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HuffPo: Gender Bias on Top Chef

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  1. I think the point about blind tasting is a good one - it would eliminate ANY potential bias, not just gender, but personalities, any favoritism that may not have to do with cooking, etc. (i.e., maybe a judge is partial to a chef that cooked at so-and-so restaurant under so-and-so.)

    And I agree that biases occur often without one wanting them to - we often expect stereotypes to hold true, even if on a subconscious level. We are all somewhat subject to preconceived notions, no matter how hard we try to fight them, and we're all socialized with the norms of our culture - and most cultures tend to put women in the role of nurturing caregivers who give of themselves, sometimes at the expense of themselves.

    Things i might disagree with in the article:

    there have been quite a few famous female judges on TC. Although i would say that a lot of those females would agree that on their way to the top they had to deal with a lot of bias and sexism themselves, whether overt or covert.

    While a lot of the time I wish the TC challenges were solo challenges, a good amount of them are team challenges. So yeah, women tend to want to do something for the good of the team. the guys on TC typically say "hey, i'm in it for me, it's a contest (which it is) and i'm not here to help anyone. When a male cheftestant does offer help, he's looked at suspiciously and questioned about ulterior motives, even sabotage (Angelo).

    We can never know for sure what the judges discuss or acknowledge off air about the non-food choices the chefs make - as has been discussed over and over, the show is highly edited, as they all are.

    thanks for posting this, ghg, good article!

    5 Replies
    1. re: mariacarmen

      Here's my thoughts on blind judging (which I x-posted on the TC thread).

      I was once in favor of blind tasting for TC but after thinking about it some more, I don't think it would be more fair to have blind tasting.

      In fact, I think it would be less fair.

      I think it should be expected that Fabio would make better gnocchi than say Tre, or that Angelo might be able to do crudo or sashimi better than Tiffany.

      Is it fair for the judges to consider the pedigree of the TC contestants when judging their dishes? I think so.

      Regardless of whether they admit to it or not, this is really how the dynamics of food v. chef v. diner really works.

      If I go to Lagasse's restaurant and get plated an egg roll, I'm going to judge it very differently than if I went to Susur Lee's restaurant and was plated an egg roll.

      It's just the way life works.

      1. re: mariacarmen

        Tom C. has addressed the question of blind tasting in his blog and his stance is that it wouldn't work. His position is that after a few weeks the judges (the regular ones that is) can recognize most contestants dishes without being told who prepared them. Each chef has his/her own signature style which quickly becomes recognizable to other professional chefs.

        To use violinist example from the article, it would be akin to having the conductor of an orchestra listen to each of the violinist in her/his orchestra blindly. The conductor could easily tell whose playing.

        1. re: kmcarr

          Regardless, blind auditions for orchestras are standard!

        2. re: mariacarmen

          And what if the guys win more often even with blind-testing? I guess we could chalk it up to us girls being taught to tend the home and cook for our family.

          1. re: sushigirlie

            That is still another argument, which is the judges are inherently biased at the taste level.

        3. I have felt that this was the case for some time, and when I mentioned it somewhere in one of the recap threads, I was taken to task for saying that there might be some gender bias, and wasn't it strange that so many female had been eliminated so early in the competition. Clearly, to say that there isn't gender bias in many areas of work is just being blind to the facts. I think that the example given in this article about auditioning musicians is particularly telling. Having been a very senior executive in what was a male-dominated industry, I also faced a lot of gender bias -- I could play with the boys, but they really didn't want me to. Plus, being a strong executive who wasn't afraid to make tough decisions generally got you labeled as a bitch as opposed to decisive. I think that it is a problem that is in full flower in Top Chef.

          3 Replies
          1. re: roxlet

            Not going to read the article as I think it's a bunch of hooey. With TC it's simply not a large enough sample to be significant. Add to that that Tom is gay and Padma and Gail are women and it just doesn't add up.


