Accelerating the Advancement of Women Leaders 


By Hattie Hill, President & CEO, Women’s Foodservice Forum

February 15, 2018

This article is an edited extract from the ‘Women in the Food Industry’ report, which draws from the McKinsey and LeanIn.Org ‘2017 Women in the Workplace Study’. Read more about the food industry at:

The food industry continues to be a booming sector that faces a contradiction between the leaders of the industry and those who make the purchasing decisions. Women account for the vast majority of food-purchasing decisions in the United States and also make up almost half the entry-level workforce in the food industry, yet women are underrepresented across the board above this level.

In our latest research, Women in the Workplace, we find that 90 percent of the 222 companies surveyed assert a commitment to gender diversity. While it’s encouraging to see that most companies have embraced the business case for gender diversity, it is still a compelling place to start the conversation. Women are an untapped source of economic opportunity—in 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute showed that fully bridging the gender gap in the US labor market would not only be equitable in the broadest sense but also add $4.3 trillion of additional annual GDP in 2025—19 percent higher than the business-as-usual GDP. Diversity and inclusion in general are also strongly connected to corporate performance, and for the food industry, the business case for diversity serves as a strong motivating force.

When determining the health of gender diversity in a company pipeline, we evaluate four core elements. First is the representation rate, to test whether women are well represented at each level in the corporate pipeline across line (operations, P&L) and staff (support) roles. Second is the attrition rate, to determine whether women leave their companies at higher rates than men. Third is the promotion rate, specifically whether women progress through the pipeline at a pace similar to men’s. Fourth is the external hiring rate, whether employees hired from external sources are as likely to be women as men. In 2017 we looked at 31 companies spanning the food industry value chain in the United States—a roughly equal mix of manufacturers, distributors, and operators.

Here are some key takeaways from the 2017 Report:

  • Currently, women are underrepresented at all levels in the food industry corporate pipeline, from entry level to the C-suite. While women make up 49 percent of employees at the entry level,representation drops steeply at higher levels along the pipeline. At the top, women represent only 23 percent of the food industry’s C-suite This trend mirrors the broader picture across all industries, as outlined in the 2017 Women in the Workplace research
  • At every level of the pipeline in the food industry, women are less likely than men to serve in P&L (or line) roles and therefore less likely to be promoted to more senior positions, where line roles tend to be prevalent.
  • The issue is even more acute for women of color who make up only 14 percent of employees at the entry level and hold only 3 percent of C-suite spots.
  • Contrary to the common narrative, the primary driver of this steep decline is not attrition. Women in the food industry leave their companies at similar or lower rates as men of the same ethnicity.
  • Women face higher barriers to obtaining their first promotion (Twenty percent fewer women than men in the food industry reach the first promotion to manager, a finding consistent beyond the food industry.) Even more troubling, promotion rates for both men and women of color lag significantly behind those of their white counterparts at all levels.

As we continue this march towards attaining gender parity, a key step continues to be the ability to access accurate, reliable data. This is where the Women in the Workplace study comes in. This research is part of a long-term partnership between LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company to give organizations the information they need to promote women’s leadership and foster gender equality.

This year 222 companies employing more than 12 million people shared their pipeline data and completed a survey of HR practices. In addition, more than 70,000 employees completed a survey designed to explore their experiences regarding gender, opportunity, career, and work-life issues. To our knowledge, this makes Women in the Workplace the largest study of its kind.

As an industry champion, WFF encourages you to join the 2018 Women in the Workplace Study so we can continue to get sound data and a better understanding of what we need to do to make our industry the industry of choice for women.

If you are part of the Food Industry and would like to learn more and/or participate in the 2018 Study, please contact Tim Johnson, VP of Human Resources & Organizational Development for WFF at  

All other industries can also sign up at:

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