Addressing the Story We Tell About Gender Diversity in the Food Industry

When researcher, storyteller, and professor, Brené Brown, speaks about the story we tell ourselves, or the story that we are making up in our heads, she is referring to how our brain narrates a story based on the perceptions of what is going on around us. 

If we really think about it, “diversity” can be a key, or buzz, word that one might throw around without truly grasping its significance. We should look at diversity as a way to ensure the removal of barriers placed upon the employment, responsibilities, and career advancement of people from diverse backgrounds. 

This article aims to address and update the narrative about gender diversity in the food industry with three major points.


Barriers to Promotion

Firstly, the main reason for the underrepresentation of women of color in the food industry is the barriers to promotion. 

Women of color represent only 14 percent of employees at the entry-level, and remain in the low 3 percent of executive positions, even though they constitute about 20 percent of the US population, according to the census. Making matters worse, Black and Latina women have the steepest decline in representation of any group throughout the leadership pipeline in the food industry. Within the food industry’s leadership pipeline, we refer to the people in the entry-level, manager, senior manager/director, vice president, senior vice president, and c-suite. White men, on the other hand, represent 37 percent of the entry-level and as they move up the ranks this percentage only increases to nearly 70 percent at the c-suite level.

We can challenge the common narrative which states that the primary driver of this steep decline is attrition. Women in the food industry leave their companies at similar or lower rates as men of the same ethnicity. For example, 67 percent of women and 70 percent of men intend to remain with their current company for five years or more. 

The issue, rather, is the aforementioned barriers to promotion. Twenty percent fewer women than men in the food industry reach their first promotion to manager. One might ascertain that men and women in the food industry experience different types of support from those in leadership roles.

Further, men are more likely to report that their managers have provided advice to help them advance (43 percent versus 37 percent of women). Without support from leadership, it is less likely that women will be able to advance in their careers. 

Additionally, interaction with senior leadership is even more crucial considering that the awareness of the work and competence of women employees need to be recognized in order to bolster their case for promotion. Men are more likely to report that they interact with senior leadership more than once a month (51 percent versus 42 percent of women).

We need to update the story that we tell ourselves, that women are not promoted because they leave the industry to become mothers or to care for other family members. Rather, they stay in the company but are often unable to advance in their careers due to several unfair advantages accrued to men. These advantages seem invisible at first glance but we can start by looking at indicators such as how likely men or women are to be given advice by senior leadership and the frequency of interaction with senior leadership.


Gender Diversity Can Improve Business

Secondly, gender diversity improves business, but more specifically, we need to state how they enhance business. The numbers say that companies with more gender diversity perform better, as shown in how companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely than worse-performing companies to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Expanding the talent pool to intensify the recruitment of employees belonging to underrepresented groups, including women, will decrease some of the skill shortages that companies face. This is especially important for business since a 2012 survey said that 40 percent of companies said skill shortages were the top reason for vacancies in entry-level jobs. 

Gender diversity increases innovation by providing deeper and broader customer perspectives. Women represent 85 percent of all consumer purchases and 93 percent of all food purchases in US households. Hiring more women will thus enhance the company’s ability to innovate easily since their perspectives are overwhelmingly important and cannot be ignored. 


Establish Viable Diversity Indicators

The third story we should tell ourselves is that establishing the right indicators is important, as we cannot change what we cannot measure. Although 71 percent of food companies say gender diversity is a top priority, only 44 percent of men and 55 percent of women believe that their companies are committed to changing their ways to include more diversity. Determining the health of gender diversity in a company pipeline requires one to take note of four essential elements. 

  1. Representation rate. One needs to test whether women are well represented at each level in the corporate pipeline across the line (operations, P&L), and staff (support) roles. 
  2. Attrition rate. This will help to check if women leave their companies at higher rates than men. Equal attrition rates between men and women show that this is not the main issue hindering higher female representation in the leadership pipeline.
  3. Promotion rate, specifically whether women progress through the pipeline at a pace similar to men’s. How one measures the period required for women to progress to a particular leadership level needs to be considered if we are to understand the barriers to women’s promotion in the workplace. The data should then be further disaggregated into understanding the promotion rate of women of color.
  4. External hiring rate, whether employees hired from external sources are as likely to be women as men. When employees are hired externally, it could be important to recognize that there are biases that have not previously been taken into consideration, which may later impact the percentages of women and men at each leadership level. 

While women make up 49 percent of employees at the entry-level, representation drops steeply at higher levels along the pipeline. At the top, women represent only 23 percent of the food industry’s C-suite executives.


Changing the Story We Tell Ourselves

Women account for the vast majority of food-purchasing decisions in the United States and represent almost half of the entry-level workforce in the food industry. Yet, women are underrepresented once they move past entry-level jobs. Why should we accept the current state of things? We should move beyond this, starting by changing the narrative in our minds.

We need to understand that certain practices have just become “business-as-usual.” These practices have become so commonplace that we no longer reflect on them. We instead state common excuses such as women leaving the workforce to become mothers, excuses that are no longer substantiated by data.

Yet, just as the emperor believed that his coat made him invisible, the uneven promotion of men and women in the food industry is starting to show, and the results are not pretty.

In 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute showed that fully bridging the gender gap in the US labor market would also add $4.3 trillion of additional annual GDP in 2025—19 percent higher than business-as-usual GDP. 

Changing how we work by being more aware of gender diversity in the workplace and taking positive steps such as understanding the current state of things, what could be, and measuring the right indicators for enhancing gender diversity thus ought to be part of our collective goals for 2022 and beyond.

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