It’s no secret that hospitality can be a challenging industry for women, but a new, female-led not-for-profit is committed to helping change things. By Rachel Smith
It was in the 1940s that former US president Harry Truman first coined the phrase, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. Naturally, he applied it to politics—but the saying is equally apt when referring to the hospitality industry, especially in regards to women.
Many report feeling vulnerable when faced with the industry’s male-dominated culture, lack of family-friendly hours and ‘relentless and normalised’ workplace harassment. And that’s leading a lot of female workers to quit the industry for good rather than stay and carve out a proper career, say insiders.
Women in Hospitality (WoHo), a not-for-profit launched to redress the gender imbalance, foster women’s professional development and give them a robust and much-needed support network, is hoping to change all that.
WoHo was founded in May 2017 by accountant Julia Campbell from Resy—and a board of industry movers and shakers including Jane Hyland, Anna Pavoni, Jane Strode, Lisa Margan, Lyndey Milan, Lisa Hobbs and Kerrie McCallum. There are already 400 members and WoHo’s impressive list of partners include Rockpool Dining Group, Solotel, Ormeggio Group and A Tavola.
Campbell is enthusiastic about the initiative and its cause, which aims to help women thrive at all levels and areas of hospitality—from chefs and front-of-house employees, to bar staff, sommeliers and managers. She’s quick to acknowledge that the industry has a long way to go in fostering more equal conditions for women.
“Women make up 50 per cent of the employees in hospitality, but only 10 per cent of women are represented in senior positions,” she explains.
“People are dropping out of the industry and there’s a reason for it. A big part of our mission is to give young women confidence to back themselves—and to feel that they have people in their corner championing them and their careers.”
The inspiration for WoHo
Campbell, who lived in New York for four years, saw firsthand the value of community through her involvement in the not-for-profit group, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. “A big part of it was fostering the careers of women in the industry. They had chapters in every city and a national conference every year where they’d bring people from all over,” she recalls.
“Hospitality can be a bit isolating, especially if you work in a rural area or you don’t have colleagues you feel comfortable talking to—and seeing the education and the stimulation these people got just from being in the same room together was pretty amazing.”
Once back in Sydney, Campbell was surprised to find there wasn’t something similar in Australia. She came across smaller groups such as Females in Food, the Australian Women in Wine Awards and Coleman’s Academy for female bartenders but her dream was to create a large, formal not-for-profit with a board of passionate influencers who would bring a range of skill sets and industry experience.
“I wanted to create something that would have the kind of legal and financial infrastructure and longevity to really serve the industry and in the long-term, change it for the better,” she explains.
Keeping mums in the workforce
Naturally, one of the first questions to be asked following WoHo’s launch was: are men welcome? The response is a resounding yes from both Campbell and Pavoni. Since working with Matt Moran on a Q&A about how Moran’s businesses have supported women, Pavoni says it’s gratifying to see more men in the industry coming to the (WoHo) party.
“The blokes have to be part of the conversation. The biggest elephant in the room is managing a family and staying within an industry which traditionally has very un-family-friendly hours,” she says. “And if you’re a young guy working in hospitality, you probably don’t know much about kids and day care and family life. I mean, I was guilty of not knowing until a couple of years ago. I now have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, but I didn’t really understand the issues of juggling work and home life until it was my issue.”
“I’ve had awesome conversations with people I might not have before. Our events really give you the confidence to approach someone and say, ‘Hello! Just wanted to introduce myself’.”—Anna Pavoni, board member, WoHo
Sadly, many women put a hospitality career in the too-hard basket and jump ship before considering their options, she adds. “One of WoHo’s main aims is keeping all these amazing women in an industry that’s desperately short-staffed.”
But WoHo’s not just focused on the family juggle; as an organisation it’s big on giving women the resources and support to also make important career decisions, share ideas, ask burning questions and make friends, she says.
“It’s about figuring out where to go when you grow up. Maybe your feet get tired or you get sick of watching people chew food! Maybe you don’t want to be on the floor because you’re not 22 anymore and you’re burned out. What sideways moves can you make? It’s about helping people see that hospitality is a career path. I mean, you can go and study marketing but you don’t have to go work for a bank. You can stay in hospitality and apply that knowledge. It’s an industry requiring everything from marketing to accounting to human resources to PR.”
Value of mentoring
WoHo’s support network also offers a mentoring program developed by chef Jane Strode—and mentors on board right now (they change every three months) include Christine Manfield, Nadine Ingram (Flour and Stone), Jemma Whiteman (Good Luck Pinbone), Danielle Alvarez (Fred’s) and Mike Bennie (The Wine Front). The three-month program matches mentors and mentees according to similar interests or career goals, and includes 18 mandatory hours of contact, both online and face to face. That could mean going to events together, working in the kitchen on new recipes or doing wine tastings.
Caitlyn Rees, award-winning head sommelier at Fred’s in Sydney, was one of Bennie’s mentees. She says the experience was invaluable to her career development—and she and Mike have developed an ongoing friendship.
“I call, text, email, Facebook and/or Instagram Mike whenever I need career advice and he helps me from wherever he is in the world at the time, for nothing in return,” she says. “I call him when I’m considering leaving a job, whenever I’m considering which new job to take, when I need staff, when I’m organising an event, or going travelling and want tips on which winemakers I should visit. Or when I need to know who is the best person to go through for a certain product. The list goes on.
“Not only are these relationships important for networking … but it’s about taking advantage of the fact that they’ve been around the traps longer than you and have learnt a thing or two along the way.”
What’s in it for members?
Given its members range from those starting out in the industry to veterans with decades of experience, accessibility and affordability is key, says Campbell. “Membership costs $10 a month and it’s free for apprentices and trainees.”
Anyone can join—male or female—and paid members get advance notice of events and member pricing, plus access to the site’s forums. These are split into ‘communities’ for sommeliers, chefs, front-of-house, or job-hunting so members can connect, plan meet-ups and ask questions on anything work-related.
“We’ve definitely built a culture of ‘no question is a stupid question’!” she says, laughing.
The events also create a welcoming environment for more established women in the industry to connect, too, whether they want to ask advice on restaurant policies or collaborate on everything from choosing wines to sausage making. “I’ve had awesome conversations with people I might not have before,” says Anna Pavoni, who co-owns The Ormeggio Group of restaurants. “Our events really give you the confidence to approach someone and say, ‘Hello! Just wanted to introduce myself, or ‘Actually, you talked about your reservations system and I had question about that’. It’s about providing the opportunity for people to reach out and not be embarrassed about it.”
Events have ranged from panel Q&As to cocktail parties, celebrations of women butchers to female brewers. There are also intimate dinners for industry types to hobnob and talk shop, says Pavoni, who held a dinner for 20 at Ormeggio recently. “We had a catering person, a PR person, a media person, a restaurant person, a chef, a waiter—literally 20 people doing 20 different jobs within hospitality. It was great in terms of broadening your network and getting ideas for your business.”
What’s next for WoHo? Going national, for starters, says Campbell. “We’ve had so much positive feedback and know for a lot of women involved it’s been career-changing. We’ve seen a lot of those supportive friendships grow, which makes us feel that we’re doing something right.”