So often in specialty coffee—indeed, in most industries—the speaker scene at conferences, panels, and speaking events trends overwhelmingly male. All-male speaking line-ups are such a commonplace occurrence that a modified version of the Bechdel test comes to mind—is there actually one woman in the line-up? Is there more than one woman? Could two women conceivably have a conversation together on the panel stage? And would that conversation be about anything other than the work of a man?
The normal tapestry of specialty coffee speaking circuits is highly guilty of the above, and especially here in Australia, where notions of gender equity and equality can often feel stuck in the past compared to other parts of the world. And so when it was announced that Barista Connect, the international women's coffee event series, would be making its way to Melbourne for the first time, my response—and the response of many others in the Australian coffee scene—was one of outright delight.
Here's an event that doesn't just pass the Bechdel test, it crushes it.
Having previously held events in Aarhaus and London, Barista Connect Melbourne is the third incarnation of the event founded by Sonja Zweidick, with the Melbourne edition organised collaboratively alongside Camilla Bargholz (8Kilo) and Mikaela Gervard (The Coffee Collective). Here at Sprudge we’ve been enthusiastic supporters of previous Barista Connect events and while each is unique, the goal of for Zweidick and her team has proven to be an incredibly consistent one: to improve equality in the coffee industry and to create and further the network of female coffee professionals internationally.
Held over the Monday and Tuesday preceding MICE (the Melbourne International Coffee Expo) at two stunning venues—Maillard Atelier and La Marzocco Australia—an intimate group of 22 coffee professional attendees were treated to a range of talks, workshops, and collaborative discussions. Presenters included—among others—Elika Rowell of Square One Coffee Roasters, Charlotte Malaval of Toby’s Estate, Monika Fekete of Coffee Science Lab, Lucy Ward of St Ali and Sensory Lab, Meira Harel of King & Godfree, Michelle Johnson of The Chocolate Barista and Barista Hustle, Jets Anita Langland of La Marzocco, and Jenni Bryant and Milla Vainikainen of Market Lane Coffee.
Highlights included Jets Anita Langland discussing the elements of value in the coffee industry, getting deep into the academic side of marketing—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, anyone? Meanwhile, Michelle Johnson spoke about the utility and purpose of social media in amplifying her experiences and ideas in the coffee industry as a way to network and further her professional opportunities.
I was struck by the fact that this event, curated avowedly by and for women, focused so sparingly on “gender issues” throughout its speaker lineup. By and large it was an event focused on ideas, theories, skills, and experiences that felt applicable to the entirety of the industry. I never felt talked down to or marginalized. There is an all-for-one community vibe to Barista Connect that's quite unlike most other coffee symposia.
The specific topic of women in coffee was, however, tackled by Charlotte Malaval, former French Barista Champion, as the final speaker of the event. After expressing frustration at the frequency of which she was asked “What’s it like to be a woman in coffee,” she moved into a fascinating presentation of anthropological theories on gender and competition by academics like Bordieu and Lévi-Strauss. Malaval's talk put forth the theory that there are more men in competitions solely because they’re socialised to compete, whereas the majority of women aren’t socialised in the same way. As she went on, Malaval elaborated on her own experiences and how she hadn’t really perceived any negativity towards herself in relation to being a female competitor. “It’s hard no matter who you are!” she told the crowd, while also posing the question: “Do we really need to identify and be inspired by the same gender?”
It was an interesting insight to hear, and one that was at odds with a number of attendees in the audience, leading to a fascinating back and forth in the discussion segment following the talk. Some of the attendees talked about their own experiences—highlighting the fact that when some of them had previously competed confidently and assertively in competition, it was commented on negatively whereas the same characteristics garnered their male counterparts overwhelmingly positive feedback. It was a reminder that discussions like these are so important to further understand how diverse and complicated the issue of gender still is within the coffee industry, and that no two people’s experiences are the same. It left me, and others in the group, pondering as to whether the very paradigm of competition itself as a yard marker of value and worth as a coffee professional has become increasingly problematic and outdated.
For the final group discussion, many members of the group expressed their appreciation of the supportive all-female environment, saying how good it was to talk as a group without having to feel that they had to battle to be heard. Michelle Johnson summarised the frustration of the female coffee professional quite aptly during the discussion in a way that truly resonated: “I’m happy to lean in, but I don’t always want to fight.”
Barista Connect Melbourne was a beautifully organised event, and such a pleasure to attend. But in the spirit of dialogue and challenging discussion I found at the event, I'll pose a final question: what if, in the future, events like Barista Connect considered opening up the attendee restrictions? I found myself wishing for at least a bit of limited inclusion across the gender spectrum in that room, if for no other reason than to show just how good things can be when the male-dominated status quo is flipped on its head.
Eileen P. Kenny is a coffee professional, winemaker, and Sprudge Media Network contributor based in Melbourne. Read more Eileen P. Kenny on Sprudge.
Sprudge Media Network is proudly partnered with Barista Connect. Read all past Barista Connect coverage on Sprudge.