Topic number one of the “R.E.S.P.E.C.T and Women In the Food Industry” series discusses the importance of defending women. Stories from a CEO of a food incubator, a successful chef, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author—and an R&D innovation-leader and I share what it’s like to be the only woman in meetings with powerful businessmen.
A female superior and her male employee walk into a bar…
The difference between hearing and listening is a classic conundrum. Both men and women can speak up and defend female staff, but it typically takes a man-to-man discussion for the man in power to actually understand and act. And since women are chief executives of just 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the United States, this is a dooming reality that needs serious attention.
“To add to this, if I’m talking to a man,” Shmulik continues, “and our COO [Chapin Kaynor] is in room, they will address him and not me…not knowing that I am the CEO.” This means that although rank and bureaucratic hierarchy are embedded into the operating system of many large food companies, those rules go out the window when gender is in play. Of course there’s usually no malicious intent for this sort of behavior; these actions may even be considered second-nature, since they have been ingrained in our society for thousands of years. However, the only way to nip this act of sexism in the bud, is draw it out and put it under a spotlight as a specimen that is stunting social progress.
Advocacy and Endorsement
The #metoo movement has been a terrific vehicle for gender inequality awareness. I’d be foolish not to mention the incredibly fierce female-advocates in the food industry who have historically defended women. Jessie Price, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and current Editor-in-Chief of EatingWell, tells a story about her early experience with a female-advocate at EatingWell when she was low on the totem pole.
Jim Romanoff was Editor-in-Chief at the time. He had decided to leave the magazine for another opportunity, but before Romanoff did his final farewell, he suggested Price be promoted to take his job. Romanoff stood up for Jessie, and defended her value to the magazine’s corporate leadership team. “I was not quite experienced enough for the job, but Jim saw that I demonstrated the skills for the role. I know that he put in his vote of confidence for me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Jim,” Price remarks.
The interesting, full-circle aspect of Price’s story is, when Romanoff wished to come back to the magazine several years later, Price hired him back immediately. Now Jessie Price is Jim Romanoff’s boss. The food editor duo has worked happily ever after, side-by-side, ever since.
I can also relate to Romanoff’s act of endorsement upstream to people of power. When I was vice president at Brisan Group, I was often the only woman in meetings (not to mention each person had at least twenty years on me). The men in these meeting had great power in food business—they could shape the global food scene with a single thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Alongside my boss, Brian Vogt, and the various male food investors, it was often assumed that I was the “note-taker”. The men in the room would find a sly way of asking Vogt, “So…why is she here?”
Vogt quickly learned that he had to set the table with my credibility and expectations of my role at the start of every single meeting. He began announcing my skills as an intelligent vice president before pleasantries were exchanged. “Theresa is a major part of all business strategy and execution,” Vogt defended me as a critical business decision-maker at his company.
“There’s a big difference between shielding and defending,” notes Maggie Sadowsky, founder of The Culinary Architects. Sadowsky has led research and development innovation conversations in countless Fortune-100 conference rooms and labs; she’s well -versed in the nuances of power struggle. Defensible words can make a career, on the contrary studies show that constant shielding can belittle and strip away authority. That’s why defense from male colleagues and female superiors needs to be tempered carefully and administered thoughtfully.
I soon understood that Vogt’s inauguratory words were necessary, but I also had to defend myself with actions. I persistently spoke up in meetings; shared constructive feedback even when contradictory to the wealthiest, whitest man in the room; and literally stood to elaborate at the dry erase board—as physical evidence that I could command a room of adult men even as a 5’4”, twenty-six year old woman. I had to “flex” in meetings a little more than I wanted, all the while knowing I was being a little extra. Although my parents taught me that the wisest person in the room was not the silver-tongue, but the quietest person with the best listening skills, I found it imperative to exhibit strength, embody words of defense, and show the guys that I could also hold my own.
With the verbal endorsement from my boss and a consistent approach of substantiating myself with actions, Vogt and I grew more lock-step with our business approach, and I earned respect from high-level male investors.
The importance of tangible performance
It may be frustrating for some women when male co-workers feel the need to protect and advocate for them, but speaking from experience, it makes a major difference in the social dynamic of business meetings. The only way for male colleagues’ words of endorsement to hold any real value, is to consistently manifest their words. This is exemplified with the story of how Chef Laura Piper, co-owner and executive chef of One North Kitchen & Bar and Stock & Ledger, got her start in French fine dining.
In the mid-1980s, Piper was determined to work for Chef Pierre Pollin at his renowned French bistro, Le Titi de Paris, but Chef Pollin refused to hire another woman. According to Chef Pollin, the last woman he employed did such a horrific job, that the thought of hiring another women put an irreparably bad taste in his mouth. Piper refused to leave the restaurant until she was given a chance. At end of service, after grill stations were scrubbed and floors were mopped, Chef Pollin saw Piper sitting at the bar patiently; he buckled and let Piper begin the next day.
“I was the first one in and last to leave for months, often working harder than most of the guys,” Piper explained. Chef Pollin began to defend Piper as a model employee, but in the eyes of the rough ’n tough BOH (back-of-house) staff, their chef’s words were only as good as Piper’s performance. “I kept my head down, my eyes and ears open, and mouth shut! Just a few weeks in, and I was successfully working an appetizer station solo, that was normally managed by two men.” Piper eventually proved herself to the entire staff, and continued working for Chef Pollin for the next five years. They have a steady friendship till this day.
Do you act the same with an audience as behind closed doors?
I circled back with Natalie Shmulik at The Hatchery to ask if her COO, Chapin Kaynor, takes perceived rank and runs with it or if he clears up the situation. Shmulik eagerly explained that Kaynor never misses an opportunity to swiftly acknowledge that she is the chief decision maker, not him—both in public and when no one is watching.
“Our COO is remarkable,” Shmulik remarks. “Chapin validates and empowers me around other men. He fights just as hard as all the women in the organization to make sure we are taken seriously. I am extremely grateful for that, it definitely adds to our amazing team work.”
Although it may take some time for the men in power to hear you as a woman, I am hopeful that the power wave is changing. If you are a woman seeking words of legitimacy from male colleagues, know that it is only as meaningful as your ability to demonstrate. Regardless of your gender, when you have the opportunity to defend a female colleague, seize it. It may not always mean the beginning of a lifelong friendship, but it will add positivity to your working relationship and likely benefit your career longterm.
COMING SOON | Next Article of the series
Topic No. 2: Provide Opportunity
Powerful food industry women discuss how they got their start, the importance of giving women a chance, and an R&D director shares a sneaky test her Kellogg’s boss performed to see if she was ready for a big promotion.