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Barista Competitions: Why Do Fewer Women Compete—A...

Barista Competitions: Why Do Fewer Women Compete—And Win?

cerianne bury interview trabocca dutch holland netherlands world barista championship competition gender sprudge

Dutch coffee industry pro Cerianne Bury has taken a serious stride to answer a topical question: Why do fewer women than men compete—and win—in barista competitions worldwide? Her latest blog post, Why Women Do Not Compete in Coffee Competitions, offers possible explanations for the underrepresentation of female participants in the World Barista Championship (WBC) and also shares some of Bury’s own observations from the field.

Bury is a quality coordinator for the Amsterdam-based coffee sourcing company Trabocca, and before that worked as a training manager for Jacobs Douwe Egberts and for Coffee Company. She placed as second runner-up in the Dutch Latte Art Championship 2013, and was a judge at the Dutch Barista Championships 2014 and 2015, for which she also trained two Dutch Latte Art Champion finalists, a female and a male.

I spoke with Bury to learn more about her findings and hear recommendations on how to unearth the roots of this imbalanced trajectory, so steadfastly in place for the last 15 years.

You open the blog post with Rousseau’s philosophical reflections on social constructs and then cut straight to it: since starting in 2000, the WBC has never produced a woman winner. Records plainly show female participation has always been under 25%. This has implications because winners gain in stature, influence, better wages, and higher positions. Can you say more?

Winning a coffee competition, especially if you look at the WBC, it can really start a career. Look at the heroes in the coffee scene: James Hoffmann, Colin Harmon, Matt Perger, Tim Wendelboe, as well as someone like Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood from the UK, who didn’t win the WBC but has been in the finals three years in a row—he’s published a book on water that’s been very successful, is asked to go to all these different conferences and give talks on water based on what he did at the WBC. In that sense, it really does give you opportunities and an audience that you otherwise wouldn’t reach. It’s respect from the entire international coffee community.

If you look at the finals for the Barista Championships, there are many years that there are no women at all. There are years when there are no women in the semi-finals. And when you go and watch the competitions, it really does stick out. It’s a competition that’s both for men and women competing on the same level. They’re all national champions, so you would think that their level of competence is probably about the same, at least for a lot of the countries. If you look at the score system, the format is quite gender-neutral. And for some reason, we’re not getting anywhere. So why is that?

You answer your own question. Using open access sources on social and gender science, you conclude the problem lies in social constructs, specifically how female baristas see and portray themselves, and how the judges see and score them in response.

My personal position, as someone who studied gender studies and feels comfortable in the post-modern theories, is that the issue is a matter of social constructs. That’s nurture. But nurture/nature, it’s an issue for debate. For example, human behavior researchers say there are two types of women that can be accepted as a leader: either the more masculine and thus safe type or the very feminine and motherly type. If that’s true, I don’t know, but that’s what they say. If you look into HR research concerning mostly females in higher functions, how they present themselves, physically and verbally, is very important. They can either be seen as the bitch or the pushover. It’s often one or the other. Being powerful yet non-threatening or else seen as unkind is very difficult—and it’s such a shame.

As a WBC example, look at the previous Japanese woman in the finals, Miki Suzuki, she was the feminine, very motherly type, very soft in her hand gestures. But we’ve never done this kind of research for coffee competitions, so we don’t know really. Coffee competitions would be a very interesting test case because you have men and women competing, we have all the scores, we have information from the judges as to how you get presentation points, what should be in the presentation to get a high score. Most of the time the runs are videotaped, so it would be so easy to start a research project and see if men and women present themselves differently during their presentations and if their scoring is handled differently. Maybe the findings will say there’s no bias at all, it’s completely fair. We don’t know. All we know is that a lot of research says there’s probably a difference in how the genders present themselves, how they are perceived and, consequently, how they perform.

Who should undertake this research?

To do this the right way, you would need a team that knows behavioral science. Personally, I would include behavioral scientists, stage presentation professionals, maybe people with a background in linguistics. Otherwise, it would always just be an estimated guess. For my blog, I tried to find all the arguments that I could, but the post is not an academic thesis, it’s an argument.

Do you see being strategic about certain factors, such as what a competitor wears, as a sign of having to play a game or, say, pull a fast one on judges?

No, I don’t think so. It’s not about misleading the judges. It is, of course, about playing the game, though. But this subject is more a societal thing, not necessarily a coffee competition thing. The score sheets are built up to be as objective as possible. And almost every year, changes are made to make them even more objective by trying to describe how to give scores on taste and presentation more accurately every time.

However, it’s more that sometimes you need to be more aware of how you’re perceived. Men who compete do that as well, of course—they think about what they wear, their timing. After reading all these articles, what I do think is that women need to do that with added awareness. So not only think about what they’re serving at the WBC or what figures for latte art they are designing, but perhaps be more aware of how they present, including what they wear—it’s not just about looking pretty.

charlotte malaval french barista champion wbc 2015 coffee sprudge

The only female finalist at the WBC 2015, Charlotte Malaval, came in sixth place. Can you say anything about how she comported herself that may have helped her get that far?

