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Hospitality & Entertainment Insider Only New Castle County News

Women hospitality leaders: Change, advocacy starts small

Katie Tabeling

State Sen. Sarah McBride, left, Susan Crystal-Mansour, the vice president of program impact for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, and Dana Cowin, former Food & Wine magazine editor and podcast host of “Speaking Broadly,” talk about what it means to be a changemaker during the Women of Hospitality Conference on Nov. 15. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

WILMINGTON  In the “new normal” after the first year of the pandemic, national hospitality leaders and state officials see there are great challenges that lie ahead for women, but also opportunities, small and great, to change the way they work and lead.

The Women of Hospitality Conference, organized by the Delaware Restaurant Association, invited scores of women and some men in the restaurant and hospitality sector to network, learn best practices and to inspire leadership on Tuesday at The Queen theater in Wilmington.

During the opening panel, “Facilitators of Change,” DRA President and CEO Carrie Leishman moderated a discussion about what advocacy looks like on a day-to-day basis, especially in a challenging working environment of today.

“Many women feel like it’s their mission to change the world in a really big way. But really, there are things you can do every day to make you lead a fulfilling life,” said Dana Cowin, former Food & Wine magazine editor and podcast host of “Speaking Broadly.”

“Over time, my ambitions have gotten smaller: help a single person. Keeping my sights on that one-to-one interaction that becomes a community I see bringing change over time,” she added.

Between February 2020 and May 2021, women lost nearly 1.4 million leisure and hospitality jobs more than half of all hospitality jobs in the entire sector. However, the labor force recovery has been uneven since then, as many people are changing jobs for benefits, increased pay or changing career fields entirely. It is estimated that Delaware lost two-thirds of its restaurant workforce between 2020 and 2021, Leishman said.

State Sen. Sarah McBride (D-Wilmington) told attendees she hears frequently that women are looking for more flexibility in their work lives – and not just with medical and family leave.

“They need workplaces that are willing to recognize that as important as our careers and jobs are, they aren’t the only aspect of our lives that matter,” McBride said. “All of us have responsibilities to ourselves, to our families at home, whether you’re women or men. And we need to support them without making it necessary to sacrifice financial security for those obligations.”

The Queen in Wilmington was packed with women (and some men) as they listened to panelists discuss best practices for the hospitality sector on Nov. 15. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

Child care continues to be the most pressing issue for Delaware women, primarily in keeping them out of the workforce, as it can cost an average of $13,000 per year.

“Going forward, that will be a top priority: making sure we are guaranteeing affordable, quality child care for every family in the state,” McBride added. “Creating a cradle-to-career support system is the only way our economy is tapping the full resources and talents of a diverse workforce.”

Right now, the job market conditions favor the employees more than ever before, which could give business owners insight on what exactly workers want. Susan Crystal-Mansour, the vice president of program impact for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), encouraged people to take into account lived experiences versus facts on paper.

“If you say we have all these opportunities for women to advance, they just need to take advantage of it, you need to listen to the experiences women are having,” she said. “If you’re not being honest with the barriers, like transportation and child care, then who is really taking advantage of this and who isn’t?”

All three women encouraged attendees to start small when looking to change, specifically looking at their own communities, be it their neighborhoods, families or even their offices. Having an open mind and thinking outside the box is also critical, given how the pandemic upended restaurant life for more than a year and had resulted in new innovations like pop-up restaurants and consumer packaged goods venues.

“The people I’ve spoken to are so excited about the loosening of boundaries. It’s not just working for a restaurant anymore if you want to get people to eat your food,” Cowin said. “There’s not just one way to think about success, or one way to think about great food. It goes back to thinking, ‘What do I believe and how am I going to share that?’”

Looking to the next generation, there is plenty of room to foster growing talent. The NRAEF is looking at supporting trainers on diversity, equity and inclusion and how to address unconscious bias. But it’s also providing education programs for young restaurant workers hungry to move up in the industry.

“It’s also important to hear that voice of the generation about what is attracting them to this industry, and what are your barriers,” Crystal-Mansour said. “We need to respect what they have to say, not minimize it, and be able to make decisions to continue that conversation.”

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