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Behind the Kounta

Women in high places

How Women in Hospitality is helping women step into the spotlight

By Chloe Chaplin

The space for women in hospitality has long been tricky to navigate. Industry perceptions, along with traditional gender stereotypes, have seen women largely underrepresented and, as a result, not afforded the same opportunities, recognition or network as their male counterparts.

Enter Women in Hospitality (WIH). Founded in 2015, WIH is ‘an organisation that supports and fosters career development of women in the hospitality industry’ and is now the premier organisation dedicated to inspiring, recruiting and retaining more females.

We sat down with Claire Van Vuuren, owner of the iconic Bloodwood in Newtown and Popla in Bellingen, and WIH board member, to discuss how she came to be involved with this important initiative and how things have changed for women working in hospitality since the organisation began.

How did you start out in hospitality?

Claire: I started out wanting to be an artist, so originally I went to art school, which was four years at uni. And while I was there I started working to support myself in bars and cafes, and I really enjoyed it. I just loved the fast pace and being part of a team, and I’ve never really looked back.

How did you become a chef?

Claire: When I was 24, I decided to do a chef’s apprenticeship. I started with a commercial cookery course, then moved to Canberra and became a first-year apprentice. I moved back to Sydney after that and then decided that I was going to learn the most about cooking from working in fine dining, so I put my head down for a few years and worked hard to learn everything I could.

And then you started your own restaurant?

Claire: Yeah, it was in one of the restaurants I worked at that I met my future business partners, and we opened Bloodwood in 2009. In between, I’d had all different jobs in hospo’ – from catering, to being a barista, to bartending, so I felt like I knew the industry, which was a plus. I had no experience owning a business though, so it was definitely a learning curve, but the restaurant kicked off well and was embraced by the community, which we were really grateful for.

Tell me about how Women in Hospitality started.

Claire: I met Julia Campbell, WIH’s founder, a few years before she started the organisation. She started talking about how there were lots of female hospitality support groups in NYC and had an idea to establish the same network here in Sydney. She approached me, and some other women with similar values, to start an official group with the aim of inspiring women to work and stay in the industry.

There are nine board members from all different parts of the industry, so there’s a real breadth of expertise, which is important.

How do you think things have changed for women in hospitality over the last few years?

Claire: There’s been a definite shift in abuse and tolerance. Before, there would be certain kitchens that tolerated a level of language and treatment and everyone was just expected to put up with it or get out. That’s no longer the case. This is due to women standing up and putting their foot down, and there’s been a shift in the way we treat hospitality staff in general as a result.

You’re also seeing a lot more female head chefs in the limelight. The role of females in the industry is ever-changing and people are taking notice of that, so there’s more room for talented women to shine and get recognised for their achievements. Although there is still a lot of catching up to do.

These days, it’s not about the fight as much – it’s understood that women have a lot to contribute – now it’s more about making sure women have the courage to put themselves out there and go for the top jobs.

What do you think has caused this shift?

Claire: A lot of it has to do with the change to the way we view what makes someone ‘successful’ and what it takes to be ‘a success’. For example, kitchens are shifting from working their staff to the absolute bone and, instead, adopting a more realistic approach, in order to have healthier, happier, more productive staff that actually want to stay in the job for a long time. There’s definitely a shift towards understanding that you can have your team work a civilised, 40-hour week and have a family and still keep a business running successfully. The hours, conditions and pay rates were unrealistic so now we’re moving much more in line with other industries, which is a great thing.

But there’s still more to do?

Claire: Oh yeah, definitely. We’re still trying to break down perceptions around chef awards, and push for more women in the top jobs. The reality is, there’s more women in the industry than men, but way less female head chefs, so the numbers just don’t stack up.

How can women get involved with WIH?

Claire: We have monthly events and small dinners – and they’re a great way to meet other women in a way that’s very open and not at all intimidating. All the upcoming events are on the WIH website so people can jump on to get a list of dates and events.

We also have an excellent mentor program, which is a way for women to connect with other women who are experienced in the industry and can help them and give advice. If you want to get involved in that you fill out a questionnaire on WIH and if you fit the criteria you get matched up with a woman who becomes your mentor.

What would you tell women wanting to get involved in hospitality?

Claire: Just talk to people and get as much advice and experience you can. Also realise it’s not reality tv and it requires hard work and long hours, so you have to really want it. Find people who inspire you and align yourself with them.

Just do it, it’s the best job in the world.


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