            1. re: JuniorBalloon

              LOL! Ummm, yeah. And your evidence that Tom Colicchio is gay? Just because he's adored by the gay community doesn't mean he's gay, you know.

              1. re: LindaWhit

                Well slap me and call me stupid. Very interesting. I had assumed he was gay because of a comment he made a few years back on TC. He said "my partner and I are having a baby." While it's not a litteral quote he did use the word "partner" which in my gaydar reference for suburban-middle-aged-dudes says he's gay.

                My bad. I did some googling and found a really touching article about his wedding that occured just after 9/11. They almost cancelled, but many people urged them to follow through. I can imagine there was a strong desire for community and need to bond with loved ones after that fateful day.

                Thanks for the correction Linda.

                Still I doubt there is any gender bias in TC.


          2. Tom has brought up the topic of blind judging. He claims that as the weeks of competition go by, the core group of judges becomes so familiar with each contestant's cooking style that true blind judging isn't possible.

            Unfortunately, we're watching a show that evaluates cooking and we have no way to taste what was put on the table the night of any given challenge. We're reduced to interpreting Judges' Table remarks, facial expressions, and body language, all remarkably imprecise ways of measuring actual taste. If we were all able to taste a contestant's food, we might be less inclined to see gender bias in some of the judges' choices. There not much of a way around accusations of gender bias when folks like Mike I come right out and say so!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Indy 67

              Since they wouldn't be as familiar with the contestant's cooking style, maybe blind judging would work if the guest judge's opinion had more weight than the core judges.

            2. Like mc, I'd like to see the blind tasting more often. I know they've done it in the past, and the judges are so familiar with these All-Stars' dishes that they'd probably be able to figure it out, but it would still be interesting to see how the judging would lean if they weren't actually aware of who cooked what dish.

              1. Note: I only read the first few lines of the article. I pretty much stopped after, "the women keep losing."

                What the heck is the point? The show/judges aren't bias. But, the industry as a whole is dominated by males. Because of that, there are many more talented male chefs than there are female chefs. Frankly, the show is being very PC and goes out of its way to start with an equal number of genders. If the show's producers pick contestants based only on their abilities, fact is that you'd start with way more males than females.

                8 Replies
                1. re: ediblover

                  the show, judges aren't bias (ed). How do you know that? The point is that biases are unconscious-thye may be biased and unaware of their biases. If you mean they don't have overt prejudices regarding gender, that may well be true.

                  1. re: karenfinan

                    Because the people that matter, the contestants and guest judges, have all commented on the judging and there are no reasonable suspicions for bias. So... What's next? Are you going to take the word of some of the most respected chefs in the world or...

                    I can think of tons of examples where the judges overlooked their own preferences and picked the better dish. Colicchio is a simple dish chef. So, if you think there's a bias, name the times when he picked a simple dish over a complex one when the latter was better. Taking the opposite side, think of the times when Wylie Dufresne was the guest judge. Did a really complicated dish win when he was there? Heck, take the judges selected this season. The wonderful Eric Ripert isn't there BECAUSE OF THE POTENTIAL FOR BIAS for his employee, Jen.

                    There's no case to be made here, other than "The women are losing!" And, that has a very obvious and simple explanation. There are more male chefs. As a result, the top tier will have more male chefs. Top Chef starts with an equal number of male and female chefs. The result is that, overall, the male chefs are going to be more talented. This was incredibly obvious (to a painful degree) in the Las Vegas season's wedding (well, bachelor's pool party) episode when teams were split by genders and the men easily took the win. If you think there's gender bias with the producers when they select the cast, you should take a peek at their genders.

                    1. re: ediblover

                      I believe they believe they are unbiased. But as the article you refused to read, studies have shown that people have unconscious biases. Just because the author used an extreme statement as a hook to start the article doesn't mean there weren't valid points in the article.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        One study shows one thing and another will show another. And, unless you show a history of bias with one of the regular judges, it doesn't apply. Show me some past behavior where Tom or Padma was sexist towards a female chef (In the competition or out).

