Women in the restaurant industry are finding their voices post-#MeToo through programs that protect everyone.

Does a hashtag have the power to ignite change across an entire industry? If the success of the #MeToo movement is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. The simple two-word phrase originated as a social media meme in October of 2017, but quickly grew to encompass whole organizations spanning many industries. While each may focus on a different group of women (and those who support them), the goals remain similar: prevent sexual harassment, level the playing field for men and women, and actively promote women into leadership roles. And, as any veteran of the restaurant industry can attest, this activism was sorely needed.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there are more sexual harassment claims filed in this industry than in any other. A 2014 study showed that a whopping 80 percent of women in the restaurant industry reported being sexually harassed by co-workers. Moreover, the most recent study by Gecko Hospitality found that men in the industry make, on average, over $4,000 more than women and dominate the higher-level positions, like executive chef and general manager. It is little wonder that the #MeToo movement was especially galvanizing for women working in restaurants; there is much to be desired in terms of equality.

In the wake of such a bright light shining on the industry, however, both national organizations and new, grassroots operations have made a concerted effort to enact change or to promote existing programs for women more heavily. And while large, institutional shifts cannot happen overnight, the current transparency in addressing the problem attests to how seriously the industry is committed to making itself safer and more equal.

One of the farthest-reaching initiatives comes from the National Restaurant Association, which created the ServSafe Workplace Program as a direct response to the #MeToo crisis. “Our intention under the brand is to create a suite of training programs that equips employees and managers with the information they need to help manage and mitigate emerging risks, and advance the positive culture of the foodservice and hospitality industries,” says Janet Benoit, vice president of learning and development for the NRA. “We developed the content after the #MeToo movement began, and we certainly recognized how important it was that the tone of our materials reflect how our society has been talking, thinking, and evolving its beliefs and expectations surrounding the issues of harassment and discrimination.” Fittingly, the first program in the suite is its new sexual harassment prevention training program. With the restaurant industry often accused of tolerating poor conduct between employees, the NRA made sure that the focus of the program wasn’t only legalese. “The training suite’s focus isn’t just laws; we spent considerable time ensuring that awareness and a call to change behaviors were driving elements of the content,” Benoit says.

Changing the permissive culture of the industry, while perhaps the most gargantuan task, is certainly what will have the greatest impact on equality. “It’s always been the dirty little secret,” says Steve Zagor, an instructor and former dean of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “It’s one of those cultural things that has been around for a very long time.” With #MeToo calling attention to uncomfortable work situations, however, Zagor has found restaurant workers are now less willing to tolerate such behavior. “People don’t want to get screamed at or intimidated or harassed in any form. [They] don’t want that kind of place to work and to spend all of your waking hours in,” he says. Zagor is also empowering his students before they even enter the workforce through a now-yearly sexual harassment panel at ICE and new talking points in classroom instruction. “Maybe a year or two ago, we would talk about it as part of a culture,” Zagor says of harassment. “But now we specifically ask, ‘How do you handle day-to-day relationships with your employees? How do you handle situations that might come up? How is [sexual harassment] prevented, what kinds of things do you need to do? We go through that whole process of discussing that nowadays.”

The #MeToo movement may have started out as a way to more openly discuss sexual harassment, but it has since grown to include initiatives that promote women within their fields. The James Beard Foundation previously had scholarships and mentorships for women in the industry, but the events of the last year has it doubling down on its efforts to promote women. “The movement has generated new leadership, new ideas and forced us all to promote healthier, safer workplaces,” says Katherine Miller, vice president of impact for the James Beard Foundation. “Women make up the majority of culinary school graduates and the majority of the talent pool within the industry. Yet, less than 30 percent of restaurants are owned outright by women. The only way to change this is to figure out how we recruit and train women, how we mentor them and invest in their ideas, and how we champion women leaders.” One of JBF’s newest ventures is the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, which helps established culinary professionals grow their business by attending a weeklong mini-MBA, and in-person networking events.

New organizations formed in the wake of #MeToo, like Women in Hospitality United, have also taken up this mantle of providing support for women in all stages of their career. Founded by three women with diverse roles in the food industry, WiHU’s mission statement is far-reaching and includes everything from providing “policies that set new standards for equity, accountability, and transparency in the industry,” to empowering “members by providing tools, training, advocacy, and support.” This past September, they also hosted the “Solution Sprint,” a massive meeting-of-the-minds to address many issues facing the restaurant world today, including inclusivity and sexual harassment. “Organizationally, what we’ve really found is that there’s just so much power in physically getting together,” says founder Erin Fairbanks. “Now we’re looking at how do we create those types of connections online and offline, and how do we produce tools and resources that we can drive back into the community?”

Some restaurant-adjacent organizations, like reservation service Resy, are also finding that community may be one of the most powerful forces to combat issues within the industry. Their dinner event series, Women in Food (produced in partnership with renowned chef Dominique Crenn), launched in 2018 as a way to honor some of the country’s top female toques. And while the series wasn’t a direct response to #MeToo, it acted as a catalyst to bring powerful women together to discuss solutions. “[#MeToo] was a signal, loud and clear, that this was an important series, that creating a platform, where the most accomplished female chefs from around the world felt empowered and honored, was imperative,” says Victoria Vaynberg, Resy’s chief marketing officer. “In 2019, we plan to use these dinners to create even more dialogue around the biases and inequity in the industry, and to support those who need supporting.”

Of course, the backing of a major organization or business isn’t necessary to enact change on a more granular level; it starts in individual kitchens around the country. Angela Garbacz runs an all-female staff at her bakery, Goldenrod Pastries, in Lincoln, Nebraska. “I make sure to give very clear verbal praise to my team, as well encourage them to take advantage of growing within my company” she says. “And I have zero tolerance for any bullying at Goldenrod. We want to set a great example within the industry, as well as to women everywhere, that we really are stronger together.”

Expert Takes, Feature