She has a very natural flow. She is very confident behind the machine, but she is not—what’s the right word—threatening. She’s relaxed, she’s knowledgeable, but she’s not scary, and I think that was very important for her. What she chose to wear fit her very well. It was very well tailored, but it was quite masculine as well. It was a vest, a shirt, and pants—a real man’s uniform.

One of the policy-like points you conclude with in the blog post is that female baristas should be more self-reflective, ask themselves why they’re not entering competitions.

That’s very important, especially when you see the research showing women decide not to compete because other women aren’t competing. Risk—the risk of losing and failing—and confidence: those are the two things that keep women from choosing to compete, according to social research. If, as a female, you reflect on why you’re not competing and you can take fear of risk and lack of confidence out of the equation, you’re much more likely to compete.

But I think it’s not about saying to women, “you should compete,” or “you shouldn’t compete.” It’s about saying, “Are you aware of the choices that you’re making. And are you aware that if you choose to compete, what you do in your presentation can be perceived differently than it might be if you were a man? And that the difference in perception can influence the outcome of the competition?”

Could a fourth-wave feminist reading of the gender imbalance at championships be that women find competing to be a social constraint in and of itself, that they’re post-competition?

Maybe, it’s possible. It’s so hard to know anything about this without analyses of the competitions. Of course, that’s often an argument made. Women just think it’s beneath them. Or they have other interests. Or they prefer not to be stuck in this small space and to broaden their horizons, do different things or do things behind the scenes.

You’ve been in the judges’ shoes for national competitions, and now you’re planning to become certified as a World Coffee Events judge. So what’s a judge to do?

As I mentioned before, the score sheets are as objective as possible. At the same time, competitors are still judged on “judges’ total impression,” for which you can get 24 out of 162 points on the individual sensory judge score sheet. It’s not nothing. As a judge, if you know you might be slightly biased, it’s much easier to step out and to say, “OK, why am I making this decision? Why am I scoring this person this way?” Just asking that question could already change so much, just by being aware, instead of residing in this social construct and not thinking about the choices that we make.

Do you think male baristas have a role in promoting this awareness?

Yeah, and that’s especially because, at least in the coffee businesses I have been to (cafes, roasteries, importers, et cetera), the people who are mostly in the position of getting knowledge—about the product, about extraction, about different coffee origins—are still men. As they have the knowledge, it’s up to them whom they share that knowledge with.

Sometimes you need to make the very obvious decision to include someone that you might have otherwise not thought of. Not that you should automatically give a position to a woman, but it is about opening the door. For example, if you have a position to be filled, asking a woman, “Do you want to apply?” instead of just waiting for applications to come in and making a decision based on that. In my own experience, I found that if we contacted women about a position, they were very interested. If we asked them, “Why didn’t you apply?” they’d be like, “Yeah, well, you know, I didn’t think I’d be right for the job, and I don’t know if I have enough knowledge.” While when we asked men to apply, they were like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” If we then asked the men, “Do you think you know enough?” they’d say, “No, but I’ll get there.”

And what had made you decide to compete?

I decided not to compete before that because I felt insecure. I thought I could never really win, and if I can’t win, why would I compete? Then at one point I thought, “I’ve been working in coffee for six years. I know what I’m doing, I know that I’m good at it, I might as well compete and learn.” I learned so much just by competing. It really opened my eyes to how interesting these competitions can be even if you don’t win, just for personal growth. It also introduced me to people working in the Dutch coffee industry on a higher level than I was. Without this network, my coffee career would have looked very different. In that sense, competing in and of itself bumped me up in my coffee career.

The only problem is that I’m not really a competition barista insofar as when I’m put on a stage, I kind of shut off—it’s not ideal. So I coached another woman who did latte art. She is really a stage person. She lights up when she gets the attention, and that’s much better for a competitor.

Do you feel the Third Wave coffee community has an exceptional opportunity to change the status quo because it is generally considered inclusive and good-willed?

I think so, and also because it’s very much built on respecting coffee based on what you can do, what kind of skill you have, what kind of knowledge you have in coffee. So it’s quite easy, if you show your worth, to get included. I think there is a real opportunity because everybody, in the ideal sense, says, “We’re all equal, we all love coffee.” Most people who work with coffee are quite educated people, in general. They’re interested in arguments and are open-minded to different opinions, so I do think that makes it easy.

But in response to this blog post, I have comments from people saying, “What are you talking about? If women don’t want to compete, they shouldn’t. Why should they? And what’s the problem really anyway?” That’s what makes this subject so interesting: for some reason there is a taboo to say there is a difference in gender. I agree that if women don’t want to compete, they shouldn’t. I mean, I don’t want to compete sometimes—I’m not a stage person, and that’s fine. But the question becomes: why are you not competing?

Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge


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