Why aren't there more women CEOs?

Only four publicly held restaurants have female chief executives—but more could be on the way.
Restaurant Business

When Cheryl Henry was named the new CEO of Ruth’s Hospitality Group earlier this month, she joined a pretty exclusive club: Female restaurant-industry CEOs. Henry is currently just the fourth female chief executive among the 52 publicly traded restaurant companies, including the newly private Bravo Brio Restaurant Group. 

That’s just 8% of all chief executives, in an industry in which half of the employees are women.

The lack of female CEOs is hardly unique to restaurants. The corner office has been difficult to attain throughout the corporate world, as noted by a recent New York Times piece that found there are more men named John heading large companies than there are women.

But the lack of diversity among the CEO ranks is an issue for restaurants. “It’s an embarrassment for our industry,” says Carin Stutz, chief operating officer with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and former CEO of the fast-casual chain Cosi. “We should be leading this. In this war for talent, attracting women leaders to choose the restaurant industry as a career of choice, with our ability to offer flexibility, training and development, career opportunities that pay more than the median household wage, and plenty of opportunity, this should be a top choice for consideration,” she says.

“It is disappointing that we haven’t made our business the place for women to thrive.”

That said, women have been making some progress: A Restaurant Businessanalysis of the four top-ranking executives at each publicly traded company found 25% of the execs below the CEO level are women, and more than half of all the companies have a woman among their top leaders.

There are more women CFOs (10) among publicly traded companies than there have ever been. And nearly half of the industry’s chief marketing officers are women, an important consideration given the increasing number of restaurant companies targeting marketing as a key skill in their chief executives.

Overall, the industry is a bit more diverse than others when it comes to getting women into the executive ranks. According to a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 23% of C-suite executives in the food industry are women. By contrast, 20% of all C-suiters are female.

Still, the lack of true balance is frustrating to many in the industry, given the central role women play in many household foodservice decisions, and given the general performance of companies with more balance in their executive ranks. Companies that are among the most gender-diverse are 15% more likely to have financial returns higher than industry medians, according to McKinsey.

“Diversity is just good business,” says Heather Neary, brand president at the pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s. “Companies that are diverse are more profitable and more competitive. Women are great leaders. The purchasing power of women is $18 trillion globally. They’re making decisions for families.”

One of the biggest barriers keeping more women from the executive ranks in foodservice: the pipeline feeding growth, says Denny Marie Post, CEO of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers—a chain that not only has parity among its executives, but also on its board of directors. There is what she calls a “pipeline gap,” with women not moving up the ranks of operations from restaurant manager into field operations—a trajectory that frequently leads to the executive ranks. 

“That pipeline gap in the operator space has been huge for years,” says Post, who will be chair of the Women’s Foodservice Forum next year. “Since operations so dominate restaurants, it’s a matter of fewer women in the pipeline, and fewer women in senior roles.”

According to TDn2K’s People Report, 52% of hourly employees at restaurants are women, but only 29% of general managers are women. In the corporate offices, 49% of corporate office managers are women, but 23% of executives and just 17% of board members are women.

“It will be very difficult to reverse that without some pretty significant determination from boards—and in some cases from ownership—that this is something that’s important to them and their business,” says Joni Doolin, CEO of TDn2K.

Female executives say that part of the problem is that women don’t advocate for themselves often enough, and frequently get left behind for promotions. 

“Women don’t go after the promotions with the aggressiveness that we should, there is some truth to that,” Stutz says. She adds that talented women in her organization often lack confidence, feel comfortable or don’t feel ready for a promotion.

She also said that family plays a role, too. “They still play the primary role in taking care of their family and their home.”

But executives also suggested that women don’t often get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to promotions. 

“I was sitting with the CEO of one of the big distribution houses who said, ‘All things being equal, I’ll promote a woman,’” Post says. “If you sit around waiting for that, it’s never going to happen. We’ve been promoting unqualified men for years without batting an eye because they don’t perceive that to be a risk. 

“We’re trying to knock down the perception that it’s a risk taking a shot on a woman.”

Post is getting behind a software program that monitors employees who are being considered for promotions, which can bring data into the equation. She believes that restaurant companies “need to make sure women are being developed into multiunit leaders.”

Neary says that organizations should remove “unconscious bias” when making promotions and pick “the best person for the job, regardless”—and technology could play a role. She also says companies should be focused on identifying high-potential talent.

“The message of a diverse workplace comes from the top,” Neary says, suggesting organizations should give more opportunities for special projects to women, who can then diversify their skill set and move up in an organization.

These same executives also recommended that women looking to move up in the restaurant world need to be more aggressive about advocating for themselves, and about taking on new assignments even when they don’t necessarily qualify.

“Raise your hand early and often,” Post says. “Quit trying to check every box.”

Neary says that women should seek out mentors and be open to their feedback. “Critical feedback is a gift,” she says. “It helps you get better at your job every day. Listen to what the person is telling you.”

Stutz says that women should seek out and learn from people higher up in their organization. “Go after the role you want and earned,” she says. “If your company is not supportive and willing to champion diversity, there are plenty of great companies that do. Find them.”

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