Crashing the C-suite ceiling: How female restaurant leaders are pushing for more diversity
Even though more women work in the restaurant industry than men, fewer are represented at the executive level. Brands like Auntie Anne's, Red Lobster, Starbucks and McDonald's are making changes.
The #MeToo movement has forced the restaurant industry to reckon with the sexual harassment that has long plagued female kitchen staff, but another issue, gender inequality, is coming into focus.
Women make up more than 52% of the restaurant and foodservice industry, but that number shrinks substantially the further up the corporate ladder, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, women represent only 18% of C-suite positions in the segment, the Women's Foodservice Forum reports.
"Corner offices in the restaurant industry — like most industries — have traditionally been occupied by white men with resumes that look remarkably similar: Ivy League, a stint on Wall Street, prestigious business school, consulting gig, C-suite," Auntie Anne's president Heather Neary told Restaurant Dive in an email. "It's incumbent upon all of us, men and women, to change this repetitive narrative."
Neary's own career journey is markedly different, taking her from work as a bartender to president of the pretzel giant in less than two decades.
Many female leaders are using their positions to promote more diversity, and major restaurant brands like McDonald's and Yum Brands are prioritizing the issue through better leadership recruitment efforts and networking. Diversity also provides great business opportunities.
Diversity can help the bottom line
Growing corporate interest in diversity largely reflects consumer demand for mission-based brands, but it can also be beneficial to a company's bottom line.
"Diversity is good business," Neary said. "Diverse companies — not just restaurants, but across all industries — are more profitable, more competitive."
McKinsey & Co.'s Delivering through Diversity study revealed that companies in the top 25th percentile for diversity within their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profits. These companies also were 27% more likely than their counterparts to have longer-term value creation, according to the report.
Neary said it's important that leaders look at their teams and make sure they represent the guests they serve. If they don't, it's time to make a change. Women have a purchasing power of $18 trillion around the world and are often the primary decision makers in their families, Neary noted. Because they make a lot of spending decisions, it makes sense for them to be represented in the boardroom to offer their perspectives on critical areas of the business, from product innovation to corporate strategies.
"Diversity is good business. Diverse companies — not just restaurants, but across all industries — are more profitable, more competitive."
President, Auntie Anne's
"To stay on top of ever-changing trends and demands of our guests, we must be diverse in thought every day," she said. "Encouraging innovation in supply chain, menu, marketing, operations and more are requirements for our continued success."
Red Robin, Papa John's, Ruth's Hospitality and Bloomin' Brands are among the public restaurant companies to have several women on their board. Starbucks has been making strides over the last five years, adding four women to its board since 2011, of which three are women of color. Domino's brought on two women in July, while Chipotle and Papa John's added additional female board members in March.
Despite what looks like progress, the industry has been backsliding, with the percentage of women in the C-suite falling to 18% last year compared to 23% in 2017. There are only a few female CEOs of public restaurant companies. After Liz Smith left her position as CEO at Bloomin' Brands April 1, there are only three public restaurant companies with female CEOs left: Red Robin, Ruth's Hospitality Group and Cracker Barrel.
"At the current pace of progress, it will take 100 years to close the gender gap in the C-suite," Red Lobster's president and chief concept officer Salli Setta told Restaurant Dive via email.
The problem perhaps shouldn't be as acute because the restaurant industry is inherently flexible and offers a wide range of careers that could appeal to women. "That said, beyond entry-level positions, women are not moving into more middle-management and senior level roles at the same pace as their male counterparts," Setta said.
Setta attributes this to the fact that women are less likely to have strong networks and dedicated mentors who can advise them on how to progress and advocate for them when opportunities do arise.
Serving up more diversity in the C-suite
Several brands are trying to change the current trajectory, reevaluating pay, hiring and promotion practices. Yum Brands began an initiative in 2018 to advance more women employees and achieve gender parity in senior leadership globally by 2030. The company's global management positions are held by 40% of women, and the company ran a study to check that its pay was equal across genders and ethnicities. It also offers opportunities for engagement through its Women in Networking employee resource group. Starbucks also has been aiming for equal pay and launched Pay Equity Principles in 2018 committing to 100% pay equity in the U.S. and this year expanded its commitment to include China and Canada.
