level.

McKinsey & Company graph.

“To change the numbers, companies need to focus where the real problem is,” McKinsey & Company said in the report. “We often talk about the ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager. Fixing this ‘broken rung’ is the key to achieving parity.”

Workplace diversity is essential to building company culture given how difficult it is to attract and retain talent today. It leads to more inclusivity. In turn, employees feel the system isn’t rigged and their potential to climb the corporate ladder is there for the taking. It’s possible through hard work and not defined or clipped by something external and out of their control, like race or gender.

The hospitality industry has long benefited from being a first-to-entry option for people across all demographics. It’s why restaurants embody the classical ideal of the American Dream: where the ladder to success is accessible to anyone who has the drive to start climbing.

A Waitress Poses For A Photo

Women remain underrepresented across the workforce.

And actually walking that walk can pay off, McKinsey & Company said. Inclusivity and a fair work culture result in better retention, more engaged employees, and, from the corporate perspective, lower turnover costs and the ability to manage productivity thanks to higher-performing employees. In other words, if you have more qualified and capable workers, they can multitask jobs—a key considering many restaurants are forced to ask more of people these days as employees per unit decrease thanks to higher wage rates, regulations, etc.

McKinsey & Company’s study showed more women are becoming senior leaders as a result of two trends. Firstly, more are being hired at the director level and higher than in past years. Secondly, senior-level women are promoted on average at a higher rate than men. Men are also proving more likely to leave companies at the SVP and C-suite levels, which is opening more positions for women.

This “broken rung,” however, is a labor target worth circling. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired, McKinsey & Company said.

It leaves more women stuck at the entry level, or crew/hourly distinction in foodservice. Men hold 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women helm just 38 percent.

“This early inequality has a long-term impact on the talent pipeline,” McKinsey & Company said. “Since men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, there are significantly fewer women to hire or promote to senior managers. The number of women decreases at every subsequent level. So even as hiring and promotion rates improve for women at senior levels, women as a whole can never catch up. There are simply too few women to advance.”

The math is compelling, too. If women were promoted and hired to first-level manager at the same rates as men, America would add a million more women to management over the next five years.

It’s a goal restaurants can jump on. McKinsey & Company said about a third of companies set targets for the representation of women at first-level management, compared to 41 percent for senior levels. “Given how important it is to fix the broken rung, companies would be well served by setting and publicizing a bold goal to grow the number of women at the manager level,” it said.

Some other tips include:

Require diverse slates for hiring and promotions. Data shows when two or more women are included on a slate, the likelihood that a woman will get the position rises dramatically.

Put evaluators through unconscious bias training. There is powerful evidence that this training works: In companies with smaller gender disparities in representation, half of employees received unconscious bias training in the past year, compared to only a quarter of employees in companies that aren’t making progress closing these gaps.

Establish clear evaluation criteria. This will help prevent bias from creeping into hiring and reviews. Evaluation tools that are easy to use and designed to gather objective, measurable input, like a rating scale in favor of an open-ended assessment.

Put more women in line for the step up to manager. To McKinsey & Company’s point: “It is critical that women get the experience they need to be ready for management roles, as well as opportunities to raise their profile so they get tapped for them.”

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), On the Border’s CMO, Edithann Ramey, and its chief people officer, Diane Sanford, took some time to chat with FSR about their career roads, where the company is headed, and what it’s like to thrive in today’s industry as a woman.

Ramey came to OTB from Topgolf, where she served as senior director of brand extensions. Before, she clocked a decade at Brinker International’s Chili’s, including working as VP of marketing. Sanford clocked time at Day Star Restaurant Group as SVP of human resources before joining OTB in 2014. She also worked at Brinker in a variety of people-focused roles (Brinker purchased On The Border in 1994. It then signed a deal with OTB Acquisition LLC, an affiliate of Golden Gate Capital, to sell the brand in 2010 before Argonne Capital completed its purchase of On The Border in June 2014).

