A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN … INDUSTRY: Achieving gender parity in culinary management/ownership propels new Vegas-based Women’s Hospitality Initiative

Never mind shattering the glass ceiling of gender disparity in the culinary industry when even the first one or two rungs of the ladder are broken.

A startling fact supports that troubling notion: Although women make up about 50 percent of culinary school graduates, only 7 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners in the country are women, according to 2014 Bloomberg Research.

Working to study the disparity and accelerate the development of women in the restaurant and hospitality industry is the newly formed Women’s Hospitality Initiative (WHI). The organization is made up of prominent entrepreneurs and executives from Las Vegas’ food and beverage industry, including cofounder Elizabeth Blau, a longtime restaurateur/consultant and founder/CEO of restaurant development company Blau & Associates.

“It’s clear that women are not entering into the workforce with all the tools, with all the confidence, with all the negotiating skills that they need to be successful in moving up the ladder,” Blau says.

Blau cites the results of a 2019 Women in the Workplace study conducted by and McKinsey & Co. Although women and men enter the workforce in roughly equal numbers, the research concluded, men outnumber women almost two to one when they reach first rungs — manager jobs that climb to more senior leadership roles.

“That broken rung just makes it abundantly clear to me that there is something broken about how we’re educating our women,” Blau says. “Women and men are not learning and not taking these skills in the same way because otherwise you wouldn’t see such a divergence because women have no fear of hard work, they have no fear of long hours. And yet, you know, the numbers are the numbers.”

Chef Valerie James works in the kitchen in this scene from “A Fine Line,” a documentary produced and directed by James’ daughter Joanna James, that powerfully examines the gender gap in the culinary industry. (Courtesy Joanna James)

On Feb. 18 at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre, WHI will host a screening of A Fine Line, a documentary produced and directed by Joanna James that powerfully examines the gender gap in the culinary industry. A panel discussion and culinary celebration featuring the contributions of 54 women will close the night.

At the heart of the film is James’ mom, Valerie, a chef, restaurant owner and single mother who overcame many obstacles to establish her own restaurant in the early 1990s in Holden, Mass. The film weaves stories of the hurdles overcome by some of the most influential female chefs in the country. They include sexual harassment in the workplace, nonexistent family leave policies, culinary families that traditionally define lesser roles for women and other institutional biases.

“If we were to look across every industry, we would find these same issues,” Blau says. “What is interesting about Las Vegas as a source of starting this is because we are so incredibly hospitality-dense. Where else do you have more casinos, more bandwidth in catering, more room service?  … This makes us the perfect place to launch something like this.”

WHI will sponsor research to measure gender disparity in the local culinary industry so it doesn’t have to depend on national averages, Blau adds. “We need to know our numbers here because we want to be an actionable initiative. We’re going to ask people for money, and we want to be able to not only show the women of our city but we want to show the rest of the country that this model that we’re developing works.”

Education is essential for WHI to be solution-based, Blau notes. WHI-sponsored programs to be announced soon will provide training and advocacy as well as operational, business and management skills to help place and promote women in culinary and hospitality leadership.

“We’re in a society where it’s so easy to be indignant about problems,” Blau says. “This is about this city working together. This is about men and women partnering to lend a hand to our girls coming out of school, our women coming into the workforce.  … Our industry is too difficult to just say you have to have equal numbers. We have to provide the tools so that our women and our men are as educated as they possibly can be.”

Among the founding sponsors are Wynn Las Vegas, Las Vegas Sands, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, Sysco, the Elaine Wynn & Family Foundation, Solus Sustainable Hydration, Centerplate, US Foods, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Steelite International and State Restaurant Equipment.

In addition to cofounders Blau and leadership consultant Mary Choi Kelly, other WHI founding members include Philippa Fryman (The Venetian Resorts), Jolene Mannina (Secret Burger), Amy Rossetti (Rossetti Public Relations), Arlene Wszalek (Allied Global Marketing), Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (Border Grill). WHI’s Strategic Advisory Board includes Elaine Wynn, Stowe Shoemaker, Jan Jones Blackhurst, Marilyn Spiegel, Michael Severino, Don Snyder, Richard Bosworth, Diana Bennett, John Kunkel, Punam Mathur and Julie Murray.

 “We have established real educational initiatives,” Blau says. “We have established real strategic partnerships, we have established a real baseline of research. …  This (screening) party celebrates the launch of the Women’s Hospitality Initiative. And then we are going to announce all of the tremendous things that we’re doing to put this into action.”

If You Go: A Fine Line screening and culinary event will take place on Feb. 18 from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Judy Bayley Theater at UNLV, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway. Tickets are on sale at for $30 (UNLV students), $60 (general admission) and $100 (VIPs).

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at

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