Experiences of Women Executive Chefs: A Life History Approach
Chen, Shih Yun (Beverly)
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Evidence shows that the chef profession is gender segregated; men dominate the industry and occupy the prime culinary positions. As a result, prior studies have focused predominately on men in the chef profession. Academic studies on women chefs, especially on the experiences of women executive chefs, remains scant. At the same time, there is a lack of academic studies on women executive chefs’ experiences in the professional kitchen environment. Therefore, this research seeks important insights into the life histories of women executive chefs and to understand the meaningful experiences and critical moments in those histories. Critical moments and certain events shape an individual’s life, influencing their actions and attitudes, and this impact is not limited by time; it could be in the present or the future (Cole & Knowles, 2001). This impact shapes the choices made in a profession. Through insights into the narratives of women executive chefs in New Zealand, this research highlights their experiences in the form of short vignettes of key moments of their progression in the chef profession. To meet the research aim, to explore women executive chefs’ life histories with a focus on their experiences in the professional kitchen, an interpretivist approach is adopted to capture the life histories of women executive chefs in New Zealand. Interpretivists believe there are multiple and subjective realities and knowledge is shaped by the interpretations of individuals based on their personal contexts and experiences (Myers, 2009). Accordingly, this research uses a qualitative research approach, that is, the topical life history method. This means that instead of exploring the totality of participants’ lives, the research focuses on the experiences of becoming and being an executive chef. Participants were recruited using the snow-ball sampling technique and 23 in-depth interviews were conducted with women executive chefs, exploring their life histories. Following previous studies employing the life history method, other supporting data such as published documents, are also included. The collected data were then transcribed, and the narratives analysed to identify key themes. The research findings reveal the unique and complex life histories of the participants. In general, the participants’ professional trajectories were time and effort consuming, while full of challenges, especially in relation to gender stereotyping. During participants’ professional trajectories, both vertical and horizontal movements were identified. Vertical movement represents a trajectory from the bottom of the chef hierarchy to the top. However, to progress upwards, horizontal movement, such as taking different jobs in professional kitchens and/or moving overseas to work, were also required. Three prominent integrated themes emerged from data on participants’ professional trajectories and experiences in professional kitchens; “it’s sexism in so many ways,” “family influence,” and “it’s so tough.” It was found that the chef profession is still gender segregated, and sexism was an experience shared amongst the participants. Family was found to have a major role in participants’ movement and development in their chef profession. Overall, participants agreed that the industry is tough, and one has to be tough to survive in it. In addition, intrinsic factors such as participants’ love of food and their profession, were also found to be influential to their professional trajectories. Although the findings confirm the gendered environment of the chef profession, they also identify opportunities for improvement and anticipated changes. This research provides an original contribution to hospitality scholarship through an understanding of women executive chefs’ professional trajectories and experiences in the professional kitchen. The findings confirm that women executive chefs in New Zealand engage in both “doing gender” (West & Zimmerman, 1987) and “undoing gender” (Butler, 2004) during their professional trajectories. Importantly, the intersections of gender and the chef sector were also revealed. The application of the life history method to studying a hospitality profession is a further important contribution of this research. By revealing women executive chefs’ stories, this research provides new insights into the challenges and motives they experienced and encountered during their professional trajectories. This research emphasises the importance of an organisation in supporting the development of an inclusive culture in the professional kitchen. Most importantly, a key point from the life history narratives is that women chefs need to believe in themselves and have the confidence to sustain their success in the chef profession. For them to achieve gender equity and a better working environment, requires commitment from their organisations, the industry, government and most importantly, the women themselves.