Women in food

Fiona Ryland, HR Director at Compass Group UK & Ireland, explains the importance of the Women in Food programme

In April, Compass Group UK & Ireland became the first company in the industry to tackle the shortage of female chefs,aiming to achieve gender equality by 2020 in this currently male-dominated industry

Compass Group UK & Ireland has a balanced workforce with more than 50% being women.However, there are parts of the business where improvements can be made, this is especially true for the culinary teams.

As one of the UK’s largest private employers with approximately 60,000 staff we have a great responsibility to create an inclusive workforce for all. Food is at the heart of everything we do and we currently employ over 4,300 chefs of which 36% are female. However, when we began looking at diversity in our business, we looked at the trends within the industry and were surprised to establish that the industry average of female chefs sits at a poor 18.5%. So we looked at what the barriers were that are holding women back and what could be done to overcome these. Armed with this information, we decided we could do more, so we made this commitment to increase our female chef workforce to 50% by 2020. 

We know it’s not going to be easy, but we Believe by introducing a number of different measures combined with our passion and determination, we can make this happen!

One of the great obstacles that women face when applying for roles in the culinary business is the inflexible and long working hours, which has made it a challenging career choice for women who wish to juggle family life. However, we feel contract catering offers an interesting alternative with the ability to work shift hours in a variety of fields, from schools to business, to defence and healthcare and even supporting key events. It may not be an option many trainee chefs or those thinking of going into the foodservice sector have even considered.

So we want to get the message out to those thinking about their careers and let them know what the opportunities are. 

As part of the programme, the company has put together a number of initiatives in a bid to encourage and attract more women into the business. This includes advertising the scheme more publicly, reviewing current working practices and requiring balanced shortlists when recruiting. As well as this, the company is committed to supporting its female talent through development pathways and training opportunities. 

The Programme Board

In order to deliver on our objectives, we have put together a ‘Women in Food’ Programme Board, which plays a key role in supporting the programme lead in making key decisions. The board will be responsible for the roll out of the programme while also monitoring Outputs. Members of the board include key personnel from Compass Group UK & Ireland that work across our business.

The Programme Board will drive positive change across the organisation to enable an inclusive environment while also supporting the development and retention of female talent. The aim is to act as an effective decision-making body that will set the direction for the scheme and approve changes to scope in line with the vision. It will also act as a conduit between the programme and the rest of the organisation and external stakeholders.

“With 60,000 sta   we have a great responsibility to create an inclusive workforce for all”

One of the key barriers that came up was when there were opportunities within the business, female chefs were not putting themselves forward. We looked further into why this was and established, like many other business sectors, women didn’t have the same confidence. They would look at a job role and think they didn’t meet all the criteria, or felt they weren’t ready to work at a different level. But when we spoke to these individuals, explained the role in more detail and more actively encouraged them to consider the position, they were more willing to do so. Having this insight demonstrated the need for us not only to develop clear career pathways but also introduce a mentoring programme for our female colleagues. Initiatives being put into place include those to support the development of female chefs and also encourage the promotion of more women into senior leadership roles.     

Female chefs of all levels will be given the opportunity to follow development pathways in order to shape their careers. The scheme aims to develop insight, autonomy and resilience for women, building courage and credibility to shape their careers. Those looking to advance their careers with Compass Group UK & Ireland will be provided with ongoing support such as mentoring and peer support so they are able to take full advantage of opportunities to advance and to help build the confidence in female employees whether they be apprentices or in senior leadership.

Following the launch of the Women in Food programme, we have ensured we continue to nurture our female talent throughout the business. Another area where female chefs need support is around juggling family life. As previously mentioned, the option of flexible working is an advantage of the catering sector, however being supported as a pregnant or a new working mum is critical too. Therefore, the company pledged to support pregnant employees and those returning from maternity leave by reviewing our policies and procedures to make it simpler to support those expecting and returning to work and introducing training once we have undertaken this review so our line managers are better equipped to support these colleagues.

I am so proud of what our Women in Food programme is seeking to achieve and working with our dedicated learning and development team believe we can make a real difference and encourage more women to join the chef industry. Whether it’s through identifying the opportunities the catering sector offers, the development of our tailored learning and development programmes, our mentoring systems or just the provision of the right support for our workforce, I hope that we will create a fantastic working environment in which female chefs will wish to work.


“The option of flexible working is an advantage of the catering sector, however being supported as a pregnant or a new working mum is critical too”