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If ever there was a sector wired for diversity and inclusion it had to be food and drink. Ingredients, ideas and people from around the world have enriched our food culture since time immemorial, while women have so often been the originators, manufacturers and distributors of food in communities of every size.
And yet sexism and inequality dogs this industry as it does others, with commercial board rooms, factory floors, fields and offices rarely reflecting the ubiquity of women in domestic food settings. According to a report published in May 2021 by membership organisation Meat Business Women, just 36% of the meat industry workforce is female, with 14% of board-level directorships and only five percent of CEO posts held by women. According to stats from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) only 17% of farmers are female, though women now reportedly outnumber men two to one on agricultural higher learning courses.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. Each International Women’s Day we celebrate the female chefs, chief execs and entrepreneurs who have reached the top in food and drink, though we have to ask ourselves why, in 2022, these women remain rarities.
This year’s theme, announced by organisers at the UN, was ‘gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’, recognising the role women play in adapting to the many challenges facing our modern existence.
In the UK food and drink scene we have some fabulous women forging progress, whether it’s beer journalist and consultant Melissa Cole challenging stereotypes in brewing (and calling out sexist branding and behaviours from brewers as she does), chef Asma Khan championing all-female kitchens and demanding higher conduct standards from her male counterparts, or food writer Angela Hui advocating for marginalised experiences in the Chinese food industry.
1 Ramona Obafemi, founder of Aberdeen-based box scheme Mad Potato
“Although I grew up in a very small coal mining village [in Romania], my parents always pushed me to dream big and work hard. I’ve always believed that through hard work you can achieve anything, but that along the way in your journey you should help as many as you can.
The part I love the most about the British food scene is exploring the new exciting growers and producers; there are so many exciting independent businesses out there. We are now delivering to the whole of the UK; the more orders we get from an area, the quicker we will be able to build an ecosystem serving them with local, independently-owned farm produce close to their home. We are also building our tech platform and looking a giving our customers a new type of experience never seen in UK.”
2 Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food
One of the biggest jobs in UK FMGC retail must have been made immeasurably harder by Brexit and the pandemic, but Jo has found time to campaign for front line workers’ rights. Beside calling for legal protections for store staff facing abuse, Jo has also championed women in retail via the Girls Out Loud campaign. Last month she struck another blow for women aspiring to hold the highest posts in grocery, announcing her intention to take four months of unpaid leave to support her sons through their exams. In 2018 told the Evening Standard “to be great at work, you have to have your family life in great shape”, and she continues to break new ground for women and men in pursuing a healthy work/life balance in this pressured sector.
3 Jack Monroe, campaigner and food writer
Long known for her budget-busting recipes and advocacy for people living with food poverty, Jack Monroe (AKA The Bootstrap Cook) has made a huge contribution to the public debate over food inflation in recent weeks. Besides reminding householders of the huge value of cooking from scratch with simple food-cupboard staples, she’s forced a rethink of the way inflation is calculated – even by the Office for National Statistics – with her viral messaging on food prices. While Asda has u-turned on price rises in its basics ranges, Jack continues to encourage her mighty online following to question supermarket deals and find better value through savvy shopping, buying loose and meal planning. As the cost-of-living-crisis escalates her influence and relevance will surely only grow.
4 Minette Batters, farmer and chief executive of the National Farmers Union
Recently re-elected for another two-year term as NFU president, Minette is at the very heart of British farming’s fight for a level playing field with importing nations, and a sustainable future for domestic farming. Thanks to Brexit, accelerating efforts to slow climate change and fierce public debate around the ethics and health of our food, Minette has become a high-profile advocate for farmers across the British Isles. “I’m truly honoured to lead the NFU at such a crucial time for British food and farming,” she said upon her re-election to one agriculture’s most important posts. “I have a vision of a sustainable and resilient food industry with a new economic model which ensures a fair return from supply chains and drives profit back into the land, enabling us to maximise the potential for sustainable food production and environmental delivery on farms.”
