Labor pain: Tough times predicted for women

Recession-driven layoffs and corporate belt tightening are hampering efforts to win women and minorities workplace parity, according to those who have championed such movements in the restaurant industry.

As corporate engines sputter and budgets shrink, so too do hiring and development initiatives that promote diversity, observers say. And for women, who already hold a majority of foodservice jobs but are underrepresented in management positions, that’s bad news.

In 2007 women made up 51 percent of the foodservice hourly workforce and men made up 49 percent, according to Dallas-based human resources consulting firm People Report. The same year, however, only 34 percent of foodservice managers were women, while 66 percent were men.

Such percentages do not bode well for women, as male managers are more likely to hire in their own likeness—especially when times are tough, says Joni Doolin, president and chief executive of People Report.

“In an economic crisis, such as the one we are enduring right now, human behavior, unfortunately, reverts to low-risk decision-making,” Doolin says. “In hiring, that tends to translate into hiring people who [they] have worked with before or know from [their] circles. Those people tend to be male—particularly as you get closer to the corner office. Hence my prediction is that we will see a temporary slowdown in women cracking into the C-suite in foodservice for a while.”

Compounding the problem are the numbers of women currently losing their jobs, said Doolin, noting that 70 percent of her firm’s member companies have downsized their corporate staffs.

“My anecdotal observation is that a lot of women have received pink slips, particularly in HR, training, marketing and other administrative functions,” she says. “But the truth is that if we are to ever have true gender representation and equity, it will have to start at the entry level. This is where the funnel is the widest.”

During times of economic duress, however, more women tend to leave the foodservice workforce than join, says Shyam Patel, People Report’s chief operating officer.

“Basically, when the economy grows, more women tend to enter the workforce and when it contracts more opt out,” he says. “This also is true in foodservice. In recent years female participation at the managerial level reached a plateau at around 30 percent, despite economic expansion.”

For comparison, as previously stated, about 66 percent of foodservice managers are men, Patel says.

“In the current downturn, we should expect to see the percentage of females hired at the manager level to decline,” Patel says. “At the same time, this presents a clear opportunity for the industry to recruit and retain more female managers given the disparity between the percentage of females at the hourly level, versus the manager level, which currently is at a 20-percent gap.”

The pool of potential female employees is on the rise as more people lose jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in February that the national unemployment rate had risen to 8.1 percent, up from 7.6 percent in January. In that same period, 651,000 jobs had been lost, bringing the total number of unemployed people to 12.5 million. Of that number, approximately 5 million were women. Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost 4.4 million jobs, more than half of which occurred in the last four months.

For women already working in foodservice, now is the time to make their importance to their businesses known, says Linda Pharr, chair and interim president of the Women’s Foodservice Forum. More than half of the hourly foodservice workforce—or 51 percent—are women, according to PeopleReport.

“You have to make sure you’re out there raising your hands, taking the assignments you can, but not the things that can pigeon-hole you into any one slot,” she says. “That’s something we all know. Women, historically, have felt that if they just work hard they’ll get noticed, but in this day and age that’s not necessarily true. They must be vigilant about talking about what they can do and do the things that matter in their respective businesses.”

She also notes that women vying for executive roles in a contracted workforce would be smart to continue educating themselves to increase the number of skills they can perform.

“At the end of the day, the only reason the economy has a role in all of this is that there are fewer jobs available,” she says. “Companies are thinking diligently about what kind of talent they need to have in their organizations right now. It becomes a numbers game. They’re more thoughtful about how many people they’re going to have [working for them], but overall this isn’t necessarily a negative for women. Women who position themselves correctly, have the right skill set and the confidence to step forward are likely to be kept in the workforce.

“For those women who do what they can to boost their skills into a wider area, do what they can to network and are up to speed about what’s happening in the economy now and position themselves correctly as a result, they are the ones who will be the survivors and future leaders,” she continues. “Their companies will know who they are.”

Jan Combopiano, vice president and chief knowledge officer of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that focuses on women in business, agrees.

“Now is the time to focus on diversity and inclusiveness,” Combopiano says. “Companies must wake up and realize that with crises come opportunities. They should focus on what brings them forward—human capital. Then they can advance their bottom lines—and what we’ve seen in our research on bottom lines is that companies who have more women on their boards and in their corporate officer ranks outperform those who don’t.”

