Gender Roles and Food: Are We Sexist?

I have always been an advocate of cooking. If there is one thing you can do to better your diet and better your food choices, I really do believe it’s opting to make your own food at home.

There’s a current trend in food media that echoes this sentiment: Michael Pollan’s most recent book “Cooked”, food television shows devoted to quick and easy food preparation, and every single blog devoted to making your own yogurt/butter/kombucha/almond butter/kale infused anything.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the entire population is making a mad dash for the kitchen. All this talk of going back to the kitchen can be a big pressure on working families. As a friend of mine, a mother of two, put it recently, “I do my best but never feel good enough.” And this is coming from a woman who knows how to cook, is devoted to shopping locally whenever possible and whose favorite cookbook is from the 1970s and all about putting more sustainable meals on the table. But the pressure is there, because the reality is that cooking and making our own food takes time.

But why is it that women feel this pressure more than men? Why is it that most food media is devoted to headlines like “10 Easy Meals For the Busy Mom” or, even worse, “Easy Outfits to Transition from the Kitchen to Hostess”. No really, I have read several of those.

The answer is that the world of food is dealing with some serious issues of sexism.

In the food world, chefs gain celebrity status, and those chefs tend to be male. Take a look at any chef roundup recently and take note of how many women are mentioned. But if men reign in the flashy world of food, women reign in everything else. We are after all the ones usually putting food on the table at home. We are the ones that make sure that our families eat three times a day, every day of the week. When you cook in this way, you don’t have time to make it artistry.

Recently, I came across an image of the cover of “Quick Dinners for Women in a Hurry,” a book published in 1942. Ah, the 1940s and 1950s, when advertising was overtly sexist and the only role for a woman was in the kitchen. Yet in our modern, presumedly more progressive era, have we really moved so far away from this? Sure, such a title would never fly with today’s cookbook publishing houses, but the reality is that it’s still mostly women that are bearing the brunt of putting food on the table everyday. And they get zero credit for it.

A New York Times article, titled “When Their Workday Ends, More Fathers Are Heading Into the Kitchen,” took a look at exactly this question. As the New York Times reported, “Michael M. Rooke-Ley, a retired law professor in Eugene, Ore., echoed those concerns, noting that “a 1950s ethic still prevails” at times, even when both parents work. ‘In these outposts of gender-based tradition,’ Mr. Rooke-Ley said, ‘Dad needs to get off the couch!’”

While the number of men in household kitchens is up – 29 percent of men spent time in the kitchen in 1965, in 2008 it was 42 percent – women still devote double the amount of time to food and drink preparation than their male counterparts.

I am not saying men don’t cook. I am in a 50/50 relationship when it comes to making food with my partner; and he’s not just putting frozen pizza in the oven. But there’s no denying that this issue of sexism is deeply seated. On some level, we still have the image of a woman in an apron and the man with a martini.

Let me put it another way: if it’s still revolutionary enough for men to be cooking, so much so that it necessitates a New York Times article, you can be sure that the problem hasn’t gone away. There’s plenty of sexism in kitchens, and in the world of food in general.

If we are going to talk about getting more people back in the kitchen, the conversation needs to be inclusive. It shouldn’t be just women feeling this pressure to buy better products and cook more meals at home. Both genders need to be empowered to take part in the everyday, boring cooking. Not just the sexier, dinner party throwing, look-at-the-12-course-meal-I-made-for-Saturday night type of cooking.

Originally published on EcoSalon

Image: Seattle Municipal Archives

Comments 10

  1. Kristen

    If the men are in the kitchen after preparing the dinner doing the clean-up or at least helping, then I’m fine with it. But everything you say is valid and it leads me to this other topic of “leaning in,” which is something we can discuss on Thursday 🙂

    • Anna Brones

      Truth! I would still consider that a 50/50 thing… unfortunately I think the work load is often much more skewed than that. Can’t wait for the “lean in” convo!

  2. ellen sue jacobson

    Since I am a vegetarian and my husband a die-hard carnivore, we each prepare our meals side-by-side. Because he does his own cooking, I clean up, but your article has given me food for thought. Why doesn’t he clean up with me? Am I feeling guilty that I don;t cook for him and at least I clean up??
    Thanx for the thought-provoking article.