5 Nyanga Mendy, co-founder of Dark Sugars Chocolates
There are some exciting moves afoot to highlight unsung origins of some of our most iconic and exquisite ingredients, and Dark Sugars – an African-owned confectioner with three outlets in London – is on a mission. “I usually wake up at 7am and turn into an octopus until 11pm at night!” says founder Nyanga Mendy, whose family connections to Ghanaian cocoa inform every element of the business. “Basically, that means I do literally everything and anything that is related to the business: paperwork, calls, team meetings, ordering, creating, making the chocolates… Even though I have a great team I’m still very hands-on in my business. I love the people I meet, the challenges I face, the passion for my concept… My ambitions for the next five years are to keep making people happy and to grow Dark Sugars so that everyone recognises African cacao.”
6 Rose Grimond, cheesemaker and founder of Nettlebed Creamery
“Making cheese has an authenticity about it – there’s no ‘emperor’s new clothes’ about it. It’s either superlatively good or not so good, so that nakedness is glorious. And just making something is very gratifying. That’s an elemental pleasure – turning liquids to solid. There’s a childlike wonder to that.
“My responsibilities are to oversee the production of the highest quality of food, and to do that in a framework of responsibility towards the environment. So I used to be elbows deep in curd, then there was a phase when I spent most of my time in front of a laptop. Now communication – meeting people and talking to them – is a large part of what I do. That’s certainly been a change over the last seven years.”
7 Shokofeh Hajazi, head of insight at The Food People
“It’s my job to understand and predict trends in the food and drink world, managing a team of trendspotters who are constantly gathering information from around the world. Basically my task is to cut through all the noise out there, to explain how today’s consumer eats, drinks, shops and dines out – as well as what they will do in one, three, five, or 10 years’ time!
I’m constantly amazed by the work ethic, creativity and agility of people who work in the food industry. It’s not always easy, and the last couple of years have been a huge test for many businesses. The purpose of my work now is to help food and drink businesses connect with the power of trends, which drive innovation in the industry. It helps businesses be better prepared for whatever the future holds.”
8 Sarah Holmyard, head of sales and marketing at Offshore Shellfish
“Our family company is small, so my job is very hands on. I just do whatever’s needed! At the moment I’m handing the exports; that’s meant a lot of paperwork and politics over the last couple of years as well as sales. When I can I go out on the boat and work on the deck harvesting mussels with the crew. It’s a really physical job!
My whole career has been in seafood – I worked on a fishing boat as a teenager, for Inverawe Smokehouse, in Loch’s Fyne Oysters’ French office, for Seafood Scotland, but I’ve come back to the family business. It’s sustainable, regenerative aquaculture that has a great product and creates stable local jobs. I grew up on a mussel farm, so I’m really passionate about it. I want it to succeed.”
9 Natasha Ishaq (left) co-owner of The Good Store, an organic and plastic-free shop in Edinburgh
“My sister Jamila and I both manage the day-to-day running of the shop. On top of that, probably the most important thing is keeping up-to-date with the ethical market and striving to change the way some products are produced. It’s a job that requires many hats but between us both it’s manageable… just! We wanted to create a space where people can shop ethically and healthily, knowing every product in-store has been ethically sourced and is free from harmful plastic toxins and pesticides. It’s been tough but we feel like we have achieved it.
We’re looking forward to expanding the shop and personally I’d like to continue being a positive role model for young people of colour who may find the idea of starting their own business in Scotland intimidating. Scotland could benefit from the creative and entrepreneurial skills of a more diverse business community.”
10 Georgina Hayden, food writer and stylist
“The feeling of creating a recipe that people cook and hopefully love is everything. Writing my second book was a huge achievement; so many Greeks and Greek Cypriots reached out to tell me they’d never seen the recipes their families cooked written down in that way. It’s an honour to be able to log these to hopefully be passed down and tell people’s stories, so it’s a brilliant industry to be a part of.
