If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen


I recently took a vacation in Italy, and in my quest to eat everything not nailed down in the Lake Como region, I had the good fortune to participate in an amazing private cooking class in the resort kitchen of the Villa d’Este Hotel. The sous chef, a charming Italian man (duh) took my family through the paces of making pasta from scratch, mixing the ingredients using only his fingers. We made a five course meal together (including two desserts—proof there is a God) in a massive ballroom-sized gleaming kitchen that was busily also trying to meet the demands of the resort guests.

As I stood back at the end of the process and surveyed the scene I realized that every one of the 30 or more people working in the kitchen were men—not a woman in sight. I also then realized that among the very large serving staff in the restaurants I had seen no women. I asked the sous chef, a man who could not have been older than 35 or 40, if they had any women chefs, cooks, servers, hosts, busboys, anything? and he told me in perfect, if adorably accented, English that only men worked in the kitchen and three restaurants.

Referring specifically to the kitchen itself, his exact quote was this, “We have no women here in our operation for two reasons. First, it is very hard to find women who are interested in being professional chefs in Italy. Second, and I am embarrassed to say this, but having only one woman in a room full of 30 men just doesn’t work. Someone is always jealous and it just causes all kinds of problems.”  It kind of took my breath away (although I did manage to still eat the food…what can I tell you? I’m weak before an Italian seafood pasta). What I should have said was, “Why would you stop at hiring ONE woman?” And furthermore, with a double digit unemployment rate in Italy, I am betting there are plenty of women who would love to have these jobs.

Wow, here we are in the year 2012 and this mentality is impossible to escape, even on vacation. While there are clearly more women in professional roles than there have been in the past, it is still an uphill battle to overcome centuries of institutionalized chauvinism, not just in the board room, but even in the kitchen. My daughter, age 16, turned to me when she heard the chef’s response and said, “I thought men always wanted the women to cook for them, but maybe that’s only when they’re saying ‘Hey woman, make me a sandwich.’” Smart kid. I reminded her that even today, when you are dealing outside the home in the world of “professions,” women still have to fight for their place at the table, even if, as in this case, the table is made of butcher’s block. I myself have experienced this first-hand very recently.

The profound separation of the sexes is so present in my own profession that virtually no venture firm has more than one woman partner and the vast majority have none. I have the stunning good fortune to be on two boards of directors that have two women each on them, but most of the women colleagues I know have no other females at the table. The sense that having one woman in the mix among a large group of men causes problems is a very present feeling experienced by many of my female compatriots. They often speak of being excluded from board outings and discussions because they aren’t members of the Hair Club for Men, or wherever the Y-chromosome people go to escape their female professional counterparts. It is always so freaking funny to me that chauvinistic, women-hating politicians are always brought down in the end by that whole mentality backfiring on them. Hey Representative Akin, sound familiar? I am always amazed that these overt chauvinists get actual women to marry them. Maybe those women lost a bet.

On the trip to Lake Como I met a fabulous woman, a child psychiatrist who was the first female to be appointed as an assistant professor in her department at Penn sometime back in the 1970s. She told me how she had first been denied the promotion by the oversight committee made up of grumpy old men and believed it was solely because she was a woman. When her department Chair begrudgingly admitted that her situation assessment was correct, she wrote a letter to that Board, reluctantly endorsed by her Chair, stating that she had met every single criterion for promotion, believed the denial of her promotion was based purely on her gender and informed them that she would release her letter to the newspaper if she wasn’t … Next Page »

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Lisa Suennen is a managing director with GE Ventures and former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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5 responses to “If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen”

  1. Great article Lisa. The corollary to no women in the professional kitchen is no men in the hotel room performing room service. Two distinct gender universes.

    • Lisa Suennen says:

      Hi Charles, thanks for the note. True observation, but only one is considered, rightly or wrongly, an upscale profession. Lisa

  2. observer says:

    So Lisa spends all of her time noticing the number of women in the room. And this is interesting why?
    The column from start to finish has a sexist (yes women can be sexist) tone.

    • Lisa Suennen says:

      I don’t have to spend all of my time noticing the number of women in the room. There are usually so few it only takes a second. No doubt women can be sexist too–we just tend to have fewer opportunities to act on it.

      ps-I always wish the critics would sign their names so we could have an actual discourse on the topic. Oh well.

  3. Chris says:

    “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, because we are coming in and it sure as hell isn’t to make you a sandwich.”

    Who could resist such a well measured and rational appeal? …. :)