How is Compass steering towards gender equality?

The catering firm says half of its chefs will be female by 2020 but if there is a roadmap to that target it is staying firmly under wraps.

Compass Group UK & Ireland has made a pledge to tackle the shortage in female chefs. As part of its “Women in Food” programme, the catering firm has made a commitment to ensure 50% of its chef workforce is female by 2020. It’s a worthy initiative, with figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that female chefs make up just 18.5% of the sector. “We are the first company in the industry looking to tackle the female chef shortage,” says Compass’s resourcing and development director, Melanie Hayes.

But have Hayes and her colleagues been too quick off the mark? Internally set targets are always aspirational but our analysis suggests this one is more pie in the sky than Panglossian. And here’s why.

Compass Group UK & Ireland currently employs 4,393 chefs. Of those, 2,856 are male and 1,537 are female – a 65%-35% split. Not too bad, given the ONS statistics above. But how can they get to 50%-50%?

As we see it there are three possible scenarios. In the first, the total number of chefs remains the same. In this instance Compass would need 659 roles to swing from men to women, which equates to about 15 roles a month every month until 2020. This also assumes that no women leave the business at any point and no men are recruited for any of the roles that the 659 men are leaving.

“We hope to see an incremental increase in the number of female chefs,” says Hayes, but “we will not be putting a freeze on employing male chefs”. Indeed, that would be considered positive discrimination and therefore illegal. According to the government’s briefing on the Equality Act 2010, “the new positive action provisions make it clear that employers must not adopt policies or practices designed to routinely favour candidates with a certain protected characteristic, even when there is evidence of under-representation or disadvantage”.

A second scenario, therefore, could involve the total number of chefs increasing. In this case 1,319 new roles are created by 2020 and only women are recruited for the roles. No women leave the business at any time and no men are recruited to any of the new roles. This amounts to about 30 female recruits a month every month.

In the final scenario, the total number of chefs decreases. This means 1,319 male chefs leaving the business with no new male or female recruits. This equates to about 30 male departures per month every month until 2020.

Compass maintains that its 50% female by 2020 target is achievable, but after a number of emails Hayes is reluctant to say how. “Our aspirational goal is to achieve a 50% female chef workforce by 2020 and we are putting measures in place to achieve this. We will be reporting on a regular basis on how we are performing,” she explains.

Kirsty Rogers, a partner at law firm DWF and an expert in employment law, suggests that the client agenda could have something to do with the company’s reluctance to divulge its plans. “I suspect one possibility in terms of the ability to achieve the target may be the likelihood of a new client – or clients – landing but this may be something that the company are not authorised to talk about yet and consequently they aren’t prepared to speak about the ‘strategy to achieve the target’,” she explains.

Rogers sees the only way to achieve the new targets as an aggressive growth agenda with a few new contracts that are already promised but perhaps embargoed. Nonetheless, it is still going to be “very difficult” to achieve 50% within the timeframes without coming close to, if not actually breaking the law, she says.

Another problem will be that, in publicising strategies around this agenda, Compass may be inadvertently putting off potentially brilliant candidates who happen to be male from applying. “That will be a loss not just to them but also their clients,” says Rogers, and “is something that as a service provider they will be keen not to do”.

Disclosures on corporate diversity followed by commitments to address under-representation are to be applauded. But to then meet the targets there needs to be a strategy (agreed at board level) in place. Compass may well have such a strategy but is clearly not keen to publicise it for the reasons discussed. The other possibility is that there is no plan – and in that case the commitment is not just pie in the sky, but (potentially) pie in the face.

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