When it comes to gender equality, women in the food industry barely have their feet under the table. Male-dominated professional kitchens are still the norm (the Office of National Statistics' most recent figures, from 2017, found that 15 per cent of chef positions in the UK were held by women; eight years earlier it was actually 24 per cent).
Questions are also being asked about the legitimacy of female-only awards (even Clare Smyth, while being crowned the World's Best Female Chef in 2018, hoped that "soon" we won't "need gender-specific awards because women will have recognition and there will be a balance in the industry." And women are still seriously underrepresented at management level in food and drink businesses.
But the latest culinary controversy centres around a restaurant in Liverpool, which has found itself in hot water on social media for touting an 8oz steak aimed specifically at women.
The "Ladies Fillet" at Manhattan Bar and Grill is described as "one for the ladies! A beautiful 8oz cut, cause we can". It costs £18.95 – while a supposedly more masculine, thick-cut and succulent 12oz New York sirloin is £21.95, and a tender, juicy T-Bone is billed as "a must for all steak lovers" (£25.95 for 16oz, should you visit).
The menu has been met with incredulity by food writers and chefs including critic Jay Rayner and Telegraph columnist and Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett, and by enraged Twitter users saying they would “take [their] custom elsewhere – it’s the 2020s not the 1920s!”
But Karl Hassan, the managing director of the Manhattan Bar and Grill, tells me that the entry has been met with "good humour" by diners – and seems unfazed by the furore. "We have a lot of hen parties and female visitors, and we had countless complaints that our 10oz fillet steaks were far too big. So we got our supplier to send us 8oz instead and named them ‘Ladies 8oz Fillets!’"
But is this just a gastronomic guffaw or is gender-specific steak a "whole new level of sexism", as one Twitter user put it?
In a timely coincidence, it comes just after the Royal College of Nurses issued new advice that female patients should be referred to as "woman or women not lady or ladies". So, is it simply the word "ladies" that poses a problem here?
A smaller steak for a cheaper price – surely that's a desirable option? "My steak choice is always smaller than my husband's, and if it's not he ends up eating what's left over," posted one Twitter user. And isn't targeting men with larger portions – selling the idea that a show-off sized, extortionately priced steak is more suited to their gender – also problematic? After all, people of all genders might prefer to go for a more manageable 8oz cut of beef.
"We do get men asking for them," says Hassan, albeit often to the "ridicule" – in good spirits, he insists – of "the other men in male parties".
Not all grill restaurants see it the same way. "We don't find that women come in for a smaller steak," says pub manager Oisin Rogers from The Guinea Grill in Mayfair. "We have steaks of all sizes, which we serve to people of all shapes and sizes. It's very patronising to offer women a smaller steak."
The debate calls into question whether other elements of restaurant service can be accused of everyday sexism. For example, in 2020, is it still common practice for a man to take charge of the wine list? Should a sommelier pour the wine for all the women at the table first?
Steak-gate isn't the food industry's first gaffe, of course – and many brands have used such occasions to drum up publicity. There was Brewdog’s "beer for girls" – a Pink IPA version of its bestselling Punk IPA, labelled and packaged differently and sold for a lower price – which was criticised as a stunt when it was launched in 2018 (a man has since successfully sued Brewdog for sex discrimination after one of its bartenders in Cardiff refused to sell him the drink).
In 2001, sales of Yorkie bars increased by 30 per cent in the 12 weeks after its Not for Girls campaign launched, while back in 2018, Doritos' "lady friendly" crisps proved it was crunch time for sexist marketing; the daintier "low crunch" recipe came in a smaller packet, specifically designed to fit into a woman's handbag. Indra Nooyi, the global chief executive at PepsiCo, which owns Doritos, said the product was launched because women “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavour into their mouth." Cue countless news articles covering the product.
As chef Paul Durand of The Little Shoe restaurant (also in Liverpool), commented in response to Manhattan's steak: "Spend a year trying to get [Jay Rayner's] attention and all I had to do was make a poor choice when writing my menus!".
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) introduced new rules – which came into force in spring 2019 – that mean adverts “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence”.
Last year, the Campaign for Real Ale banned sexist beer names at the Great British Beer Festival – which meant it was the end of the road for Robinson’s Breweries "Dizzy Blonde" beer, the branding of which featured a scantily clad pin-up, displayed when it was sold on draught. Other banned beers included Slack Alice, Leg-Spreader and Village Bike.
The move came after a YouGov poll found 68 per cent of female drinkers would be unlikely to buy a beer if they saw an advert for it that they considered to be sexist. "Beer is not a man's drink or a woman's drink, it is a drink for everyone," CAMRA stated. The spirits industry has had similar discussions.
The "Ladies Fillet" at Manhattan Bar and Grill has sparked debate among diners and it's making me hungry. I know what I'll be ordering...
Would you order a smaller "ladies' fillet" steak? Tell us what you think in the comments below.