Coffee and Gender

For a while now we’ve had a rolling, awkward discussion about the ratio of men to women in the coffee industry – with particular focus on barista competitions.  This was perhaps started, or at least invigorated by Gwilym Davies’ Tamper Tantrum talk last year.  For me there are two facets to this that I feel comfortable commenting on:


I don’t think there is something inherent to the format of barista competition that is more attractive to men than women.  I think, looking around the world, that culture is often a big impactor.  Looking at Greece, where I can’t remember the time I last year a female competitor (let alone champion) I can find its polar opposite in Russia where I can’t remember the last time there was a male national champion.

Looking to the UK, where I have perhaps more experience, there have been wild swings in the level of participation from women.  This year there was very little, though in the past there have been higher levels.  I’m aware with such a limited set of data, it is hard to rule out the effects of a level of natural randomness.  I could see, however, that the competition was made more or less appealing by the organising to body.  I’ve certainly seen incidents of sexism and unacceptable behaviour from those within organising bodies, in this country and in others.  That said, I’ve seen other unacceptable behaviour that had nothing to do with gender that would be equally off-putting.

It might also be worthwhile if we stepped out of this whole gender mindset and looked at the fact that the competition is varying in its attraction to people.  Those people may be women, they may be men, they may be straight or gay, they may be caucasian or asian.  I think we blinker ourselves if we choose to focus on one arbitrarily defined group who we feel we’re missing.  If we look at how many past competitors we fail to retain then that might also be a worthwhile thing to investigate to improve participation and the overall level.


The other facet of this that makes me extremely uncomfortable is our tendency, through this discussion, to label those who buck the apparent male-focused trend as “women in coffee”.  I’m sorry, did I miss a meeting where we decided that equality was no longer about stopping the definition, pigeon holing and labelling of people based on an arbitrary characteristic such as race, sexuality or gender?  It’s awkward, it’s patronising and I’m fairly sure that very few of those being labelled define themselves professionally based on their gender.  It isn’t helping.

In fact, isn’t this the very root of the thing we’re trying to avoid – the industry treating members differently based on their gender?  If there is evidence of women failing to achieve professionally in coffee, of being paid less, of being passed over for higher level positions – surely this should be our real concern.  Are we seeing this? I can’t work out if there is irony in the fact the company behind the competitions (World Coffee Events) is staffed entirely by women.  SCAA’s Symposium this year was just under 70% male speakers – is this evidence that the SCAA (an organisation where over 80% of the staff are women) has gender bias?

Ultimately – what is our concern here?  If we’re looking at barista competitions then I don’t think we can (or should) make sweeping statements about gender here.  They are not universally appealing to baristas in the coffee industry – I think we can say that.  I think that changing this would benefit the competition (more participation) and the industry (more baristas benefitting from competition experience and being better at what they do).  I think a sole focus on gender results in discomfort, and division. That is unhealthy.


I think a shared perspective on this is helpful, so I wanted to post a quote from Anette.  She is much more eloquent on the subject than I am, and has a different perspective:

What I object to is still being defined as the ‘other’, the one that’s not the norm. No one asks a guy what it’s like to be a man in coffee, or comments “Didn’t he do well, and for a man too…” when winning or achieving something. We’re always stuck with being looked at with a set of different expectations, prejudices and attitudes just because we’re female, and that annoys me. We don’t deserve any more (or less) praise for doing something just because of our gender. We’re just people. I’d hope to be a role model because I’m a person being good at what I do, and not have it always be framed by my being a girl being good at something. I don’t want to be encouraged to compete because someone’s worried about it not being PC that there are not a lot of women competing, I’d like to be encouraged to compete because someone thinks I can win, or benefit from it, as a professional coffee person. I reserve the right to be impressed or unimpressed by someone’s performances irrespective of their gender.

I’m aware that I get to be dismissive of being referred to as a woman in coffee because in theory, I live in a relatively gender equal culture and part of the world. However you border or define it, I’m already privileged and I’ve been spoiled enough to become a bit blazé and nitpick at little things like this. There are moments I’m proud of being specifically female in coffee, especially when travelling to certain origins where women and men are not used to seeing women in positions of authority, importance, expertise. And that’s both when I encounter discrimination against myself or fellow women, and when I see that my gender challenges peoples expectations for what women can be and do in a positive way.

Recently when visiting a coffee mill, I was told that the exclusively female sorters had an entirely different response to seeing me coming through for a visit than they do when a man comes through to visit. In cases like that I become an example, and being a woman in coffee becomes  a different thing all together, an element of actual political and cultural importance rather than me feeling a bit talked down to when being referred to one over here. Whether or not being referred to as a woman in coffee bothers you or not depends entirely on the circumstance and the person/people defining you as such.

In the UK competition discussion, I think a lot of girls here simply don’t find our current competition scene that interesting. And that’s ok, I think a lot of guys find it uninteresting too. I don’t think those women who do want to compete feel they have to overcome or endure any particular male chauvinistic culture if they do chose to get involved. That said, there are always situations where you’re certainly reminded that you’re seen first and foremost as a woman. I and many others have had our share of comments, nationally as well as internationally… But that might just as much be down to generational attitudes or individual abilities to behave professionally as anything else, and more often than not, gender doesn’t feel like an issue. When it does you have to lead with positivity, shrug it off or tell them off, hold your own and do your thing, and be good at what you want to be good at, whether it’s competing, judging, organizing, roasting, cupping or training. There is a time for bitching and complaining, but personally, if that’s all women do about it, or if we somehow make men think they have to bitch and complain about it on our behalf, I don’t think it’s making it any better or any more fun for any of us.