OTB takes giving back very seriously and we have a national partnership with No Kid Hungry, support many local causes and charities, and have an OTB Foundation that provides monetary support to employees who experience catastrophic loss.

A conversation with Sanford

Talk about your role at On the Border. How did you connect with the brand, and what are your main tasks today?

I have a long history with On The Border having worked at Brinker International when they purchased the brand (1993/1994) and there when the brand was sold to Golden Gate. OTB was my most favorite of the Brinker portfolio brands. It was the Culture: It had a swagger and an energy that came from the pride held by the employees. They always seemed to be having so much fun doing what they did. The food was (and still is) great too! When I got the call to come back to the brand, I jumped at the chance to make a positive difference inside of a brand that I truly love.

In my role as Chief People Officer, I oversee the traditional HR functions (employee relations, recruiting, benefits & compensation and training and development). Additionally, the Risk Management & Safety Programs report into me (i.e., business insurance, workers compensation and general liability management).   

Speaking more broadly, how far do you think the industry has come in terms of including women in leadership roles? How far is there still to go?

We’ve definitely made progress in terms of awareness and gaining alignment that women belong in leadership roles in our industry. This is evidenced by the many women who lead brands, by the growth of Women’s’ Foodservice Forum membership and other organizations advocating for equality. How far is there to go? Well, the fact that we are still talking about creating equality indicates that more progress is needed. We still have a disparity in the number of women vs men in key leadership roles (i.e., C-Level positions and Board of Director roles). There is no better time than now to hire more women, to focus on accelerating their development, at the same time more education is needed to remove unconscious bias from the decision-making process. Women are sometimes measured by different standards, whether done consciously or not, which makes their progress less straightforward than their male counterparts.

At On the Border specifically, what kind of effort does the company make to promote diversity throughout the entire organization, as well as the C-suite?

At On The Border we are very aware of our responsibility as leaders to create an environment where people feel safe, and where they want to work, grow and stay. I feel confident that at each level of leadership there exists a strong commitment to supporting and encouraging diversity. Specifically, we have programs specifically designed to support our female leaders like our Women’s Leadership Forum, a development program now in its fourth year for our female general managers. This group meets two to three times per year and our goal is to accelerate their development through targeted content and increase their exposure to (and support from) the senior leaders of our organization. 

Additionally, we have a well-developed workforce planning process where we discuss each person’s readiness and developmental needs. We also have specific tactics and partnerships at each phase of the employee lifecycle starting with our attraction & selection process. Our leadership team has had many conversations about the differences in how different genders communicate and about how we can continue to give a voice to those that are under-represented in the workforce.

On The Border takes a systematic approach to reviewing all of its people-related processes from selection/hiring to training and development programs that give more people more opportunities.

What are some challenges each of you have faced over the course of your careers on this topic? How did you overcome them?

I’ve been very lucky and cannot point to an incident or time as I was growing my career where I felt inhibited because I’m female. I will say that it does get more challenging as you take on more senior roles. For me, I found that my male counterparts bonded over things that I don’t have a lot of deep knowledge in; like sports. Talking about non work-related topics allows you to bond as people which makes the team connection that much stronger. So, I have had to find other ways to connect. Men also interact differently with other men—they interrupt more, ask more questions of women and, in general, take up more space than their female counterparts. (Google any article on gender speak to learn more.) Trying to always be polite, I’ve learned to deter interruptions and lead with a point of view in conversations. 

What kind of advice would you give an aspiring young woman in the business who wants to climb the corporate ladder?

No. 1, find something you’re passionate about in the business and become an expert on that subject. Two, build strong relationships inside and outside your organization. Take time to get to know more about people than the job they do. Three, build your business credibility. Make sure you know your stuff, learn about the broader business and understand how the business makes money. The revenue centers are the heart of the organization and understanding the strengths, weaknesses and industry challenges will help you build credibility as a businessperson.  

