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Escaping the Restaurant Industry's Motherhood Trap

How paid parental leave could solve the culinary gender gap


friend of mine, I'll call her Elena, worked for many years for one of New York's top restaurants, rising over time to the position of maitre d' — a very huge deal (monumentally huge, actually) for a woman in the hospitality industry. After six years, she learned she was pregnant, and worked all the way through to her delivery date, in her final month scaling back what had previously been a 60-hour-a-week job to 50 hours, before taking an agreed-upon ten weeks of unpaid leave. Just before the end of those ten weeks, she found out — via a customer — that in her absence, the restaurant had given her position, permanently, to someone else.

Devastated, Elena confronted her boss, and was offered a position instead running the restaurant group's casual offshoot, a major demotion for an employee of her stature. "I found out through a customer after being there six-and-a-half-years," she told me. "I gave my life to that place. It ruined my first experience as a mother because my milk went off. I couldn't feed my baby." She started crying, as we spoke. "It's been five years, and I think there were better ways of doing it."

The chef-owner of the restaurant where Elena worked eventually apologized to her for how she was treated, but it was much too little, far too late. And it happens all the time.

Why aren't more women running kitchens and restaurants across all tiers of the industry, especially at the top? People point to all sorts of things: discrimination in hiring and promotion practices, the aggressive environments and hours of restaurant work, the self-fulfilling prophecy of media coverage, the differing ambitions of women, the differing style of their cooking.

But it might come down to something simpler than all that. Women are underrepresented at the top for any number of reasons, but one of the most important ones is that the system they operate within — local and federal laws, and the common employment structure of most restaurants — makes it almost impossible for them to get there while having children. A complete lack of support for pregnancy and childbirth sends a clear message to anyone for whom it's a possibility: This world is not for you.

It's the industry's fault, it's the government's fault, it's our dining culture's fault. And it's something we can fix.

A lack of workplace flexibility, partnered with scant supportive family leave policies, makes for an inhospitable environment for women who want to work and bear and support children. It's at the root of all sorts of economic, logistical, and prejudicial problems for women, but the most destructive aspect surrounds pregnancy and childbirth. This is an issue that affects women working in virtually every position within the restaurant world, from fast-food cashiers to cooks at four-star restaurants — but it's in fine dining that the issue starts to intersect with the industry's high-profile lack of high-profile women. It's the industry's fault, it's the government's fault, it's our dining culture's fault. And it's something we can fix.

"We would have more top female chefs if they were able to come back into the business [after having kids]," Momofuku chef and founder Dave Chang told me recently. We were discussing the difficulties in offering paid leave at his restaurant group and the challenges facing female chefs in general. "And the reality is, taking months off as a cook — it's hard to do. I don't know if the restaurant industry has ever created an environment that encourages it," he continued, adding that many of the female chefs he's worked with eventually chose not to return to their positions after having kids, because they knew restaurant life was, in Chang's words, "not conducive for them going forward."

This is the case both in and out of the kitchen. A few years ago, the sommelier of a popular west coast American restaurant (she asked not to be named; I’ll call her Megan), was working to open a new, independent restaurant with her two business partners, both men. Reading over their operating agreement shortly before opening, she discovered a nebulous clause that made each partner’s equity contingent on "active employment."

When Megan pressed her partners on what that phrase meant, they explained that if she got pregnant within two years of the restaurant opening, she would lose her partner stake. "It was not something I saw any benefit in agreeing to," she said. "I wasn't planning on getting pregnant at the time, but the fact that there was this mandate over my body, and that I would then have to — what, abort the pregnancy? — to keep equity in a business that I was responsible for founding?" She pulled out of her partnership, the men opened without her, and have gone on to huge success.

