Why Women Make Better Butchers Than Men
On International Women's Day, one of London’s top female butchers tells us why the male-dominated industry could do with more women.
Photo avec l'aimable autorisation de Brian Doben.
People always think the reason I got into butchery is going to be because of a family connection or that I was really into the craft, but it was actually a happy accident. I'm originally from Chesterfield in North Derbyshire and when I was 16, I got a Saturday job in a farm shop and they put me on the butchery counter.
When I moved to London three years later, I needed another Saturday job and with the experience I had, I started working at The Ginger Pig butcher. I was there for three years and moved around the shop, learning more about butchery and working in the office as a PR assistant. Then I moved to Turner & George as marketing manager and cut meat on the weekends. So, it's still my Saturday job!
For me, seeing how the animal goes from field to fork is what's interesting. There are so many people who shop in the supermarket nowadays who don't see the whole process that the meat has gone through. I'm really interested in how what a pig or a cow or a sheep eats affects the taste of the meat.
I also think that butchery is an art form. You take a whole carcass and you can break it down into these cuts that look so lovely and don't resemble anything like a whole body.
But it can still feel like a party trick when I tell people that I'm a butcher and their reply is, "You're a what?"
I think it's male-dominated industry because there's a preconception around butchery that you have to be a really strong person and be able to lift heavy things. It is a physical job but there are so many more aspects to it. I also think that because it has been male-dominated for so many years (it's one of the oldest trades in the world and it's always been men who've worked in it), people don't see it as a feasible job for a woman.
Before I started working in butcheries, and even as a butcher, if I went into someone else's shop, I would feel intimidated. Butchers can be a specific type of person. They've got this stereotype of being an older bloke who's a bit grumpy—they can be quite full-on and abrupt. It can be an intimidating experience even going into a butchers and asking questions.
When I was a lot younger and working in butcheries, there was a lot of sexism. I don't think that was specifically because I was a butcher, but because I was a woman and the only woman in that environment. There were a lot of sexual jokes and inappropriate stuff, especially when I was around 18.
I have seen a change but I don't know if that's because I'm getting older and the London food scene is more inclusive, or whether the culture is actually changing. I think if I was a butcher back in Derbyshire, things would still be very different—it wouldn't be as inclusive and people would still have that shock on their face to see a woman working in a butchers.
Most of the time in London, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. If you can answer a customer's question about the meat, it doesn't matter. But there are still customers who don't think like that.
One time, I was in the shop with a male trainee who'd only been there a couple of weeks. A customer came in and when I asked how I could help, he looked straight through me and started talking to the trainee. The trainee had no idea how to answer any of the questions so after a while, I stepped in and asked, "Do you want me to answer your questions?" There'll always be people who'll look through you to the man standing next to you. You just have to be confident and if you know what you're talking about, then there's nothing that they can do.
There are always going to be people who think that I'm just the girl on the counter who takes the cash. It's really satisfying when you bring up a whole carcass on your shoulder and you put it down in front of them.
But being labelled a "female butcher" does make you memorable. There might only be a handful in London. I mean, how many female butchers do you know? I do feel privileged because it puts you in a good position to learn more about the industry and to go places.
However, it would be lovely to just be a butcher, not a "female butcher." Because for me, women are better butchers than men. The standard of the women I know in the industry is incredible. I think women are better because they are more approachable, they take their time, and they take care with what they do. They have a finer hand and their finished product looks better.
But if butchery doesn't look like an attractive career prospect, what young girl is going to want to become a butcher? It starts at ground level. A lot of Australian butchers I know have trained as butchers and it's been their course at university. They've had to go through a rigorous training and education process to become a butcher and pass all these exams. In the UK, we don't really have that. People in the industry have either got into it through family or like me, have just fallen into it.
There are only a handful of people I know that have actually wanted to learn butchery skills. I think if there are more educational courses available and butchery is marketed as a more attractive career prospect, then it's definitely time for more women in the industry.
As told to Daisy Meager.