                        The explanation for the men winning is simple. Yet, the article claims bias. That's insulting to those associated with the show, everyone from the female producers to the female contestants.

                  2. re: ediblover

                    You showed your bias just by failing to read the article! Heaven forbid you even consider another point of view!

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I didn't need to, because I had read enough. Did the article mention that the show goes out of its way to cast a 50/50 gender cast? What, if any (I'm guessing none), evidence did the article provide? The article was wrote for the sole purpose of trying to create a scandal.

                      Take any profession where one gender vastly outnumbers the other and make a list of the best of the best. It's a sure thing that the list will be dominated by a single gender. Now, create a competition on that profession. It's a sure thing that the winners will be dominated by a single gender.

                      Think of your favorite restaurants. Do you know the executive Chefs? Are the chefs male or female? What?! The chefs are mostly male?! You sexist bastard! That's how silly and empty the article is, and I don't have to read it to find that out.

                      1. re: ediblover

                        Why don't you read the article? It's not that long. Then you can critique on what it says, rather than what you think it says (or doesn't say). Your stubbornness in refusing to do so indicates the kind of close-minded bias you claim not to have.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Because it's garbage. What credibility does the article have? (None)

                          Unless YOU ACTUALLY ATE THE FOOD, you have no business making accusations. Because, it is a competition that's about the food. In what/any way is anyone other than the judges (and the fortunate guests) qualified to say what was a fair and unfair decision?

                          Accusations of bias on Top Chef comes down to either, "The chef I liked got eliminated" or "The chef I don't like survived."

                  3. I find this pretty funny considering that Stephanie beat Richard and I thought he was the superior chef.

                    1. We all know TC judging is questionable, but when an article claims gender bias or any other type of bias, I pretty much take it with a grain of salt, especially when an article claims it's all a result of subconscious behavior.

                      Also, I didn't raise my daughters to believe that they can blame their subconscious (or upbringing) for not doing well.

                      Another thing that raises a red flag for me is the claims that "research" has shown XYZ... Research is fickle and based upon the context the "research" was done. I doubt the author of the article as a pH.D is psychology or sociology. She's just picking "research" that fits her argument.

                      11 Replies
                      1. re: dave_c

                        I think there are biases but I agree w/ you. I think it's easy to pick your examples to support a thesis and it seems like the case here. And, the whole women are intrinsically screwed because they step in to help others falls flat when it comes to things when it's a real team challenge and everyone has to work together. And, there was, in Hosea's season, the contestant who messed up and everyone stepped in to help--I'm trying to remember the details but can't. Stephan who could easily be seen as one of the most arrogant chefs (debatable because there have been many) stepped up to help because he said that's what you do. There are many instances of contestants helping each other out. It's not sex specific. Don't forget when Richard offered up the prize to Stephanie when he thought she deserved it, though he had won. I don't think it's fair to say the guys are out for themselves.

                        And, though the author talked about Jamie stepping up and doing two dishes, she ignored that Jamie also left her teammates in a lurch when she cut her finger and then also decided not to serve her dish because she didn't like it. That's not team playing either.

                        In the dimsum challenge, she talks about how women stepped up to be servers and yet ignored that Fabio did FOH in RW and did great.

                        1. re: chowser

                          Sure you can pick or choose studies. But study after study shows that unconscious biases exist, and the fact that they're, you know, *unconscious* means that it's silly for you to claim to know whether you have them or not.

                          I've long thought that TC should have blind judging. Not because of gender bias but because of bias period. If you like someone you're (subconsciously) more willing to forgive their flaws. If you don't like someone you are more likely to be hypercritical. I see this all the time in discussions on these boards: people who "hate" a certain person will pick up and harp on the tiniest things or interpret a situation in the way most unfavorable to that person, and vice versa. It's human nature.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            I completely agree there should be blind tasting but even that isn't unbiased since the judges know the chefs' cooking styles. I'm not saying, at all, that there aren't biases, both conscious and unconscious, in not only professional kitchens and everywhere else in life. I just don't agree w/ how this article frames it all. Definitely we give more leeway to people we like, etc. I think poorly drawn conclusions detract from legitimate studies and articles.

