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The Middle East culinary industry needs more women leaders. So, what is being done?

F&B industry experts talk about the lack of women in back-of-house roles and weigh in on the hiring process, and safe environment.

The Middle East culinary industry needs more women leaders. So, what is being done?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Consider this: 80% of food buying decisions globally are made by women, yet, across every segment of the food and beverage industry, fewer than 20% of senior leadership positions are held by women. 

Is there a specific reason behind the lack of women in kitchens? Is it a shortage of qualified applicants? In the Middle East, are there unique cultural and societal expectations that lead to the lack of representation of women in the culinary industry? And finally, how does the F&B industry provide actionable solutions for current and future generations of chefs?

“The problem is not only the lack of women in kitchens but also qualified female candidates. This issue is so deeply rooted it’s almost generational. Like others, hiring anyone could be a risk or a project, but the industry needs to start nurturing young talent. Solutions are out there, but the right venues need to take steps to move the industry forward. The bigger the establishment, the larger the budget -– it almost becomes your responsibility to help,” says Neha Mishra, owner and chef of the Dubai-based restaurant Kinoya. 


The reality in the industry is often quite different, which Mishra recognizes. “Seeing more women in back-of-house roles requires noble practices, which you have to not just talk about but do. It’s all there – the money and the time, but you have to want to commit, and these changes have to start somewhere. Those in leadership positions have to ask – what can I do? What can we do differently? These decisions have to be purposeful. The only way change will happen will be to give a slightly less qualified female a chance, or we won’t break the cycle.”

When asked about her hiring process, Hind Al Mulla, the Emirati founder and creative director of Home Bakery, with locations across the UAE and Saudi Arabia, explains, “I don’t look at gender when hiring; I look at what candidates can do. I bring them into the kitchen and ask them to make something. Given their training, I watch to evaluate their quality, time, taste, innovation, and skill in the kitchen. If you come into our kitchen, you’ll see an equal split in staffing in the kitchen and our operations.”

As an Arab woman, Hind is approached for advice. She says, “I am often contacted by women interested in opening businesses, and I consult for them. I have the same question: what do you want to do? What makes you stand out? Why are you opening the business? What are you getting out of this? Some women put in the time, effort, money, and hustle. These women want to get out of their home kitchens and into the marketplace. When I see the power and the passion, I’m willing to help and put the time in. I want the future to be led by women. Across Dubai, we see women owning their businesses and realizing their full potential.” 


Hind has worked hard to create an equitable kitchen and offers this advice to restaurateurs who aren’t seeing the number of female applicants they want, “Make sure you have a safe environment and ensure there is no harassment. Offer flexibility and, when possible, that jobs will be waiting when your employees return. It is important to look at the human part of your team. My team is one system, one family.”

Tala Bashmi, the Bahraini Chef Patronne of Fusions by Tala, in Manama, Bahrain, recently awarded the No.4 spot in the MENA’s World’s 50 Best list 2023, says, “I don’t hire candidates specifically because they are women – to me, you’re good because you’re a good chef. What’s important to me is finding the right team, one that believes in my talent and vision and has the passion and heart to cook and serve that way. I have many on my team who didn’t come from a culinary school background. They were working at cafes. I look for an outstanding attitude. You can teach technique, but you can’t teach someone who doesn’t have the right attitude.”


Operating a smaller kitchen, Solemann Haddad, chef, and founder of moonrise xyz, sought out female applicants in his last round of hiring, only to find there weren’t many. “The most prominent issue with our industry is we lack women on our teams, especially in back-of-house roles. This trend is due to several reasons. To start, candidates coming to Dubai often come from more traditional patriarchal societies where women play different roles. Men come to foreign countries to look for work, which creates a much higher percentage of men in the F&B industry. An example might be that in an hour, I receive 100 CVs from men, and at that same time, I would only receive two CVs from women. And, of course, I want that to change.”

Solemann recognizes there is still a long way to go across the industry, and men are often the source of the problem. “I run my team as if there was a woman present. Regardless of who is on my team, I want to create a good working environment for my kitchen. There are still kitchens full of toxic masculinity, which discourages women from applying. These behaviors can involve abuse from men towards other men, and anyone can risk facing different kinds of abuse because these chefs can get away with it.”

So, where and how do these attitudes change? As the next generation of chefs, Solemann suggests, “There must be holistic solutions and initiatives that create more inviting and safe spaces to work in this industry. Let’s not push ‘just’ for women to increase the ratio. Let’s make better working environments for everyone that are free of harassment and abuse. We want to make a space for women worldwide to join this industry.”

Overall, while the representation of women in the culinary industry in the Middle East and the rest of the world is still low, there are a growing number of chefs and restaurateurs who are challenging the status quo and creating spaces that female candidates are interested in working in. Steps like the above can be made to make changes for a better industry, regardless of gender.

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Courtney Brandt is an author and journalist living in Dubai, UAE. Her work has been published in Vogue Arabia, Destinations of the World, Forbes Middle East, Elite Daily, The Forward Feed, and Food&Wine among many other publications. More