Women in the kitchen

Women make up nearly 55% of Australia’s hospitality work force yet only 10% of hospitality CEOs are women.

Gone are the days when women were expected to run the kitchen at home, but what about women who want to run the kitchen at work? How does the Australian cafe scene treat the women that contribute to it in the 21st century? Is equal opportunity a reality? Do the relics of the past still haunt the cafes and coffee bars of our modern society, or has sexism simply become more subtle? Can women enjoy a work place without fear of discrimination? We talk to some of the women in the Commonfolk family about their experiences of sexism and what it’s like to be women working in the hospitality industry.

Amy Thomson

Amy Thomson

Amy Thomson started working in commercial kitchens from the age of fifteen. She climbed the pecking order from dishy all the way to chef before moving out of the kitchen and into cafe management and front of house.

“I reckon a lot of older blokes, especially the ones with power, like head chefs or managers, can be the most sexist people to work with. Old school male chefs and supervisors can be really unprofessional and sleazy and make really inappropriate comments and suggestions. You have a choice - either play along or accept that your life will be hell. You have to play along to earn their respect and become one of the guys by giving as much as you take. In some kitchens chefs are almost taught to be sexist by default—it’s institutionalised. I’ve got the kind of personality that let’s me say something if someone crosses the line but if you're not comfortable speaking up you really need a strong woman in management to support you. Customers can be a tough one as well. I think society has a bizarre opinion of hospitality, not so much at Commonfolk, but in the past customers (often older men) would ‘take pity’ on me or women I’ve worked with and offer to marry us and rescue us from our ‘horrible’ lives. Almost as if they're a saviour figure protecting us poor defenceless women. Things aren’t anywhere near as bad as they used to be and society is moving in a direction where you can’t get away with that kind of thing anymore."

"Some of the best colleagues and customers I know have been men so you take the good with the bad.”

Amy Caulfield

Amy Caulfield

Amy Caulfield is a veteran of over tens years in hospitality. She worked in kitchen, front of house and barista roles before opening her own business, Flock Cafe, in 2014. She has partnered with Commonfolk from day one and has turned Flock into one of the busiest specialty coffee cafes on the Peninsula.

“I don’t think I’m aware of sexism as much as some women. I reckon in my case ageism has had more of an impact than my gender, at least that’s how I’ve felt. I think it’s also my nature to want to see the best in everyone so I probably ignore or am not even aware of a lot of sexism and whether it goes on at work. I usually tell assholes to shove it and I don’t often have any issues after that, but that’s just how I am. I don’t think everyone necessarily has my experience though. I think kitchens can be a harder place for women to work than front of house because they're much more male dominated. It does appear that the female chefs that do well sometimes have to act ‘blokey’ in order to make it."

"People need to get together because it’s everyone’s responsibility—not just women’s—to pull creeps up."

"I’m a practical person; I believe everyone should be judged on performance and not anything else. I do think though, that a guy doing my job wouldn’t need to command respect as much as I do—but it’s fun and I enjoy doing that.”

Elly Spiers

Elly Spiers

Elly Spiers is eighteen years old and works front of house at Merchant & Maker. She has worked in hospitality for four years in a number of different companies.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked with someone old school sexist, you know the whole ‘women are less than men’ kind of thing. My generation just isn't like that and we don’t have the opinion that women can’t do certain jobs or whatever. I do think there is a different type of sexism with the younger generation. There’s almost a universal trait with younger guys to treat women like they're sexual objects for guys to use. I don’t think young guys care about gender stereotypes because often they just want to use women for sex (so who cares what her job is)! I don’t think being a woman will ever be a hinderance to my career in hospitality. Our head chef is a woman, our manager is a woman, so I think our work place is pretty void of sexism." 

"I enjoy getting involved in any ‘bro’ culture that might exist, but sometimes I feel like I can’t just be ‘one of the boys’ because I’ll be looked on differently."

