Today, CNN featured a mini-interview with Chef Anita Lo, who competed on the first season of “Top Chef: Masters” and beat Mario Batali on “Iron Chef America“. Lo was honoured in Food & Wine Magazine‘s “Best New Chefs in America” feature, and owns the NYC restaurant, Annisa.
Lo talks about being a woman in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men. She is, of course, also Asian-American and much of what she has to say seem to apply to minorities in white-dominated workplaces:
Five Things to Know About Being a Female Chef in a Male-Dominated Profession: Anita Lo
1. “Gender is a social construction. Men and women are raised to think and act differently through parenting, ubiquitous media images, language and general peer culture. It is important to question and debunk these myths that all of us carry. Some people think that women cook for love and men cook for glory, but to be successful, at least here in New York, you need to do a little of both.”
2. “To make it in this business you have to be extraordinarily passionate and tenacious. You will spend long hours on your feet in a hot, uncomfortable environment for meager wages at odd hours. Cooking is a lifestyle choice for the obsessive-compulsive.”
3. “You must be prepared to answer a million of these types of questions. As one of a very small minority, you do get asked about this a lot. And of course, I am a big supporter of women in business – our wine list at Annisa celebrates women in wine and is made up of wines mostly by female vintners.”
4. “The ratio of gay-to-straight executive female chefs is much higher than amongst the general population. The Kinsey Report states that about 10 percent of the general population is gay. I think that ratio is higher among female executive chefs and apparently, in the WNBA as well. But on a more serious note, this is perhaps related to my first statement and begs the question: are gay women less bound by societal norms and therefore get further in this field?”
5. “Find a support system outside of the kitchen. Women Chefs and Restaurateurs is a national organization that supports women in cooking through education and networking. This is perhaps the beginning of the ‘old girls’ club.'”
As a scientist, I am also a woman who works in a male-dominated field that remains particularly adherent to its “old boys network”. I agree with Lo that success for women in these kinds of professional environments depends heavily on having a passion for your chosen field, along with the ambition to fight for the same kind of recognition that men generally reserved for men.
For me, it sometimes feels like I have to work twice as hard just to break through the sub-conscious condescension that some men (particularly those of the older generation) reserve for women in the sciences. I have to work to prove that I belong in the lab, and that I am just as competent as my male colleagues. It’s true that a very specific personality type seems to succeed under these conditions.
But, I also find that my female predecessors have broken through many barriers to help pave the way for female scientists. There is truly a support system for female scientists — just as Lo talks about the support system for women chefs. My mentor, also a woman, runs a lab that currently trains more female students than male students, and she and her colleagues seem particularly supportive and sensitive to the concerns of female trainees.
Female chefs, female scientists, and female CEOs are all pioneers, breaking through glass ceilings in our respective fields. And even over the last fifty years, huge advances have been made: my mentor recounts how she was routinely dismissed and patronized towards when she was a student in the 1970’s. By contrast, a recent study found that more women than men received PhD degrees last year.
While I don’t think an “old girls’ club” is a useful idea to pursue — there’s no reason to reproduce the institutions of oppression that marginalized our gender in the past — I’m glad to see parallels between my own experiences as a woman in science and Lo’s, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with world-renowned male chefs.