                            1. re: chowser

                              Re:knowing the chefs' styles- obviously in this season it wouldn't work- but if they started off a new season with perhaps the first three or four challenges as blind tastings, I think it would be very interesting.

                              1. re: karenfinan

                                that's exactly what i've been wanting to say. Just do it as a new thing, new season - maybe even just one of the challenges, each season, before they know the chefs' styles.

                              2. re: chowser

                                I wonder, though, how if they know the chef's styles as well as they think they do, and whether they would recognize the styles if they hadn't had the names attached to the dishes in the first place. In other words, it would take much longer to recognize that the style plate 8 of the first challenge was the same as the style of plate 5 of the second challenge, and to remember that both of those plates belonged to Chef B. Maybe for a few contestants a distinctive style would emerge from the beginning, but I bet it would take them quite a while to separate them all out.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  I think it would depend on the chef. Bad foam? Marcel. Fusion version of Asian dish? Possibly Angelo. But, there are many in the middle where it would be harder to tell apart. I'd guess Carla and someone like Kevin Gillespie who do more home style cooking would be harder to tell apart and the Volt bros could be almost indistinguishable in a blind test. Early on, they'd only go by reputation.

                          2. re: dave_c

                            The example of the symphony orchestras isn't a study -- blind auditions are a well-established practice that has resulted in orchestras hiring more women.

                              1. re: jlafler

                                Yes, blind auditions will work to mitigate bias in hiring, when the person assessing the musicians has no idea who any of them are. But what about when current members of the orchestra compete to move up in their sections? Here blind auditions would be pointless because the conductor or orchestra director could identify the musician blindfolded because they know their style. This is the situation you have after a couple of weeks into Top Chef. The judges could identify a Marcel dish (just look for the foam) in an instant.

                                Another factor to consider is that if all of judging was to be blind then Tom C. would need to stop doing his walk through of kitchen so that he couldn't see what the cheftestants are cooking. When the thing under judgement is so subjective no perfect solution exists and trying so hard to engineer one would be (IMHO) detrimental to the entertainment value of Top Chef.

                                1. re: kmcarr

                                  I still think it makes a difference, because it would give someone the opportunity to change someone's opinion by showing them that they have grown/changed and are perhaps not what the conductor/judge assumes they are.

                            1. Blind taste is probably more fair, but it makes it a worse TV show which this is. Part of the reason American Idol was so successful is that viewers get to see that singer/judge interactions. It wasn't the music that drive that show. I will argue that it wasn't the foods that really sell Top Chef. It was the human dynamics.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                A critical part of the show is the discussion of the problems. "Cluelessness" or "failure of
                                Imagination" is far more deadly than an "understandable" mistake, especially in the early rounds. Remember Richard serving fish with scales on it?

                                If the tasting is blind, then the judges won't have access that can give them that type of information.

                              2. If this bias actually exists, why do women ever win any challenges? Wouldn't a man win every time?

                                20 Replies
                                1. re: donovt

                                  Do you not understand what the word bias means? A gender bias in Top Chef wouldn't mean that the man would win every time, it would mean that the man would automatically get more credence, and the woman less, simply because of their gender. You know, just like what actually happens every day in every single other industry. Just because some women succeed in spite of that and some men fail doesn't mean that there's no bias.

                                    1. re: JasmineG

                                      Yes, I absolutely understand what bias means, no need to be snippy. if you read the article, it says that this bias is completely subconscious and will even affect the way the food tastes to the judges. So my question is regarding this specific "bias" that they are talking about, not every incidence of bias or prejudice in every industry.

                                      If the subconscious bias makes the food taste different, why would it only happen during certain challenges? Why wouldn't the judges tastes be affected every time?

