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Gender & Coffee: Challenging The Status Quo

Gender & Coffee: Challenging The Status Quo

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“Not only do you appear to have an all-dude coffee policy, your bros are living in some alternate universe unreachable by us mere mortals. They’re switched off, intentionally so, and it’s the women who are picking up the slack.”

The above admonishment is taken from a recent coffee shop review on a website you may not yet know about: Douchey Dude Baristas (DDB), a Tumblr blog rating the Melbourne coffee scene’s level of “douchiness.” Using humor—lots of it—the DDB blog is attempting to tackle the specialty coffee industry’s gender problem.

As many have already pointed out and discussed, higher-visibility roles in coffee are seldom occupied by women. At barista competitions, there are few women competing, and even fewer on the podium. The same goes when it comes to coffee roasting. You have to ask: where do the women go?

“Despite that hospitality has statistically a majority female workforce, we are seeing the top leadership positions being held by men,” says “Alex”, a trained barista, cafe owner and the founder of DDB (Alex is a pseudonym—she runs the site anonymously). “It doesn’t add up,” she says.

DDB relies on a very forward approach, but it’s not the only site aiming to get the coffee world engaged around the issue of women. There is a growing number of female-focused initiatives to engage women in the coffee industry, from the inaugural Coffeewoman panel to the Instagram account Barista Darlings, “showcasing incredible female baristas around the globe” to Smart Girls Make Coffee (SGMC), an online platform supporting and promoting women in coffee, inspired by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and founded by Andreea Varga.

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Women experience sexism in a variety of arenas, but ask any woman in the coffee industry, and you will probably end up with at least one story of a time when she was negatively treated at work because of her gender. Varga tells me in an email about a time when she was using a La Marzocco Linea PB, pushing a button and getting annoyed when it didn’t work on the first try. “A male barista commented that the buttons are made by women and basically that’s why they don’t work properly,” says Varga, “Honestly I had no words.”

While Douchey Dude Baristas and Smart Girls Make Coffee take different tactics—one focused on snarky, in-your-face reviews, and the other on building an online community of women in the coffee profession—they address the same problem: the industry’s gender imbalance.

Whether we are men or women, many of us drink coffee, so why then has it become such a gendered drink? In a 2007 article titled “Espresso: A Shot of Masculinity,” published in Food, Culture & Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, Julie Kjendal Reitz lays out a theory that coffee was originally viewed as a masculine beverage, yet when it crossed over into a drink that was made at home, it lost its “male exclusivity.”

I was pointed to this article by Lisa Knisely, a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon with a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Knisley has covered this topic before, and has applied Reitz’s theory to specialty coffee. “While the coffee retail industry used to be more like so-called pink-collar fields such as nursing and teaching, efforts to make espresso slinging more professional have led to a masculinization of the workforce,” Knisley says. “That is, the more a job is thought of as ‘skilled,’ the more social prestige is associated with it, the higher the wage, and the harder it is for women to get, keep, and advance in the field,” Knisely writes in an article published in Bitch, titled “Steamed Up: The Slow-Roasted Sexism of Specialty Coffee.”

According to Knisely, this pink-collar shift “corresponds with a transition from espresso as a public beverage when it first appeared in Europe (similar to going to a bar, something only men did)…to a largely private domestic product in the 20th century and then back to a public space beverage in the late 20th century.”

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This notion is consistent across diverse industries: work that is done in the public space is valued, while domestic, “caring” work isn’t. Compare a surgeon to a nurse. A surgeon’s work is considered skilled, while nursing— despite being an essential part of the healthcare industry—is seen as caring labor, and therefore gets put into the pink-collar category. Or consider the world of fashion and clothing, with high-end fashion designers on one end and tailors on the other. Fashion designers quickly gain notoriety (and it’s worth noting that few of the head designers in the fashion world are women), while people who sew and mend clothing —yet again, important roles—are rarely talked about, as sewing is culturally viewed as a more domestic activity, with no cultural currency. “We simply don’t put a monetary value on caring labor because the assumption is that it should be done in the private sphere, disproportionately by women, for free,” says Knisely. “We think care labor should be free, so we don’t want to pay for it in public, especially from women.”