  3. Christo

    Having tried to punch a few holes in your article, I have to admit that you have me stymied. I love cooking for my family (I am a male with a wonderful partner who has a lovely extended family!) and have been lucky enough to have a few non-celebrity male role models to inspire me in the kitchen. Perhaps it is a lack of passion for cooking anything but grilled meat (vegetarian meals rarely rate a mention), but I think it is disappointing that men often (hopefully inadvertently) adopt this stereotype.

    • Anna Brones

      Christo – Thanks for reading and commenting! I agree with you that men tend to get put in the “grilled meat” category, and that it’s disappointing that this leads to the adoption of this stereotype. Glad to hear that you like to cook! Keep it up!

  4. Leah

    Let’s not forget the overtly heterosexist mess that is Glamour Magazine’s 100 Recipes Every Woman Should Know, including “engagement chicken,” because he should propose to you, obviously, and queer women don’t exist. How this was published in 2011 when the majority of the recipes have that “Sex and the City” air about them (girlfriends! men! shopping! capitalism!) is beyond me.

  5. Angela Hussong

    In particular, this blog provides specific examples of ways that women in our American culture are put under a significant amount of pressure to be able to provide homemade meals from scratch for their family three times a day. Likewise, women are given a specific gender role of ‘belonging in the kitchen’, which can be labeled as a sexist stereotype. For example there seem to be more women cooking for their families than men today (assuming this is a heterosexual household), but the women receive little to no recognition for the work that they have done. On the other hand chefs that are males gain famous recognition and are highly praised for cooking outside of their own kitchen. One other interesting opinion that this article offers is that since men who cook make it into the New York Times, this must still be a sexist topic in the world of food today.
    However, I think that there is another issue here, and Marjorie DeVault does a fantastic job of explaining this in the article Conflict and Deference. One thing that DeVault explains in her article is gender, sex, and the concept of gender complementarity, but first it is important to understand what the word gender means before we start using it with other words. Gender and sex are two completely different things, gender refers to how one identifies them self in comparison to cultural expectations, which could be in many different ways, while sex is referring to the biological physical attributes of the body that determine whether we are male or female.
    Subsequently, gender complementarity can be defined as the process in which men and women come together to complete a task or tasks of a culture. At a first glance one may think well, how is that any different than sexism? For example the mother of two kids mentioned in this blog post strives to put a good meal on the table for her children which demonstrates how she has to support this family by herself without help by another person, but does not feel appreciated by them. Does this mean that she feels underappreciated because she is a woman and is expected by the sexist food industry and ‘women addressing cookbooks’ to cook meals for her children? When in fact the mother feels the pressure and little recognition of completing all of the household chores, and having to come home after a day of work and put a meal on the table for her kids or they simply won’t eat.
    This further demonstrates the pressure of gender complementarity and gender parallelism because if the woman was not to cook, then the tasks of the household would not be met, and there would not be a dinner. If a woman for example still has to pull most of the weight if not all of the weight with ‘caring work’, or work such as cooking from scratch and taking into consideration of others preferences, she is providing for her family under the pressure of hungry stomachs, rather than the pressure to cook because she saw the title of the book “10 Easy Meals for the Busy Mom”. Likewise DeVault’s concept of gender parallelism can be defined as men can do tasks that women can do, and women can do tasks that men can do. On the other hand, DeVault focuses more on the ties between gender complementarity and gender parallelism and how men and women come together to provide for the household, disregarding who does what chore/task, rather than viewing women who cook in the kitchen as an act of sexism.
    While some families may have two parents, there are quite a few single parents that raise their children today, and we see more tasks that are associated with a specific gender, or gender roles/sexual division of labor, being completed by the opposite gender. One of those tasks being cooking, many couples may say that they pull an equal weight in the kitchen, but the research suggests different results. Caring work as mentioned above is obligatory for women, and exceptional for men to do according to DeVault. The woman’s gender role is often the mastermind behind everything, and to take into account others preferences, taking mental note of all of the food items that are plentiful, or that are scarce. While in contrast the Men’s gender role is associated with the feeding work. Often times this role is seen as only filling in for women when needed, grocery shopping (with instructions from the wife/significant other), making dinner (with instructions from the wife/significant other), and not taking into consideration others food preferences. For example during one of DeVault’s interviews, a man Rick explains how he lets, “things run down and just lets things go completely out.” Rick continued to explain how he would keep things in his head, but if he forgot the item he would go without it or make up some other meal to make. Thus in DeVault’s findings, the women are often the mastermind behind the meals, and this can be because of a few different reasons.