Another woman, a general manager in New York who also asked not to be named, tells me that when she told her supervisor that she was expecting (and, implied therein, that she was intending to take advantage of her restaurant's rare maternity leave policy), she was, later in the meeting, asked to justify her salary. "I work in an amazing industry, in a very affluent and educated and developed city," she told me. "To have conversations around the idea of pregnancy at work be very tense, and very uncomfortable, and borderline illegal, was frustrating and surprising."


nfamously, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that doesn't grant paid leave for new mothers (the other is Papua New Guinea). We simply require that all businesses with over 50 employees offer twelve weeks of unpaid leave to full-timers who have been with them for one year. And there's no guarantee of the woman keeping the job: after those twelve weeks, the employer must offer only an "equivalent" job back to the employee.

This is an astonishingly unprogressive policy. But it's even worse when you consider that its scant allowances aren't extended to any part-time or hourly workers, anyone who hasn't held their job for a full year, and anyone working for a business with fewer than 50 employees (like, for example, a small, independent restaurant). In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, only four percent of food service workers — roughly 490,000 of the 12.3 million individuals employed in this field — get any sort of paid family leave at all. The fact that restaurant workers make up the seven of the 10 lowest-paid positions in their survey compounds the problem.

Some of this difficulty is inherent to the restaurant business. The margins are too tight in restaurants; the steps required to cover the cost of family leave (read: raising prices) are too risky. In most of the industrial, developed world, countries that mandate paid time off for new mothers provide a government subsidy, so the burden doesn't fall entirely on the business owner.

"It's ridiculous," says chef and mother Heather Carlucci. "Chefs in other countries find it preposterous that we don't take six months off to recoup. We have a trying, physical business, and then you have a child — you should be able to sit back and relax and put your feet up and enjoy the process." Still, she acknowledges that under the current system, the burden on the employer is extreme: "Even attempting to [offer paid leave] right now for a small business is impossible. We don't live in a country that makes it possible." Other restaurateurs and chefs I spoke to confirmed her sentiment: The business structure of restaurants and the lack of government support makes widespread paid leave a seeming impossibility.

There's no reason neither of those could change, though. Interestingly enough, 80 percent of Americans support paid parental leave and many advocates think there is finally an opportunity to make something happen politically. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have mentioned paid parental leave in their presidential campaigns, and President Obama outlined the need for a better federal leave policy in his State of the Union last January.

Like the fight to raise the minimum wage, the movement towards paid family leave is taking place on the local, not federal level: a few states and some cities in the U.S. are trying to step in to help women where our federal government has failed them. Three states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) and some cities (Boston, Seattle) offer paid family leave, while other areas (New York, Washington, Connecticut) are working on it. Even the US Department of Labor kicked off a campaign early last year called "Lead on Leave" to publicize the issue, and last fall pledged $1.55 million in grants to research how paid family leave programs can be developed and implemented across the country.

When Megan pressed her partners, they explained that if she got pregnant within two years of the restaurant opening, she would lose her partner stake.

But still, the majority of American women who receive some sort of paid parental leave — a very small group, since 87 percent of workers get none at all — get it through their employers, not through the government. Few of those employers are in the restaurant world, but there are some — businesses both big and small, who point to ways it might be done.

Molly Moon Neitzel, owner of the Seattle chain Molly Moon Homemade Ice Cream, offers twelve weeks of paid leave to all employees, regardless of gender, who are bringing a new child home, whether it's through birth, adoption, or fostering. Because Neitzel's workforce is dominated by twenty-somethings and her business is relatively small, she predicts no more than one or two employees each year will take advantage of the benefit, a low enough number that the business will be able to weather the investment in employee quality of life. And in return for the cost of subsidizing their leave, her company sends a message to its workers that it is a place worth committing to. "Our company is seven years old, and we have some employees who have been with us for four, five, six years and they're looking at this and wondering, ‘Is this my career-job, or just a job-job?" Neitzel told me. "And I want people to think it's their career. For that to work, they need to feel like we're going to be a family-friendly company."

A generous policy like Neitzel's can work with a small, youthful workforce, but even on the other end of the spectrum — at a massive restaurant enterprise where offering family benefits might pose a more significant cost — there are models that work. Union Square Hospitality Group, the New York City-based restaurant empire led by Danny Meyer that now includes 13 restaurants, offers two weeks of paid family leave to all management staff, an amount that increases incrementally based on years employed. For their home office staff, they're currently piloting a program of four weeks paid leave, followed by four additional weeks paid at 60 percent. And they're currently making moves to make that policy even better.

