Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the faculty of management, and professor in food distribution and policy in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University.
Restaurant Brands International Inc., the Canadian-based parent company of Burger King and Tim Hortons, was recently criticized by a Canadian investment fund for having an all-male board. The board responded to the criticism with a non-binding proxy vote. In other words, the board will not commit to making changes regardless of the outcome of the vote. It was, regrettably for the company, a missed opportunity to send a clear signal that something has to change in the industry.
Most of us visit restaurants regularly. In fact, most of the time the person serving us is a woman. While more than 70 per cent of front-of-the-house employees are women, the kitchen, where many managerial decisions are made, is often dominated by men. At the corporate level, the situation is even worse.
At a recent Canadian Restaurant Association conference in Toronto, more than 80 per cent of the industry leadership attending the event were men and many panels during the conference were all-male. This is quite the contrast from what most people would know of the food service industry. The challenge is not just in fast food, or just in fine dining. It is everywhere. Cara, owner of many major Canadian chains such as Harvey's, Montana's and Swiss Chalet, has an all-male board, and very few women are involved in upper management.
It is also worrisome that when discussing the issue with industry leaders, no one appears bothered by the status quo. Consequently, Restaurant Brands International's response to the request of making its board more gender-balanced is anything but surprising.
As a result, management practices are often behind the times. For example, many women servers are still expected to wear short skirts, which places an emphasis on the sexualization of food service. Earls Restaurants recently backed down on its strict dress code for servers by offering a choice between pants and skirts. The chain made the change a few months ago after the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal stated that waitresses should not have to make a request to wear something other than revealing attire at work.
For several years now women have represented almost 60 per cent of university graduates in Canada. While many are in business and food services, they have been unable to make inroads in management and on boards. Grocery store chains are facing similar challenges, but they are actually doing something about it. Beyond board diversity, most grocers are making a deliberate effort to nurture female leadership within their organizations. The advancement of female talent is at the core of corporate priorities for companies such as Loblaw, Sobeys and Metro. For example, more mentoring is taking place between men and women. In food service, on the other hand, the biased-charged old-boys network remains predominant.
Gender equality and diversity on boards and management is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes strategic sense. Proper governance in food is about understanding markets and contemplating interesting opportunities for the future. When the mission of an organization is to feed people, appropriate market representation in the upper decision-making ethos of an organization is key.
There is mounting evidence that suggests companies perform better when they have women on boards and in management. Woman-led company stocks within the Fortune 1000 list are likely to outperform other companies, a 2015 study suggested. The way women assess market gaps and manage risks is complementary to that of men.
Generational differences will eventually help women in the future. Let's face it, most men under 50 generally do not adhere to the same mindset as their older peers. Gender equality is now not only normal, it is expected. The gender-balanced cabinet appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hardly a surprise for younger men who saw it as a normal gesture. Government should fully represent the constituents for whom it works.
The same value should be transferred to economic sectors which matter to everyone. Food, of all industries, should value diversity at least as much as any other industry. Since the food service industry is our universal food playground, the industry should embrace the opportunity to see things differently. Canadian families spend an average of more than $2,500 a year in restaurants and that amount is rising every year. And most of the time, public dining rooms and fast-food restaurants are usually quite diverse in their gender makeup.
Most calls for more women in leadership roles in the food service industry have traditionally come from women. Yet changes should continue with men taking the lead in supporting the appointment of women in critical roles. Women should play a much more important role in the food service industry. Plainly, the industry needs male champions for women leaders. Remaining quiet is no longer an option.