Those findings don’t seem to be changing the faces of most boards, however. In its most recent census of Fortune 500 companies, which was released in December 2008, Catalyst found that little progress has been made in the numbers of women appointed to corporate boards.

In 2008, women held 15.2 percent of board director positions, up slightly from 14.8 percent in 2007, Catalyst found. Women of color held just 3.2 percent of all board director positions. In addition, there had been little change in the number of companies that had zero, one, two or three female directors.

The number of women in corporate officer positions also seems to have stalled, the census found. Women held 15.7 percent of corporate officer positions in 2008, compared to 15.4 percent in 2007. And the percentage of women with top-earner status actually dipped slightly from 6.7 percent in 2007 to 6.2 percent in 2008.

Finally, little change occurred in the number of companies having zero, one, two or three women corporate officers, Catalyst found.

The economic downturn is not likely to change the realities for women and minorities, says Gerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, an organization devoted to supporting diversity in the foodservice industry.

“I can tell you from my conversations with companies and organizations around the foodservice industry, one concern people have is that during a downturn when people are downsized or jobs are eliminated, oftentimes [those jobs belong to] women and minorities,” he says.

“Now I don’t know that anyone can tell you that women or minorities have lost more jobs than white males because, let’s face it, when companies are in crisis mode or think they are in survival mode, the last in is the first out,” he continues. “But that said, our industry has had more openness to male leadership in the course of its history.”

Fernandez says he is concerned that the economy will reverse the diversity inroads he and others like him have made in recent years.

“People in the diversity game are worried that the gains that have been made are in peril because companies are cutting the things they think are noncore,” he says, adding that he vehemently disagrees with that notion. “It’s time to put the pedal to the metal. If we send a message that women don’t count, we’re going to have a real difficult time saying, ‘Hey, we’re a good industry for women.’ ”

Pharr echoes Fernandez’s sentiments, saying organizations like hers have suffered this year from weakened support as fewer companies are sending their female executives to participate in events such as the WFF’s Annual Leadership Development conference March 15-18.

“It’s really interesting, but one thing that happens physically when the economy takes a nosedive like it has is that companies start eliminating programs,” she says. “[We’re] impacted when those organizations lessen their sponsorships or don’t send women to our conference.”

As women grow frustrated with corporate life and the economy improves, more are likely to start up their own ventures, observers say.

“All of this is temporary,” says Doolin, “and as boomer women start to explore their options in the next couple of years, many of our most talented executives will be leaving the corporations and heading to more entrepreneurial ventures. It is already happening.”

According to Wendy K. Baumann, president of the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., many women are interested in starting their own businesses and are seeking out both financial and consultative support despite the economy.

The Milwaukee-based group, which promotes economic development by providing access to small infusions of capital, business assistance and education to women and minorities, offers its members funds of anywhere between $1,000 and $100,000. The average loan is about $25,000, Baumann says. Out of about 150 loans, between five and eight are restaurant related.

“Our classes are very full,” Baumann says. “A lot of people are still thinking of starting a business or expanding their businesses. About 65 percent of our loans are to women, and pretty much nationwide women generally are starting businesses as opposed to buying into existing businesses. Will they be more restaurant [businesses]? I can’t say, but I can tell you we’re looking at potential borrowers differently. For example, we are scrutinizing restaurant [businesses] more because they do have a higher failure rate.”

Even in this economy, businesswomen appear more positive about their business prospects than men, says Gwen Martin, executive director of the Center for Women’s Business Research in Washington, D.C.

“Women have this incredible amount of optimism about their businesses, and they are very optimistic with this downturn,” she says. “But we don’t really know if this is going to keep holding and at what point they’ll say this [recession] is lasting longer than they thought.”

Recession or not, savvy companies will keep women in mind as they plan for the future, Doolin says.

“Succession planning is now and will become even more mission critical throughout the decade,” she says. “Companies should be focused now—in this market—on the only silver lining of the recession: the stack of resumes on the recruiter’s desk. Finding the best talent available should obviously include a strategy to include women and minorities as well as younger workers.”

Especially younger women, Pharr echoes. They are the ones, she says, who are more impacted by layoffs and likely to leave the industry.

“This is really relevant and the WFF is committed to helping figure this thing out,” she says. “We know younger women are going to be our leaders of tomorrow. This is something that’s important for us to be cognizant of. We’re really looking out for and taking up a voice for younger women.”