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  • Writer's pictureAli

Is sexism good for female bakers?

Sexism? That's so...twentieth century, right? Surely we've moved on by now?

Firstly, that would be incredibly ignorant given the #metoo movement, the gender pay gap, the fact there's never been an American female president (oh, if only we could all have Jacinda Ardern!) and that schools actively find it hard to recruit girls into STEM subjects.

The thing that's easy to forget is that one's upbringing comes into play. We can't all adapt to the modern world as though we were born today. The fact is two specific things have hugely determined my career in a way that wouldn't happen now. One is that I was born in the seventies. (I'll come to the other point later.)

Being a girl, there were things I wasn't allowed to do at school. When the boys went out for football, the girls were made to sit inside and read. I launched a petition and got over 200 signatures to try and change matters. The teachers just laughed.

For the sports we were allowed to play (like netball) we had incredibly unflattering PE pants (bottle green, since you ask). The boys had football shorts. Then there was the teacher who taught us how to fold a shirt "for our husbands".

There were family influences, too. Like practically all my friends, my dad went to work while my mum was the homemaker (yet both of them have excellent degrees from Cambridge). It was the same for their parents, too. The message was clear: there are things girls are allowed to do (like submerging oneself in academia) but having a career wasn't important, which seems ludicrous - by all means study, but only to further your brain, not to implement it for financial return or a glittering career.

Up until recently, I would have blamed the time I was born for the sexist lives of everyone around me. But there's one other thing I hadn't considered: that I had a very influential, turn-of-the-century-born Greek grandfather.

So what was the reason for this sudden realisation? It's all down to Maria Newman, creator of 'Mummy on a Break', whose latest podcast is about what it's like to grow up in a Greek environment and have gender-specific expectations.

And suddenly the memories came flooding back. My wonderful, magnificent grandfather being vehemently opposed to certain things I wanted to do (like driving) when he wouldn't have batted an eyelid at my brother doing it. Thankfully, I was shielded from his reservations by my parents, but I could all too well empathise with Maria's situation.

One thing my grandfather did encourage, however, was my love of baking. He was so generous with his compliments. I made his 90th birthday cake as a Snakes & Ladders board and made the cake chequered inside. Such was his admiration, anyone would think I'd presented him with the crown jewels. His encouragement spurred me on. I even went as far as making him baklavas.

So is it any surprise I ended up becoming a baker? And is it really that difficult to understand why so many bakers are female? If the easiest things to excel at are the ones that are permissible, expected and revered then it's no wonder we try to make careers out of them. Yes, we get the odd sprinkling of men (Bake Off must search far and wide) but the reality at Cake International and on the Facebook groups I'm in is not many blokes seem to be present.

Ali Walsh mixing a gluten-free cake batter
Here I am years ago developing a cake recipe

Now that might simply be the groups I've chosen to be part of, or that Facebook isn't the go-to place for male bakers (sole traders or hobby-based), but the fact is that the majority of well-known UK cake artists are female (Lindy Smith, Mich Turner & Zoe Clark to name but a few).

But! You cry. Surely Paul Hollywood is a famous UK baker? Well, ye-e-s, but that's where the men seem to go - straight to the top job - the peacock of baking - and predominantly bread. They don't usually busy themselves with sugarcraft.

So do I wish I hadn't got involved in baking? In a word: NO!

I love it. And I've combined it with running my own business, which arguably takes a bit more than knowing how to make swiss meringue buttercream. Thankfully, even in the eighties girls were at least expected to get a decent education and therefore I had a good Maths GCSE tucked under my belt, as well as a smattering of other qualifications.

So should I be thankful for the sexism of the seventies, without which I might never have pursued my baking hobby? For that answer, I turn to you. Do let me know your thoughts below - I'd be really interested to hear what you think.

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Jun 02, 2020

For anyone who's asking about that photo, it was taken in 2009 and I still have that top - feeling v eco-friendly (well, sort of)!

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