Gender discrimination in the cheese shop shows itself in myriad ways. Most of the time it looks like a series of micro aggressions, so deeply melded into daily routine you can almost convince yourself they never happened. But it can also be intentional: a pointed, weaponized action. Discrimination by no means ends with gender: Racism, heterocentrism, ableism, transphobia, and sizeism are just a few examples of ways in which one human being can discriminate against another.
As a white heterosexual woman, I can’t personally speak to many of those. What I have witnessed and experienced as a woman working in a cheese shop is only a small part of a much larger story. I learned from the very best, a group of women who lived and breathed cheese and wine. I credit the majority of my formal cheese education to my employer, a lauded woman with a generous and impressive background as an official judge for the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix and a member of both the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromages de France and the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers Confrérie de Saint-Uguzon. Informally, she was a friend who helped me select and purchase the wine for my wedding, played the perfect mix of Echo and the Bunnymen and Cocteau Twins in the shop, and helped me develop the palate and vocabulary I would one day use as a food writer.
But I quickly learned that, for some customers, the formidable knowledge of the women I worked with was a problem. I once witnessed the owner ask a man if he needed assistance. “I will wait for a man to help me,” he said without any hesitation. Her matter-of-fact response? “It’s going to be a while—there aren’t any men working today.” As she turned her back, he stormed out, leaving a palpable wake of outrage trailing behind him. This customer visited the shop more than once, always asking for a man and, to my barely contained delight, always receiving the same answer. Eventually his apologetic wife began to do the weekly cheese shopping. I would often see the man waiting in the front seat of their car, arms crossed and a sulky expression on his face.
I recently sat down with a group of women cheesemonger friends to talk about their experiences with gender discrimination. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the topic of harassment quickly arose.
“The touching,” one friend said. “When you’re out on the floor and they keep touching you or caressing your hand when you show them a cheese. Or finding ways to reach around so that you’re caught in a completely unwanted embrace.”
“When they call you ‘honey’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘babe’,” said another.“Nothing makes me feel less heard and less valued than when a perfectly normal interaction suddenly switches to unwanted attention on my physical appearance.”And finally: “Men who, even if the store is packed, will wait in the back until you and only you can help them. These are the guys who memorize your days off and only come in when they know you’ll be around.”
These incidences are merely the tip of the iceberg and are only my personal experiences. The consequences of gender discrimination are far-reaching and unexpected, whether the discrimination was carried out with intention to hurt or was seemingly benevolent behavior (in which case all I have to say is: check yourself). Repeated discriminatory behavior makes you question your self-worth, expertise, personal boundaries, and, worst of all, your gut feelings.
Although I’ve left the cheesemongering world, I’m still painfully aware of how accepted and normalized these discriminatory actions are in shops everywhere. Only by listening to and honoring these experiences will the darkest places come to light. We are women, we are cheesemongers, and we are unwavering in our demand to be treated with respect and dignity.