    One of the reasons that women plan everything may be because of the gender roles that have been passed down from generation to generation. Similarly the reason why men do not plan as much as women can be because of a lack of a role model or father figure that did the caring work. That is to say that not all of the households are this way, but quite a few of DeVault’s interviews demonstrated these results. Similarly DeVault demonstrates how women are the organized planners, and if they forget something they are willing to take an extra trip to the store in order to please their family, which is exactly what Donna, who is one of the mothers that was interviewed by DeVault did after asking her husband what he would prefer for dinner. Another explanation as to why in today’s world there are specific roles that men and women conform to is because of our schedules. This is not always the case, such as in some single parent households the parent is expected to do all of the work in order to get everything done around the house, simply because there is not a second person to meet them in the middle or help with chores, and this is where I believe gender parallelism came from. Of course there are always those few people in society that like to go against the social norm and complete tasks that other people of their gender do not typically do or are not associated with, but it makes sense that women started doing what men do and men started doing what women do because they did not have the second person to help them complete the tasks.
    Likewise, both of these concepts are debated today, but with the studies and in depth interviews conducted on families of all types, one can argue that there are more families that model the gender complementarity lifestyle, while there often are circumstances where gender parallelism is more prominent. For instance in the same way that the significant other in this post helps out 50/50 to put dinner on the table. This is not only a great example of gender complementarity and gender parallelism of two people coming together to get the chores that are ‘supposed to be’ done by the opposite sex, but this also leads into how DeVault mentions in one section of the article the type of ‘food’ that men cook when they are in the kitchen. Most often they use prepackaged food, rather than food made from scratch that the women were making. However, in this post the man does make a homemade meal (besides frozen pizza), but often times DeVault mentions that this meal is one that the man is good at making such as burgers on the grill and potatoes, or lasagna for example. I can speak of this for myself as well because my step-dad always had one or two great homemade meals that he took pride in cooking when I was growing up, but then my mother made the rest of the meals which varied more than one or two dishes.
    Another example of caring work that DeVault mentions that further demonstrates the types of food and the time that women put into making a meal for their husband/children, is in one of her interviews when she asked the women what kind of lunch she typically packed for her husband. The women stated that many times she would often spend a lot of time preparing and putting together a nice lunch, and when asked why not just throw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich together, the woman replied, “He doesn’t, he wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t appreciate it…it’s not enough of a lunch to give him”. DeVault eventually interpreted the woman’s words as this woman thought that her husband was much more deserving than herself to get a pitiful peanut butter jelly sandwich in his lunch, while on the other hand the woman would make herself this for lunch any day.
    So why is it that women tend to take on the caring work role, while men tend to take on the feeding work role? Could it be that caring work is obligatory for women and exceptional for men to do? Furthermore for single parents, if they were not to complete tasks that are done by the opposite gender, then how would that task ever get done if someone of that gender is not around? Furthermore in heterosexual households in order for all of the chores to be completed around the house, both the man and the woman have to come together in order to run a household.
    Often times this is where we see more examples of gender parallelism, and gender complementarity. However it does not always work out where dad mows the lawn, and mom cooks dinner. Especially if both of the parents have a job and work outside of the house, it is much more common to see them doing a wider variety of tasks to help out their partner, which may be where ‘Dad’s get off the couch and moves into the kitchen’, like the New York Times article mentions in the blog post. More often than not this is not a matter of the woman is the only who cooks, because the men do not mind stepping in and making dinner for their wife, or helping out. However men still feel obligated to live by the gender roles given by society that existed 50 years ago, such as grocery shopping from the list that their wife made up, and making their ‘specialty dinner’ that their wife planned, or what we refer to as feeding work. For these reasons, men are not the ones to plan out meals, take into account other family members food preferences, or sprint into the kitchen to make dinner unless they are filling in for their partner.

  6. Back to the kitchen

    Women are meant to stay home and cook while the man goes out and generates enough money for her to be able to cook. Quit your bitching and accept the fact that it will always be this way and always has been. If you have a problem with it then become a lesbian or something because no one gives a shit about your damn opinion.

    • Anna Brones

      I think you might have a better time with your archaic expectations of society over on Breitbart. Cheers to taking your last gasps of the dying patriarchy!

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