Brands have also been hyper-focused on diverse recruitment strategies. Modern Market Eatery has a gender-equity mission when it comes to its promotion and hiring strategy of its leadership team, which is made up of nearly half women, according to Nation's Restaurant News. McDonald's plans include increasing female representation at all levels by 2023.
"At the current pace of progress, it will take 100 years to close the gender gap in the C-suite."
President and Chief Concept Officer, Red Lobster
"We are committed to creating a workplace where everyone is equally supported and empowered to realize their full potential, and with this initiative, we are pledging to accelerate McDonald's progress toward gender balance and diversity," Wendy Lewis, McDonald's vice president and global chief diversity officer, said in a statement on the company's website.
As part of its inclusion and diversity initiatives, Darden partners with diverse sponsorship organizations and search firms to recruit a better pool of candidates and offers employee resource groups to help with networking, professional development and career advancement. Red Lobster has a similar focus on diversity.
"It's important that the leadership of our restaurants reflect our guests," Setta said. "Everyone from our C-suite to our field operators is focused on identifying strong, diverse talent at all levels of our organization and helping them advance and grow."
Mentoring younger generations
Setta believes part of this gender disparity reflects the fact that many people consider the industry only for part-time job opportunities and don't think of it as part of a career. The industry has roles from wait staff, to ownership and management, as well as positions in finance, IT, marketing, distribution or manufacturing.
"The restaurant industry offers opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds, education levels and interests," she said.
Setta's first job in the industry was as a busser at a local restaurant that she worked at during college. She initially viewed it as a temporary stop on her career and became a technical writer and editor in the aerospace industry after college. She quickly realized it wasn't the job or industry for her.
"I decided to look for a job that offered the opportunity to do work that was interesting to me while simultaneously allowing me to develop the skills I needed to achieve my long-term goals," she said.
By networking, she landed an entry-level job as a sales promotion assistant at Olive Garden, where she worked for 15 years before switching over to Red Lobster, where she has worked since 2005.
"The restaurant industry offers opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds, education levels and interests."
President and chief concept officer, Red Lobster
Finding strong mentorship is also equally important, both Setta and Neary said.
Women can get involved with organizations such as Women's Foodservice Forum, which can provide access across the industry and insights on how to advance, said Setta, who has been involved with the organization for 15 years. She has served on its board for the past three years.
The organization offers an annual leadership conference as well as leadership development workshops. It expanded its work to include engaging industry CEOs to drive change and created a proprietary Gender Equity Index and success roadmap to provide best practices across the industry, among other initiatives, Setta said.
In addition to her work with WFF, Setta has been involved with the Rosen College of Hospitality at the University of Central Florida through its Women's Hospitality Leadership Forum, where she educates students on opportunities within the restaurant industry.
Neary said creating more diverse leadership begets more diversity. When more women and people of multiple backgrounds gain more opportunities in executive positions, they often give others like them additional opportunities, Neary said. This kind of representation can help young people become inspired to reach these same levels, she said.
"Growth will be exponential," Neary said. "It can be a cascading effect that transforms not just the restaurant industry, but the business world."
Neary said she regularly speaks with diverse audiences nationwide and is active with the WFF and FOCUS Brands' Women's Leadership Network. She also mentors high school students as part of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce Women in Business program.
"I try to make myself as accessible as possible,"she said. "By creating opportunities for others, I hope they will benefit in the same ways that I have throughout my career."
Leaders should bring along those who aspire to do more in their careers, Neary said. Providing mentorship, leadership and sponsoring the high potential of employees of all backgrounds is a leader's responsibility, she said.
"As leaders, we have the privilege to empower the next generation. We are uniquely positioned to shape the industry’s future," Neary said. "I hope we will collectively make it more diverse, inclusive, and as a result, successful, than ever before."
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