As Knisely points out, “this public-masculine vs. private-domestic-feminine divide is very deeply rooted in the West, but was really calcified with the Enlightenment idea of the rational, public political man who was the head of his family…and whom he represented in the public democratic sphere.” We might be far from the Enlightenment, but that line of thinking still appears in our modern society. “Even though we now don’t have the same sociopolitical system, our ideas about public and private are still deeply imbued with these gendered undertones,” says Knisely.

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A cafe is a public space, but it also strives to be that “third space,” where people comfortably congregate somewhere that isn’t work or home. In the third space, we want the best of both worlds—attentive caring service and expertly pulled shots. Our own gender expectations—and what classifies as public/skilled work, typically classified as male, as opposed to private/service work, typically classified as female—can lead to this sexism problem, e.g. men being expected to have more technical proficiency than women, and women to be better at hospitality. “The sort of service you’re asking for from a barista can range from a technically executed shot to someone to talk to about your day, but as the Douchey Dude barista site seems to critique, different people are perceived as performing different roles and this is often quite gendered,” says Knisely.

If we want to address sexism in the coffee industry, we must start here. “The answer to how to eliminate the gender gap in specialty coffee would be for us all to commit to changing the culture at large to associate men with domesticity and women with professionalism in order to counteract very deep-seated gendered divisions,” says Knisely.

Douchey Dude Baristas’ Alex is aiming to do just that, and with its punchy take on the situation, she receives a lot of feedback about her website, both positive and negative. “I’ve received overwhelming support from female hospitality workers since launching the blog which means it’s resonating, and it’s resonating because it’s true,” says Alex. But others aren’t so thrilled. “People feel personally attacked when you make fun of them, and that is fair,” Knisely says of the style. “Getting them to understand the importance of the critique in context is much harder to do. It takes work and it takes lots of people doing that work.”

While some may find the cutting down to size of the male baristas she depicts a bit harsh, Alex points out, “it isn’t my job here to complete the story for these men, to give them depth of character… My job, is to if anything, give depth to the women, and to ask the critical questions such as ‘Who’s missing in this equation?’ ‘Who is this cafe not representing?’ ‘Who is being left out, and why?’”

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Andreea Varga

But even if we start asking ourselves these questions, changing these deep-rooted expectations of gender is difficult. For Varga, her goal with Smart Girls Make Coffee is to create a space that is supportive of and inspiring to women, which is part of the solution to the overall problem.

“I wanted to bring my input in the world on the issues I care about,” says Varga. “It is really important to me to speak up about the problems I encounter.” She cites a favorite line from the artist Björk about women’s unique challenges when striving in the workplace, and the reason why Varga strives to raise these questions day after day: “I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things, it’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.”

* * * *

With all this in mind, I start thinking about interactions that I myself have had when being served coffee, and how I perceive a barista’s actions depending on their gender. I contemplate whether or not I “put up” with bad behavior when it’s from a man, more so than I do when it comes from a woman. “Male baristas can safely perform and inhabit a ‘coffee douche’ role in a way that women can not in nearly as comfortable a way,” says Knisely. “It is no accident that when you talk about a jerky barista most people will think of a guy most of the time,” she continues.

“This isn’t because men are just worse people; it’s that women simply can’t get away with being cold or distant in a service work job for the most part,” she explains. And this all gets back to the space thing. “Women can inhabit public space, but with the expectation that we’ll accommodate others and police ourselves,” says Knisely.

Culturally, we will accept that women can occupy that public space—in this case, behind the coffee bar—but women have to conform to social norms far more than their male counterparts.

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That makes banding together even more essential, which is why it’s promising to see initiatives like Barista Connect that physically bring women together and communities like SGMC which give women an online platform to support each other. “Women need opportunities, but they also need support and open channels of communication with one another,” says Alex. “The patriarchy is designed to separate us, so we need to find ways to come together and seek strength in each other.”

No matter which side of the coffee bar we are on, we all have a role to play in improving this aspect of the industry, be it addressing sexism head on by raising questions and challenging the status quo, or providing support networks to ensure that we work towards true equality. That means that there’s a whole lot more to think about next time you have a barista—be it a man or a woman—serve you a cup of coffee. It’s no easy task, but if we don’t take it on, we can just expect—and are responsible for—more of the same.

Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.


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