A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen Industry

My parents were from a generation that firmly believed a woman's place was in the kitchen. As an old perfume jingle explained it, men were supposed to bring home the bacon, and the women got to fry it up in a pan (while never letting their husband forget he was a man - presumably by wearing a certain perfume that, in conjunction with the well-cooked bacon, would make her irresistible).

By the time I turned 13 and started playing the "When I grow up I want to be...." game, women were allowed to bring home some bacon, too - as long as they didn't get greedy and try to bring home the whole hog (because it was decidedly unfeminine to out-earn your husband). Women having careers had become socially acceptable, though certain careers were considered more socially acceptable than others. Women who wanted a career were gently nudged - or in some cases, rather firmly prodded - toward professions that were considered ladylike, genteel, and flexible enough to accommodate wifehood and motherhood (never mind that being a husband and father seemed to require no such special accommodations).

To this day, I'm convinced that my complete lack of interest in teaching - a perfectly fine occupation otherwise - came from my mother's frequent and none-too-subtle suggestions teaching was "a good career...for a woman."

So, when K&BDN interviewed some of the kitchen and bath industry's "leading ladies" this month about the changing role of women in the kitchen and bath field (see related story, Page 110), I wasn't surprised to hear that more than a few had started out as teachers. As everyone who grew up in the '50s-'70s knows, teaching has always been considered a suitable career choice for a woman.

The kitchen and bath industry, however, was far less egalitarian. For many years, the whole home improvement arena was considered far too rough and tumble for the fairer sex, who presumably might chip a fingernail or damage their fragile psyches trying to manage those big, tough construction guys. The kitchen might be a woman's domain, but ironically, she wasn't supposed to design that kitchen, build it, price it out or do anything but make dinner, bake pies and take care of her family in it.

Oddly enough, few questioned this stereotype, never mind that women were the primary kitchen users, the primary cooks, and the primary family caretakers, around whom these rooms were generally designed. Apparently, the fact that kitchens were designed for women's use wasn't enough to convince anyone that women could bring something of value to the table in conceiving, creating and designing these rooms.

Even the few pioneering women designers and female kitchen and bath firm owners frequently found their clients preferred to talk about money with a male business partner. After all, how well could the "little lady" really understand all those complicated numbers and prices?

Thankfully, we've come a long way in the past few decades. Today, women are not only designers, they own businesses, hire and manage staff and subcontractors, install products, manipulate complicated software programs, handle power tools and analyze profit and loss statements.

They not only know how to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, they also know how to design the most efficient storage for that pan, and all the rest of the kitchen contents - and how to spec a cooktop that will get maximum sizzle from the bacon, whether it's being cooked by a single parent who needs speed cooking capabilities, an aging Baby Boomer with some physical limitations, or a husband and wife team who like to prepare gourmet meals together after a hard day's work.

Women have not only proven themselves capable of doing what was once thought of as "man's work," they have also put their own unique stamp on this industry, changing it from the inside out. They have advocated for Universal Design and for open floor plans that facilitate spending time with family. They have helped to drive the trend toward designing personalized spaces to suit the changing American family. They have started up independent businesses that cater to every conceivable design niche.

And the industry is far better for their input, unique perspectives and "woman's touch."

When I look at some of the extraordinary women in this industry, I smile as I realize that many are still teachers. However, their classrooms are showrooms and construction sites and kitchens across America. And their students are legion, from young women taking their place in an industry that now welcomes women, to the millions of people - men, women and children - who rely on them to make preparing meals in the heart of the home faster, easier and more efficient.

This month, as the industry gathers for the 24th annual Kitchen/Bath Industry Show K&BDN salutes these women - and all the women who have helped to reshape our industry and change it for the better.