For veteran restaurant workers Elizabeth Meltz, Erin Fairbanks and Liz Murray, the Me Too movement sparked a desire to start talking openly about issues affecting women working in the hospitality industry.
In 2017, the trio invited their peers to discuss issues from mental health and lack of mentorship to wage equity and safe workplaces. Those conversations led to a more formal organization, Women in Hospitality United, an advocacy group that includes Murray (the director of human resources for culinary agency The Marlow Collective) and restaurant executive Kutina Ruhumbika on its board of directors.
In this Voices in Food story, Murray and Ruhumbika share their thoughts on the issues facing women working in hospitality, how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities, and what it will take for the industry to rebuild.
On what sparked the movement
Liz Murray: Women in Hospitality United was definitely born out of the Me Too movement hitting the restaurant industry. [WIHU cofounder] Elizabeth Meltz worked for Mario Batali for many years, and when everything started to come out about him, she had a real personal reckoning. She didn’t know it was happening ― the level of abuse that he was inflicting ― and her instinct was to gather people and to talk about it, so she sent an email to all the women in her contact list and they had a really difficult, complicated first conversation. And it generated a ton of energy for action.
On how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem
Murray: All the issues that existed pre-pandemic like huge pay disparities, working conditions, essential health issues, support for working parents and women getting access to financing and mentorship and development still exist. During the pandemic, we’ve seen women leaving the workforce in every industry across the country at rapid rates because they are tasked with a lot of unpaid labor at home.
“I actually don’t think we can reform the system; we have to rethink the model.”
Kutina Ruhumbika: Most small businesses are owned by women, and those are the ones that are greatly impacted during the pandemic, so we’re going to see less and less representation of female- or women-owned businesses in our industry post-pandemic.
On what it will take to reform the system
Murray: I actually don’t think we can reform the system; we have to rethink the model. Ultimately we have to really think deeply and have honest conversations about where the industry is, who holds the power, who has the visibility, who’s getting the funding … and then we have to have real conversations about what an upending of that power structure would look like. The problem is that the people who could pull a lot of those levers aren’t interested in giving up power, so we need to be thinking about this on three levels: One is real political change. We need to be more politically active and push the government to make some changes in partnership with the industry. We also need change on the organizational level, to include more systems of feedback and accountability. And we need to work on changing individual levels of empowerment that include real talk with female employees about the conditions in the food space and encouraging them to try to make change early in their careers.
On how to rebuild
Ruhumbika: When we think about how we move forward, it’s going to have to be a highly intentional effort from everyone in the industry to recognize the disparities and understand that in order to pause those disparities, we don’t widen that gap. We have to be intentional and think about how we fund these businesses, how funds are distributed, also the parameters around who even qualifies for funding.
Murray: We have two or three restaurant owners reach out [to WIHU] every week who say things like, “I’m thinking about doing things differently as I rebuild.” I think the unbelievable response and awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement on top of the pandemic — which I think are connected in terms of people recognizing that it’s time for our country to have a reckoning and some change — has some people thinking about how to rebuild differently. But for the most part, those people aren’t talking about how they give up their power; they’re talking about how to tweak the system, but not how to restart their companies so that it’s worker-owned. I guess we should be excited about any interest in doing things differently, but I really am hopeful that more people will think large-scale about upending the actual structures of power in their companies.
On the role WIHU can play in supporting women in the hospitality industry
Murray: We will always do the work of uplifting other women’s voices and stories, but there is a gap in this space and we are trying to, in conversation with other people and other organizations, think about how we can collectively fill that gap and fill that need. We want to focus on building an equity goal framework that people feel is representative of what could happen on a national level and work to collectively move that work forward.
Ruhumbika: When large organizations or corporations that want to help ask themselves, “How do I even start?” they have the resources and the capital but they don’t have the strategy. We’re the organization that can help; we want those organizations and corporations to say, “Let’s reach out to Women in Hospitality United and help fund this organization to help drive change within the industry.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.