I’d love to see more female cooks and chefs on telly. I don’t just mean as guests – I mean having their own shows. So many of the ‘chop and chat’ style shows we watch are presented by men (predominantly white, middle-aged men), the irony being who is it that historically did the cooking? Women! Mums! And yet it’s mostly men ‘teaching’ us on TV. It’s a shame.”
11 Joanna Parman, strategic insight director at Kantar Worldpanel
“Using data, I work with clients to unpick sone of their big questions, from ‘How do I grow my category?’ to ‘Why do shoppers choose one brand over another?’ It’s about using information we have about shopper behaviour to see how businesses can develop their proposition. It’s crucial to start off with the right question – it’s easy to get sucked into the data and find interesting things, but you have to look for what we call the ‘so what?’ What’s the impact of that data on your decisions? That’s the gold.
“I really do believe if businesses were able to have some of their big questions answered there would be a lot less waste in this industry. Working with people and helping them solve problems is the most energising thing I do. That motivates me massively.”
12 Jane Cook, an independent PR consultant based in Wales
“I’m so lucky in that my passion became my job; I’ve been writing about food and sustainability as a hobby since 2014, via a blog I set up on a whim. Finally, in 2019, I decided to leave agency life and start working for myself, and now I help sustainably-minded food businesses and organisations to communicate their offerings more effectively, and gain more attention for the good things they do.
“The last few years have been transformative; I feel like I’ve gone from being the only person in the room talking about sustainability, to one of hundreds (thousands, even). It’s been amazing to see how consumer habits are changing, and I’m excited to see how this accelerates the pace of change for the better.”
13 Amaeze Madukah, registered nutritionist and co-founder of The Diverse Nutrition Association
The quest for better health and wellbeing has been a huge macro trend in consumer behaviour over the last decade, and thanks to a global health emergency and growing desire to age well, this focus looks set to continue. Amaeze Madukah is one of a growing wave of nutritionists addressing health inequalities and decolonising public health messaging. As a co-founder of The Diverse Nutrition Association – fronted by three young, black women – she’s helped create The African and Caribbean Eatwell Plate, an infographic that celebrates foods such as ackee, yam, cassava and plantain within a healthy balanced diet. It’s also a helpful alternative to European-centric public health advice that often fails to reach key UK communities. “The bottom line is, if we are not considering a variety of cultural foods as part of the conversation of health, and only focusing on European foods, we are failing as health professionals,” says Amaeze.
14 Charmain Love, co-founder and activist in residence at B-Labs UK
“I spend a lot of time working with B Corps to find out where leadership is emerging and how business can stretch further, dig deeper and work more closely together to solve some of the interconnected challenges we’re facing right now. Trying to understand what businesses do, how they’re doing it and how they could collaborate more often. I see myself as an activator – activating change. Positive framings matter. I love the word ‘heliotropy’ – the tendency of plants to grow in the direction of the sun. I believe humans are no different; we grow taller and faster and stronger when we’re motivated by things full of warmth, light and positivity. We need to stay rooted to the reality of the challenges we face but the trajectory and fuel we use has to be positive.”
15 Sinead Fenton, co-founder of Aweside Farm in East Sussex
Speaking for a next generation of small growers with big ambitions, Sinead has won followers’ hearts with her video bulletins on the highs and lows of life in the polytunnel. Fresh optimism and honest heartbreak are served up via Aweside’s Instagram feed, sharing the triumphs and tribulations of growing top-quality organic herbs and edible flowers. A typical post sharing the satisfaction of growing beautiful herb bouquets runs: “You’ll be seeing a lot more of this next season as we follow our hearts with these and explore further! The new propagation tunnel is full of amazing herbs; rosemary’s that smell like ginger, tarragons that have a twang of fruit salad sweets, mints that smell like pineapples and strawberries, sages that taste like blackcurrant and tangerine!”