As chief people officer, what kind of recruitment and employee relations initiatives are you implementing to make sure everybody gets a fair shot, and can go as far as they want to go?

This may sound cliché, but one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to build a culture that’s based on fairness, transparency and leverages processes that are applied consistently across the organization. If a People First culture is in place, and you collectively strive to do the right thing, that will prevent any process-related shortcomings from getting in the way of a person’s chances. That said, I’ve taken a systematic approach to reviewing all of our people-related processes from selection/hiring to training and development programs that give more people more opportunities. We are continuously evolving our programs and processes based on feedback and newer ways of thinking, but at the core, the focus has been on providing equal access to open positions and keeping our processes for hiring & promotion open so that everyone has a chance to discuss their qualifications.

We also make sure people have targeted development plans so they can grow in their careers and receive regular feedback and coaching to improve. In our Women’s Leadership Forum, we’ve strategically packaged development content into a Meeting-in-a-Box format that allows our female general managers to share the content with all of the managers in their home markets. This is a double bonus because more people are exposed to the information and it gives our female leaders a chance to build their presentation and facilitation skills.

Just generally, how has On the Border helped inspire retention and foster engagement amid such a tight labor market?

We benchmark our programs against the industry and have a foundational philosophy of rounding up on people. We make an effort to actively listen through engagement surveys and round tables along with making sure people receive timely performance feedback so they know where they stand and what to work on.  We also support individual development with targeted programs and development plans so each individual can take command of his/her career path. 

OTB takes giving back very seriously and we have a national partnership with No Kid Hungry, support many local causes and charities, and have an OTB Foundation that provides monetary support to employees who experience catastrophic loss. More importantly, it’s the On The Border culture that was part of the brand’s DNA from the very beginning and which each leader is responsible for upholding.  When people can connect with who they work with and are inspired by an organization because that organization cares about them and cares about the communities they operate in, then that makes where you work something more than just a job. 

And what’s the biggest challenge with labor right now?

There are so many layers in the answer to your question. The biggest challenges come from the lowest unemployment rate in decades, a shrinking labor pool (the restaurant industry used to be the top choice for first jobs, and that is no longer the case), regulatory pressures, etc.  However, the biggest challenge with people (using “labor” depersonalizes the subject in my opinion), is creating a workplace where they get something out of the work they do. Employers who make the individual feel seen and heard will have a competitive advantage because they’ll have an army of brand ambassadors versus army of “workers.”

Lastly, what kind of sense of responsibility or purpose do you feel inspiring the next generation of women restaurant leaders? How can the entire industry do a better job of that?

I was incredibly lucky to have had strong female leaders take an interest in me and my career. At different points along my journey, they helped create the space I needed to learn and gave me opportunities to work on projects and to learn while making mistakes that I would not otherwise have been given. Paying it forward is incredibly important to me and something I take very seriously. I try to show my gratitude for the opportunities I was given by giving opportunities to women on my team, reaching out to female leaders in our organization, and supporting their development by partnering with other senior leaders in our organization. 

It’s extremely important to me that everyone feels heard, knows their value and has an opportunity to learn something along the way.

On The Border CMO Edithann Ramey

On The Border CMO Edithann Ramey previously clocked time with Topgolf and Brinker.

A conversation with Ramey

How has On the Border really fostered its vision of “bringing people together to celebrate and enjoy authentic border-style food?” What kind of marketing programs and thought leadership practices promote this?

At On The Border, we are laser-focused on being a place that creates joyful experiences for our guests. It’s so simple, but so special for people to come eat, drink, laugh and live in the moment with us.

We’ve been open for a long time and we’re very proud of that. But, in order to win the hearts of our guests we’ve had to become better, bolder. Just this past year, we’ve made significant changes and improvements in our marketing programs and our leadership practices. Our goal is to over-deliver on tasty, craveable border-style food and also give guests a total “border-style experience” that is celebratory, but most importantly memorable.