                                      1. re: donovt

                                        "not every incidence of bias or prejudice in every industry"

                                        I would say bias and prejudice occur in any industry, any place and anytime, but that is part of life.

                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                          Absolutely. But this discussion isn't about bias in general. It's about this one specific "bias".

                                        2. re: donovt

                                          Why wouldn't the judges tastes be affected every time?
                                          Why would the judges be adjudicating on taste? That is too subjective. You say it is over-salted, I say it is under-salted. One human's meat is another human's poison.

                                          All things being equal, the judges will vote for their favorites. All things being unequal the judges will still vote for their favorites. The show is about entertainment and good Q factor, not food and as Chemicakinetics has said, a blind taste would be boring for TV.

                                          1. re: scoopG

                                            Maybe I'm a little slow tonight, but I really don't get your point. Wouldn't their "favorite" be the one they think tastes best? Or do you think they are voting for the chef that is their favorite? Again, not trying to argue, just didn't understand.

                                            1. re: donovt

                                              Thanks, donovt. I understand. My point, is that I do not think they are really judging on "taste." They say they are, they want us to believe they are - but there are many other factors involved. This important Q factor for one. Who has it, who doesn't?

                                              That is why Robert Irvine is back on the FN show he was fired from. The replacement (Michael Symon?) could not deliver anywhere near the ratings (or Advertising dollar revenue) that Irvine could could so they bring Irvine back - tarnished resume and all.

                                              These shows are driven by ratings and ad dollars.

                                              1. re: scoopG

                                                While I do agree that shows are driven by ad dollars (and that concious and unconcious bias exists), I believe Bourdain in his Mediuim Raw book, where writing about being a Top Chef judge, he says that as long as Colicchio is involved, the competition will be about which food tastes the best week to week. It's been noted by many contestants and judges that the judges panel can last hours. I don't think all that time is spent discussing which chef left has the highest Q rating.

                                                1. re: kimfair1


                                                  Not speaking to you only, but to a more general audience.

                                                  I believe the judges are serious about being good judges, but that does not mean the production of it is not driven by the motivation to get "high rating". In other words, we are not saying the judges are being dishonest. Let's take scientific instruments for example. Orbitrap mass spectrometry, invented by A. Markarov is both a scientific achievement and a marketing success (it flooded the sale in the last 10 year or so. While Markarov is a scientist at heart and invented it from a research angle, the funding of his research was not simply driven by science. Investors did so for the promise of profits, which I am sure they have received handsomely.


                                                  While "maybe" blindtest is more fair, it will look rather boring on TV. It will take out the judges-chefs interaction. Viewers like to see the cooks get nervous and want to see the judges criticize the cooks face-to-face. In fact, the judgement segment is the highlight for many viewers.

                                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                    Someone with a name "Chemicalkinetics" knows about mass spectrometry? Shocking! ;~)

                                                    I'm sure that ratings drive some decisions on all shows, certainly the repulsive Butoni product placement seen in this weeks episodes shows modern television at its worst, but as I read this thread it seems that most people seem to think the judging is all about everything BUT the food, and I don't think that's an accurate statement. Maybe it's not ALL about the food, but it's my opinion (and opinion alone) that the food quality weighs heavily in the decision.

                                                    1. re: kimfair1

                                                      "the judging is all about everything BUT the food"


                                                      "that the food quality weighs heavily in the decision."

                                                      But then coming back to "Is Top Chef sexist?" then? Many argue it is and therefore we need blindtest. Are you saying that the judging process on TopChef is mostly about foods and therefore is not sexist and therefore we do not need a blind test?

                                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                        Do I think the possibility of judge bias against women chefs on TC exists. Yes.

                                                        Do I think it's the most prevalent factor in deciding the winner week to week? No.

                                                        Do I thin Top Chef is sexist? Not purposefully, and I'm sure Stephanie Izzard would agree with me. I've eaten at The Girl and the Goat, if her food on the show was as good as what I ate there, she deserved to win.