"I probably wouldn’t change anything from a work point of view because I think (especially at Commonfolk and Merchant & Maker) if you want to do something you can get a shot regardless of your gender. It used to be that only guys would become baristas and the girls would wait tables, but not any more. The only overt sexism I’ve experienced has probably come from customers and usually older men. I once had an old guy tell me I needed to be taken to the naughty corner and punished because I didn't have the particular thing he wanted. It’s pretty gross but they're a dying breed and hopefully their sexism dies with them.”

Erin Greenhill

Erin Greenhill

Erin Greenhill has worked in coffee for over ten years for multiple companies. She was Commonfolk’s cafe manager before moving to the UK in 2016.

“Being a female manager in hospitality hasn’t really presented any overt problems for me. I’ve worked for both small business and large franchises and I never felt discriminated against because I’m a woman."

"I’ve always felt that I was rewarded for my hard work and was promoted based on my ability to do the job." 

"Although I haven’t felt the impact of sexism from within the industry there have been a few incidents with customers. I remember one gentlemen who obviously had a serious issue with women. He was not only verbally abusive but also genuinely intimidated female staff members. It probably would have been best to ban him from returning but we didn't do that at the time. There have been many occasions where customers have made sexist remarks or called me ‘darl’ or ‘good girl’ but it really doesn't impact me. I’d prefer it not to happen but I’m also aware that there are far worse examples of sexism out there. I think hospitality is pretty fair when it comes to gender equality. In the businesses I’ve worked in there have been the same opportunities for progression to all genders. As a server I believe that the general population could all learn to improve their attitude towards our profession, men and women alike. So far my experience of the UK has highlighted how progressive Australia is in relation to hospitality. Over here there definitely appears to be a divide in class between consumers and the service industry. In England, orders are barked at faceless beings behind cash registers. Whereas in Australia, we’re treated with respect. We’re acknowledged, spoken to, and thanked. We even have meaningful conversations and build familiarity with each other.”

Ali Milligan

Ali Milligan

Ali Milligan worked as a barista for a decade and was the head barista at Top Paddock - one of Melbourne’s busiest cafes. She left the industry in 2017 to pursue a career in fashion.

“I’ve always gotten on well with the guys I’ve worked with and haven’t felt disempowered by men. I have often found myself taking on a motherly roll and that might lead to stereotyping and impact the way I’m viewed as a professional. Within the barista community I definitely think there can be a ‘bro’ culture, especially in barista competitions. There seems to be this culture of hyper masculinity that I think can put a lot of female baristas off. This means that the guys who, more often than not, win barista comps get recognition, credit, and career advancement that isn't available to women. I have found that female baristas sometimes have a tendency to put their heads down and work hard but the guys that shout the loudest get the rewards. It seems to be inherent that women are taught to be submissive. I didn't apply for my management role, instead I had to be asked by my boss, who had seen me demonstrate consistency and structure and wanted those traits in their manager. Overall I’ve been really happy with my career and have never let guys get away with sexism. I’ve always been prepared to speak out when I’ve witnessed sexism and have done on numerous occasions. The leadership dictates the culture—whether that’s a culture of bro-ism, or one of equality."

"I think the best way to combat sexism is to give leadership positions to women or men who are willing to combat inequality and develop a culture where everyone can succeed without compromising who they are."

"I think it’s important to be totally comfortable with who you are. If I enjoy something I’ll do it even if I’m not the best at it. You don’t have to feel inferior to men. If a man is better than you (at your job) that’s okay, just do what you love.”

At Commonfolk we're committed to a hospitality industry that's equitable for everyone. 

Australia recently slumped twelve places to 46th in the world on the WEF Global Gender Gap Index. As a country we still have a lot of work to do before sexism and gender inequality are ghosts of a bygone era. Hospitality is in a unique position to act as a forerunner for equality. So many talented women are building careers and breaking new ground in our industry. The amazing women featured in this blog are forging their own paths and identities in this industry. Hopefully the stories of their success can inspire the entire community to get behind the women making hospitality what it is.



Kirra Minton - Currently completing a PhD in History at Monash, looking at the representations of gender, class, race, and sex in American and Australian teen girl magazines from 1944 - 1997. http://monash.academia.edu/KirraMinton




Sam Keck