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Women in Foodservice
Women's Foodservice Forum is celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2024.

35 years of the Women’s Foodservice Forum: ‘serious, substantial, impactful and fun’

As the WFF marks its milestone anniversary this year, co-founder Edna Morris and CEO Therese Gearhart reflect on the work that’s been done and what’s to come.

In the late 1980s, Edna Morris was leading human resources at Hardee’s and was asked by a reporter to be interviewed for a story about women in the restaurant industry. The reporter also asked if she knew of any other women who would be willing to go on the record.

The task was more daunting than she expected it would be.

“It was hard. I did find some. They existed, but we didn’t know each other,” Morris said during a recent interview.

So, the group made plans to get together in person in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association in Chicago and have some deeper conversations. That decision likely changed the course for women in the restaurant industry, as their camaraderie and shared experiences drove them to eventually create the Women’s Foodservice Forum.

The women talked about their challenges – being labeled as “emotional,” not getting the same opportunities as their male counterparts, not being involved in the conversations where decisions were being made, having to prove their competency more, getting talked over, not listened to, etc.

“The discussion then became, well, then, just do it. If we have to prove our competency, then get on with it,” Morris said.

The group decided to formalize these discussions into something bigger and were again challenged. Some wondered if their intention was to “men bash.” For Morris and her 13 peers, however, they just wanted to create a space where people could come together and support each other, build leadership skills, create networks, and add value to their companies and the industry.

“It was an exciting time, but we were also scared because there were so few of us at the officer level and we wanted to speak truth and we wanted to be part of a solution. But there was some trepidation about it; are we going to hurt our careers?” Morris said. “Are we going to be seen as too ‘out there?’ We wanted this to be substantial, but also a safe place where we could be true to who we are. And it was fun, too. There was a collective desire that we wanted this to be serious, substantial, impactful, but we wanted to have a good time while we did it.”

The group got started by conducting a survey to understand the biggest barriers for women in the industry, with the top two being career advancement and networking. They thought about solutions but, as Morris put it, “we didn’t want to just be window dressing. We knew systemic change had to happen.”

For such a thing to happen, however, the initial group knew they had to get companies and organizations involved, they had to have intentional programming and events, and they had to have a mission. By 1991, they put together an entire conference; the first Women’s Foodservice Conference was held in San Francisco and included 50 attendees.



In just a few short weeks from now, the WFF will convene in Dallas to celebrate its 35th anniversary with about 3,000 attendees expected and more than 75 partners supporting the organization. As the famous feminist-themed 1960s advertising slogan read, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby.” Indeed, the WFF’s timeline from that conversation in Chicago to now is remarkable. The board of directors was created in 1992. In 1998, WFF held its first Executive Women’s Summit. For the 25th anniversary celebration, Maya Angelou was the keynote speaker, while former First Lady Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker in 2018.

In 2017, the WFF began incorporating more data to drive its programming, convening 32 food companies to partner with McKinsey & Company and to provide insights on women’s progress within the industry. The study determined it will take at least 100 years to reach gender parity in the c-suite at the current pace of change. In other words, “you’ve come a long way, baby, but there’s still so far to go.”

When Therese Gearhart came on board as CEO in 2019, one of her biggest priorities was accelerating the pace of change. Her focus was being an organization that was present 365 days a year for women – translating the momentum that came from the conference to every day. The pandemic offered a better opportunity to do just that; WFF Connect and Lunch and Learns were launched in 2020, for instance, while Exchange Networks were launched in 2021.

“The biggest shifts in the organization have been the size and our ability to go virtual, providing a true community not just one day a year, but a safe space through this community for 365 days,” Gearhart said. “Providing an ability for them to network, but more importantly, to do so at any stage of their career and life and any day is where I feel we have advanced.”

That said, while the programming, structures, and membership numbers have changed, the objective and priorities have remained steady – career advancement, holistic personal and professional development, networking, providing a safe space. And, as Morris noted, serious, substantial, impactful, fun.

“A lot has not changed in the context of you have to keep moving that dialogue around the needs. So, the priorities in a lot of ways really are similar. How’s that coming to life and how are we creating relevant solutions given the context in which women are operating and moving forward?” Gearhart said. “We’ve got to be changing things systematically, so this is no longer a forced conversation.”

The WFF, she adds, enables leaders and organizations to create such solutions simply by putting women together to talk about their collective and individual challenges, and to share resources and best practices.

“The ability to put women together based on how they’re experiencing things and to find that network quick is a very important part of what we do because a male leader likely has an easier ability to do this,” Gearhart said.

According to the latest McKinsey & Co. report, there has been slight progress toward gender parity in the food industry at the c-suite level. Where the biggest hurdle still exists is behind the vice president level.

“That’s where we’re struggling. We’re not talking about the glass ceiling as much as we are the broken rung. We’re making great progress on boards and in the c-suite, but in the in between where you hope to have a pipeline is where we need work,” Gearhart said.  

That is where the WFF has evolved its focus and she believes the added and year-round programming will help. She also believes more companies than ever are intentionally trying to fix this broken rung, as evidenced by the WFF’s growing support system.

I'll emphasize how proud I am of this industry to support a true non-for-profit organization that actually allows us to be a non for profit that can spend their day investing that money back into women,” Gearhart said. “Companies that partner with WFF are taking a step toward true change on gender equity. They know this will make a difference and it signals to their organization that it’s part of who they are.”

As for Morris, the WFF has been a part of who she is for the past 35 years. She says she is proud of how much her brainchild has grown but recognizes that more needs to be done. Her priority now is to accelerate the work, and she is confident the industry will get there.

“The vision that the 14 women collectively had has just been expanded and impacted in a way I don’t think we ever could have dreamed of and obviously it’s still meeting a need,” Morris said. “The energy is out the roof. I think that quote from Margaret Mead really applies to the WFF: ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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