"We're committed to doing more," USHG chief culture officer Erin Moran told me. It's a question of being a good employer, to be sure — USHG is famous for prioritizing their employees' quality of life — but it's also a matter of being part of the solution to what the restaurant group sees as problematic gender disparity in the kitchen. "Six percent of the most prominent chefs are women, and I don't think that's acceptable," says Moran. "We need to do more."

USHG recently made waves by announcing they would eventually eliminate tipping and raise prices in all their New York restaurants, as a means to better cover labor costs and support benefits across all roles in the restaurants, particularly in the kitchen. Moran foresees a stronger parental leave policy as an eventual part of the package: "The whole reason we're [eliminating tipping] is to be able to invest in our people, to be able to advance their careers as well as their financial growth opportunities." She adds that the support doesn't just end with paid leave, they're also looking into ways to help new parents find and fund childcare, prepare for birth, and reintegrate back to work after taking the leave they're given.

A complete lack of support for pregnancy and childbirth sends a clear message to anyone for whom it's a possibility: This world is not for you.

Other restaurant groups are also taking up the cause: Laughing Planet Cafe, a chain of burrito joints on the West Coast, offers a full twelve weeks paid leave; Hank's Oyster Bar, with three locations around Washington, D.C., offers two weeks paid for mothers and fathers; David Chang's restaurant group Momofuku, with nine U.S.-based restaurants as well as a slew of Milk Bar bakeries, offers four weeks' paid leave plus vacation time, and when we spoke, Chang admitted that "whatever we're offering right now isn't good enough."

But these are rarities in the food and hospitality world, thanks in large part to the particular financial structure of restaurants, which even at scale tend to operate with low margins, even compared to other small businesses. "We're in the wrong business right now to talk about how to make it as equitable as possible," said Chang. "We're not a tech company. We're not a bank. The margins are thin and people don't understand the economics of it. Even though you're busy, it doesn't mean you can provide great benefits."


ore restaurant owners and politicians seem to be in tune with the need for paid parental leave, but getting to a point of true equity will take time. In the intervening years, there will still be women who want to work in restaurants, and women who want to have children — and a lot of women who will fall into both groups. For them, there are precious few role models out there who have pulled it off. And when you look at the very short list of the most successful, most prominent American female chefs who have children — Gabrielle Hamilton, Barbara Lynch, Nancy Silverton, Alex Raij — one commonality arises: They all own their own businesses, which means they're able to set their own rules.

Lauren Resler, who co-owns New York's three-location Empellon restaurant group with her husband, says she would have returned to work much sooner after having her son in 2015 if she hadn't been the owner of her business. "After three weeks I would have had to go back," she speculates. "And then you have to deal with daycare, and finding someone who you can trust to take care of your child. And there's the question of breastfeeding."

Alex Raij, who co-owns three Spanish restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn with her husband, had to take an unconventional leave, one which would have been impossible had she been working for a restaurant that didn't offer support for new parents. Her son was born three months premature, she was in the hospital for three weeks, and then — while he remained in the NICU — went back to work, taking a more conventional parental leave once he was ready to go home.

"It's really great to own your own business," she says of the ability to tailor her time away from the kitchen to the specific needs of her family. "You can behave the way you want to behave, and you know what the consequences are." Heather Carlucci, who owned the New York restaurant Lassi when she had her daughter, also recognizes that her time away from the kitchen was made possible by her self-employment: "Because I had my own place, I gave myself the freedom to fully adjust to going back in. I wasn't fully on the schedule for six months. I could strap [my daughter] in and cook with her on the line. Or bring her in with me when I had to do the books."