This year we’ve dedicated resources and attention to elevating our guest experience through new operators, team structures and field processes to make sure we are executing just right.  We are also remodeling our restaurants to infuse them with brighter, bolder and refreshed designs that will make our guests feel welcomed and comfortable. We’ve also upgraded our music and introduced new kitchen designs, so we can get food faster to the table. This year, we are even launching OTB Delivery to make it easy to enjoy OTB at home.

We are also elevating our food offerings with Border-Style bold flavors and launched a new menu designed to showcase our border-style favorites. It has over 20 new items for our guests this year including:

  • New Shaker Margaritas so we can continue to be the margarita authority;
  • New Appetizers, New Enchiladas, Tacos and Lunch Items;
  • New Value offerings like our Queso-Fest for under $8.99; and
  • An Endless Taco platform with our first ever Beyond Meat Tacos.

We’re talking about On the Border in a big way again, too. We recently rolled out new branding initiatives with a brighter, festive logo and we have a new brand campaign coming out in soon. We’ve been off television for years, but we made a decision to start advertising again last April.  It’s an investment to utilize mass market communications, but with all the new changes we’re making, we felt strongly that we had to tell the world. I’m thrilled every time I get a text from a friend with “Hey I saw your On the Border TV spot!”

On The Border is a balance of progressive marketing with the traditional.

Where do you think On The Border’s sweet spot is in the marketplace? And how do you get that message across?

We are border-style Mexican food—the differentiation comes from a strong point of view and you can’t get that anywhere else. We offer generous portions, fresh salsas, bold seasonings, mesquite wood-grilled fajitas, and ice-cold freshly made margaritas. It’s all about flavor and we’re THE place for that across the U.S! along with consistency and knowing that your favorites will always be available.

As the only national Mexican casual-dining brand, we’ve been a part of people’s lives for over 25 years—many of our guests came in as kids and are now returning with their kids. We have connected with people in ways many brands haven’t—and we intend to keep that connection going.

How much has that changed in recent years for marketers? Has on The Border seen a big shift to digital media, more social, etc. How do you meet today’s guest where they are?

Technology has changed the way consumers consume information and so we’ve evolved in the ways we market to our guests. We have more paid social in our plan along with streaming video and social channels like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. We’re quickly adding TikTok and Influencer campaigns, too. We’ve optimized our database to develop a more sophisticated CRM program that understands our guests and sends relevant information that drives traffic. Evolving our communication strategy is key, because if we’re going to convey new and different, we need to leverage new and interesting communication channels, too.

On The Border is a balance of progressive marketing with the traditional. We still must target you in affordable, effective and efficient ways. For example: we still do direct mail because it works—we can reach you at home, show you a great picture of our delicious food, and even incentivize you to come in. We still do radio. There is nothing like driving in to work and hearing the On the Border radio spot during your commute to create craveability for On the Border later in the day. I’m not so concerned about shifts and trends, but very focused on leveraging my budgets to drive people in, communicating what’s important and compelling our guests to visit us.

Lastly, what kind of sense of responsibility or purpose do you feel inspiring the next generation of women restaurant leaders? How can the entire industry do a better job of that?

I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to inspire other women, especially Hispanic women like myself, to want to lead. I’m committed to sharing my stories, learnings, tips and any other advice that helps other women succeed in that ever-daunting challenge of balancing work and life and becoming adept at leadership. The best piece of advice I give is to be brave. It’s often my experience that women have all the requisite skills, but they just don’t know it. There is no ability gap, but there is a confidence gap and we need to close it. We use training programs and our Women’s Forum group at On The Border to encourage women to step up and take it on, step up and run a team, step up and lead. And, I’m so pleased to be a part of the On the Border development process and to support women as they take on leadership roles. I believe the more our industry can instill that confidence and create work cultures that help employees to balance work and home and feel confident to lead, the more the industry will grow with women leaders.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Labor & Employees, On The Border