Great British Menu 2015: A Big Fat Helping of Irony

Delicious irony in the kitchen

I’ve been pondering whether to write this post for week, because it’s a bit of a controversial subject and generally I tend to keep things on Sal’s Kitchen pretty light. But in the end it was the very fact that this subject – the simple question of whether one half of the human population should be equal with the other – is considered controversial that made me so mad. Surely, you would think, it’s pretty damn obvious that men and women should be on an equal footing. And yet it’s still a topic that upsets a lot of people, and stirs up a lot of frankly mad opinions.

It’s been on my mind because of the recently concluded series of Great British Menu. I wasn’t the only person to note that, despite this year’s competition being themed around the WI centenary and the celebration of progress in women’s rights, out of 24 contestants in the heats only 4 were women. Only one made it to the final, and she didn’t feature in the final winning banquet. In an interview with the Radio Times afterwards, Prue Leith (the only female judge) admitted that there weren’t many women, but said that she thought they had ‘tapped the top women chefs pretty well.’ Seriously? So there are only FOUR top female chefs to be found in the whole country?

What really got me mad, though, was that the program made just one, solitary effort to confront this giant, gaping oversight, quickly done and quickly dismissed. In the final, Dame Jenny Murray put it to the three winning male contestants. Their response? The WI is all about equality, so the fact that we’re men actually shouldn’t matter. When I suggested on Twitter that this year’s Great British Menu could have been all female, in honour of the WI, I was shouted down by one of the male finalists, who said, in effect, that positive discrimination in favour of the women is not real equality.

At a quick glance, you might be fooled by this slick piece of misdirection. Jenny Murray certainly seemed to be. It comes up again and again – the idea that equality can never be enforced, like, say, justice, but must always happen ‘naturally’ without any intervention, or it’s not ‘proper’ equality. But some folks are more equal than others, and I reckon only those who are ‘more equal’ could, in all conscience, believe this.

To prove my point, imagine two people who both need to be able to see over a crowd. One is taller than the other, but neither of them can see. You could say that giving each of them the same box to stand on is equality, because they’re both getting exactly the same thing. But though the taller one can now see over the crowd, the shorter one – despite, on the face of it, getting the same ‘opportunity’ – can’t. True equality would be to give the second one a bigger box, so that they can both see.

The same is true in almost every workplace. Ladies, saying that we need a bigger box to stand on is NOT saying that we’re not as good as the men. It’s NOT saying that we need more help because we’re weaker, or we don’t work as hard, or we aren’t as clever. All it’s saying is that men have the advantage of hundreds of years’ worth of helping each other get on – hundreds of years of positive discrimination in their direction – which has made their box much bigger than ours.

In the end, of course, it’s not just the fault of the program makers that there were so few women. No doubt according to the terms and conditions of the show, the opportunity offered was equal, with no actual requirement that 5/6 contestants be men. But that doesn’t mean female chefs were equally likely to succeed as their male counterparts. The kitchens of the high-end restaurant industry are heavily male-dominated. The reasons for our smaller box in this situation are many and various – the perception, by men and some women, that women are too highly strung to deal with such a high pressure environment. The fact that a woman working 7 evenings a week must effectively choose not to have children, because the likelihood of her husband taking on that much childcare is pretty small. The way that a women who works as hard at her career as one must, to become a top chef, is viewed as aggressive, and intense, and unloved, in a way that career men really aren’t. All of these things and more mean that when we want to see over the crowd, we’re starting out from a much lower vantage point than the men. That’s why we need a bigger box. And that’s proper equality.

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