"I don't know how people in the industry work for someone else and have a kid. It's not a child-friendly industry," says Alex Pemoulie, formerly the co-owner (with her husband) of Jersey City restaurant Thirty Acres. Not all restaurants are structured in a way that can cover a key player being away from day-to-day operations for a matter of weeks or months, and even those that are still might not be profitable enough to cover giving an owner the equivalent of paid leave.

Pemoulie considers herself lucky that she was also working full-time as the director of finance at Momofuku when she had her daughter, because she wouldn't have had an income otherwise. She ended up leaving Momofuku a month after returning to work, and not long after that, the couple closed Thirty Acres and relocated to Seattle to be closer to family and (tellingly) childcare.

Even if you own your business, it's not always easy to carve out time for pregnancy, childbirth, and recovery — especially if (as with many of the successful women who own their restaurants) your business partner is also your romantic partner. "I do believe strongly that the reason why women are not as advanced in the success of the culinary world is that women are the ‘mamas' a lot of times," said Alicia Boada, the incoming president of the restaurant world advocacy and networking group Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. In instances where a husband and wife co-own a restaurant, it's still often the case that the woman ends up either staying home with the children, or taking on a disproportional amount of the caregiver responsibilities, like going to PTA meetings, staying home when children are sick, and taking them to appointments and activities.

This is an issue that affects women in virtually every position within the restaurant world, from fast-food cashiers to cooks at four-star restaurants.

For women in the restaurant industry who take time off for pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare, but don't own their own businesses, the most common adaptation — like women in many other industries — is to transition to more flexible roles after they return to work. Some choose restaurant pastry departments, bakeries, or cafes where the hours are better; others opt to work in the kitchens at grocers, catering companies, even airports.

"I used to work in restaurants, and I don't now because I have three children," Boada told me. "I've chosen a corporate chef job so I'm done at six." Carlucci left the restaurant world to be a food consultant for a design and advertising firm, deciding that its more predictable hours and higher pay meant that it was the only way for her — especially as a single mom — to be present in her daughter's life in the way that she wanted to be.


o what's to be done? Perhaps USHG and restaurant groups like it are taking an important step towards equality by finding a way to offer stronger benefits to workers by eliminating tipping and raising prices. "The only way it can change is by changing the pay structure of the entire business," says David Chang, whose recently opened restaurant, Momofuku Nishi, has no tipping and higher prices, ostensibly to offer his staff higher wages and benefits. "I don't know if we're ever going to have day care in our restaurants, but I think we need to reverse engineer to see what we need to do to get to that point."

It should go without saying, but getting to that point is not just to the benefit of women. 94 percent of American adults want to have children or have them already. This includes both men and women. Children are created by men and women, cared for and supported by and loved by men and women. They grow up and stimulate the economy and eventually become our future diners, chefs, restaurateurs.

In the 2012 report Expecting Better, from the National Partnership, the authors outline three options that mothers without paid parental leave face: rejoining work before they are physically and mentally prepared, taking an economic hit by electing unpaid leave, or leaving work altogether. Each of these, the report explains, will "hurt the national economy, erode the nation's competitiveness and cause significant hardship for families and communities." Women are primary or secondary breadwinners in two thirds of American families, so the loss of income for three months is no small matter.

So paid leave specifically and childcare in general is an issue that all of us — not women, but our entire society, and the restaurant industry as a whole — need to grapple with. What's happening right now is unacceptable, and women can't right the wrongs alone.

Independent businesses offering generous benefits shouldn't be the answer in an industrialized nation such as ours. Until the federal and local governments catch up to what the rest of the world is already offering, this industry — with its general lack of leave and family support — will continue to alienate talented women, and the kitchens, dining rooms, and conversations will continue to be dominated by men. Meanwhile, we'll continue to scratch our heads over why more women aren't running our nation's top kitchens.

Are you a restaurant worker (man or woman) who's run up against career challenges related to pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting? Are you a restaurateur who offers paid leave to your employees? Or who has tried to offer leave and, for whatever reason, couldn't? We want to hear from you.

Amanda Kludt is the editor-in-chief of Eater
Lindsay Mound is a New York-based illustrator

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