                                                        Do I think the addition of blind tastings would eliminate that bias? Yes, at first, but as Colicchio has pointed out, the chefs each have their own style, and other professional chefs would be able to figure out who made what fairly quickly. It's like Antonia said of Mike this week, "He's not happy unless he's making lamb with Morrocan spices". If there was a blind tasting this past week's quickfire, would anyone would have guessed that anyone BUT Blais would do chocolate covered bananas in liquid nitrogen?

                                                        Ultimately this all comes down to semantics and personal opinion, since we do not have any insight from anyone who has been a contestant or judge on Top Chef chiming in.

                                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                          Opps. I re-read and realize I made a mistake. I meant to agree that

                                                          "most people seem to think the judging is all about everything BUT the food, and I don't think that's an accurate statement."

                                                      2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                        CK, while it's true that blind judging could be not as entertaining, they could mitigate that by doing as they once did in the TC All-Stars series and I believe this season at the very beginning too - they could have the cheftestants in the kitchen watching the judges tasting their food from a monitor - judges wouldn't know who's food they're tasting, but the chefs would see the judge's tasting their food blindly. I remember that chef (can't remember her name now, the one who was part of the shaving the Wolverine debacle) saying she couldn't bear to watch the monitor - it was definitely painful and cringe-worthy to watch them watch the judges taste their food. right? or am i missing something? that would take care of the entertainment portion (if some are entertained by watching the pain of others - i'm not but it does add that level of morbid watching-a-car-crash element many crave), and also may give a chance at a little less bias. and as i've said before, it doesn't have to be that way every time, it could be one episode early on in the season, before the judges become too familiar with the chefs' cooking styles. probably won't work with this season's group, since the judges already knew their styles. but, on second thought, it had been years since they'd tasted the food of some of these judges, so it could even have worked this season.

                                                        1. re: mariacarmen

                                                          I think you are correct. Having that kind of format will still be entertaining to most viewers.

                                                          Another thing which is equally concerning as "judges associating dishes to chefs" is that "judges influence each others". If we are talking about fairness, it is concerning that the judges can talk to each others. One may think it is more fair if the judges independently come to their own conclusions as opposed to allowing them to talk to each others. But then, having judges simply write down their verdicts on score sheets will be pretty boring on TV. It will be like watching people take their SAT tests. All silent, no noise. How fun will that be on TV, can you imagine that?

                                                          1. re: mariacarmen

                                                            exactly! I love the way you think...Bravo lurkers, what do you think about this for next season? :-)

                                                        2. re: kimfair1

                                                          My point is that I think the show is all about creating entertainment, not to discover the next Top Chef. The goal is get good ratings with which they base their advertising rates on. Increase revenues, increase profits. Tension, controversy, sex, overcoming adversity etc. all contribute to the bottom line. What else could Colicchio say than it has to be about the food? Bourdain? Isn't he in the club too? I mean these "top chef's" mostly all swing in the same playground and get each other to write blurbs on the tell-all books or cookbooks they write, no?

                                                          1. re: scoopG

                                                            Of course it's all about ratings and entertainment creation, but since none of us watching actually taste the food, any comments (including mine) about whether it's just based on the food or just for the ratings are superfulous. I can usually tell who's going to be on the top and bottom each week, just by the comments on the food as they are eating it. I knew Carla was winning this week when Gayle asked Tom how the chicken pot pie was, and he said, "can't talk, still eating". Honestly, I get enjoyment from the show, no matter what criteria they use to judge. Ultimately that's all that really matters. I will say that every TP contestant's (or Top Chef Masters) restaurant that I've eaten in were uniformly wonderful.

                                                            1. re: kimfair1

                                                              That's it! The fun is in the connection you can make with the contestants, panelists and food. You raise a good point - it would be fun to have a sidebar group of regular, but say experienced hounds taste testing in another room to see how both groups match up.