A Cut Above: How Female Butchers Can Win in a Traditionally Male Profession
Two pioneers explain what women bring to the world of meat.
In a field long dominated by men, women are making their mark-or should we say cut-on the meat industry. Although there have always been female butchers, there was a time when seeing a woman breaking down an animal carcass would have caused a double take. But according to 2018 data from the US Department of Labor, women now make up about a quarter of butchers (and other meat, poultry, and fish processing workers), which is up from 21 percent in 2006. Based on this same data, it seems that the numbers of men in the field are decreasing while women steadily increase.
Here, we talked to two female pioneers in modern butchery about the state of the industry, what women bring to the field, and what challenges remain.
Camas Davis, Founder, Portland Meat Collective and Executive Director, Good Meat Project
Executive director of Good Meat Project (GMP), founder of the Portland Meat Collective, and author of the memoir, Killing It, Camas Davis has noticed a definite uptick in female interest in butchery courses, workshops, and GMP's Grrls Meat Camp in the last decade. She's also noticed more women transitioning from totally different careers into the meat world-something Davis felt very alone in when she switched from journalism to butchery 10 or so years ago. Today there are more female role models in the field for other women to look towards.
Davis credits the increased interest, in part, to a changing narrative around meat. "Which is that not all meat needs to be industrial meat, and that there's a philosophy of raising meat well, and eating the whole animal and utilizing every part that's more inclusive, more subtle, more nuanced," she says. "That particular story and narrative attracts, in some ways, a female sensibility because it's not really about ego, it's not really about being tough, or being able to manhandle animals that are already being manhandled by the industrial system. It's about respect in the way that you approach not only the live animal but also the carcass and the resulting meat afterwards."
The issue Davis sees is that despite more interest generally in butchery, there is still a dearth of formal apprenticeship programs or butchery schools, and the ones that do exist are pricey. Davis notes that women who are interested in butchery get started-as does everyone-in customer service at the meat counter, but that it's the men who more frequently get promoted to meat cutting positions while women get stuck at the front of the house. "The women have to really fight to be able to learn actual butchery at most meat counters," she says.
The women that do break through, however, are making a big impact on the industry. "The thing that I see most," says Davis, "is a willingness to collaborate, and a willingness to teach and learn from one another, which I think is going to save the industry, and is going to really reinvent the industry." She notices a distinct difference between the sexes in this regard. "When I am in a room full of men and I'm teaching or I'm learning, it's a completely different vibe-it's competitive typically and it's not about sharing or the exchange of knowledge."
If there's one thing a lot of female butchers can agree on, it's that they're tired of posing with cleavers for photo shoots. "It's this sort of feeling of being a monkey doing tricks in a cage," says Davis. "There's been this glorification of the female butcher like, oh, isn't it sexy, oh, it's so dangerous-women with knives. There's plenty of stereotypes that fuel that, but at the same time, that sort of created a space-if not a problematic space-for women to suddenly get into this industry. Which is, you know, good and bad."
Tia Harrison, President & CEO, The Butchers Guild and Manager of Team USA Butchers of America
In 2007, Tia Harrison-along with two other women-opened what many consider to be the first female-owned butcher shop in the United States; she's been moving the needle forward for female butchers ever since. Today Harrison is quick to point out that she's no longer a practicing butcher but is still deeply involved in the butchery world as President and CEO of the Butchers Guild-a membership organization devoted to preserving the art of butchery-and manager of the US team that competes in the World Butchers' Challenge.
Harrison has seen a big change since she started out, when she describes a female-run butcher shop as being not only rare but simply "fantastic." "I've seen a lot of women take up the trade in the last 10 years, and a lot of women open their own butcher shops, and a lot of women lead the conversation in butchery through co-ops, through writing books and leading meat camps and even starting their own schools," she says. The main challenge Harrison sees for female butchers isn't so much a glass ceiling as the very real, physical demands of the profession.
Like Camas, Harrison sees the renewed respect for butchers as part of a larger conversation around where our food is coming from. "I think a lot of people in the country are interested in a return to roots philosophy around food," she says. That translates to an interest in where our meat is coming from, how it was raised, and how it is butchered.
These days, Harrison is focused on strengthening the network and community of butchers of all genders as well as developing the American competition team to compete in what is essentially the Olympics of meat. They compete against 16 other teams and Harrison notes that quite a few teams include a woman. The U.S. team includes apprentice Cindy Garcia, a talented up-and-comer in the butchery world. Their bid to host the next competition was successful, so look out for the next World Butchers' Challenge competition in Sacramento, California, this fall.