Recent twitter debates about girls in coffee have woken me from hibernation and prompted me to write.

Why are there not more girls competing/blogging/giving talks in the coffee world?  There are hundreds of reasons to be thrown around, non very conclusive, but I thought I may as well give a few thoughts (in more than 140 characters) from my perspective as a girl in coffee.

To lay out my stance:  I am not particularly feminist.  (Neither am I a misogynist, just to clarify).  I think we are all equal, and should support each other as human beings regardless of gender.  I have however, realised that, being in specialty coffee, I am working in a primarily male-dominated industry.  I am not a psychologist, I’m just going to write what I notice.  Now, I happen to work with Gwilym Davies, who  recently took to the stage in last season’s best ditzy-print dress to raise a question as to why the lack of females in coffee.  Not so much why the lack of female baristas, as there are a fair few of us around.  The question has been why the majority of barista competitors are men, why the majority of bloggers, or speakers at coffee events are men…. Why are men the loudest about coffee?

It got me thinking.  I haven’t written anything on this blog for three months, and I admit the last post I did write was a token post because I felt bad for not having kept up with writing.  Now I have been prodded (by men and my conscience) to write again.  One thing I have realised, after twenty-*cough* years of life, is that while we as separate gendered beings are qualified to be equal as humans, we both generally do have different approaches to life and situations.  Like it or not, we are wired differently.  We all act and react from our level of insecurity or security in ourselves.

The way I see it, men tend to over-compensate for insecurities by self-promotion, attempting to prove strength, confidence, knowledge, success, absence of weakness.  Coffee is one of those things a lot of us still don’t know much about, there is always more to learn. The lack of what collectively we know and understand, actually hides itself in the opposite, which essentially becomes egotistically driven: “Let’s look and sounds as though we know it all, and nobody will think we don’t.”

So, a pretty masculine sounding scenario.  How do we as girls fit in to a picture like this?   I think that secretly most men realise that women know they are not as macho as they want to appear, which probably makes it worse.  Anyway, back to women.  Women have a few possible responses, whether in coffee or in any other area.  Either, we take on the Power Woman approach “We’re better than men and we’ll show them” and fight our way to the front, (or top, or wherever we’re trying to get).  Lots of putting people down, being tough and harsh and intimidating, but you get to your goal (though often end up not very popular, but feared).  Or, we do the clever weaving – often actually starts out very innocent and just self-defensive, but can get quite ugly.  This probably comes easiest to most of us, if we are honest.  This is the bitching, gossiping, ‘playing them off each other’, which undermines and ultimately is destructive. There’s the flirting and whining and pleading. The emotional guilt-laying.  We’ve all done it whether intentional or not, sometimes we just don’t know how else to get things to go our way (which is often our problem, it has to be our way).  And it gets us girls a bad name, let alone no respect among male peers.
The other option, and perhaps the reason more girls aren’t so vocal in coffee, is to just get on, do your job and enjoy it, leave it at that and enjoy life.  Make coffee, make it as nice as possible, have fun but don’t take on too much – let the boys think it out, fight it out and work it out.  After all, the rest of our lives are complicated enough.

So, be butch, be a bitch, or switch off are our options – and none of them are sitting well with me.  I love my job, I love coffee, I get very passionate about it, and want to understand it more.  I get hungry to learn as much as I can.  I get perfectionistic – if the coffee I make is not tasting good enough, I can’t serve it to a customer.  There shouldn’t be any reason for a customer to walk out disappointed by what should be a great coffee, especially when they’ve heard hype.  But there are always obstacles, because we don’t know as much as we think we know.  So we have to push our levels of knowledge, learn from as many people as we can, share as much insight as we have.  But I’m stuck.  How do you get everyone to listen when there are (don’t get offended, boys) pushy, egotistical men who don’t want to hear that you might have a thought they haven’t had?  Ideally I would love to say I am so secure that I need nobody’s approval, but realistically nobody is.
Now, I realise that I actually have it incredibly easy – I’m supported by people who believe that we should all be equal, and that I shouldn’t shy away because I’m a girl.   I have also met a lot of great guys and girls in coffee who believe in me, people who ask my opinion on something because they genuinely think I might have encountered it or have ideas or solutions.  For me personally, this genuine belief is the biggest encouragement I could have to keep going.  And no doubt for most ‘girls in coffee’ it probably would be too.  Not patronising, false encouragement.   Then we as girls have a fourth option:  to be passionate, to learn, to share ideas and findings, to demonstrate discoveries or theories, to compete, to speak, to blog, to relax and know we are just as valued and respected as the next guy.  And to enjoy it.

Just see us (male and female) as equal, we see you (male and female) as brilliant, amazing and equal.

And most importantly, as Gwilym told me “knowledge and doing stuff, that’s the best way.”

17 Responses to “#COFFEEGIRLS”

  1. Ceilidh says:

    I am a Barista and coffee blogger in Halifax, Nova Scotia and I’m glad I found this post as this is something I have been thinking about a lot lately!
    I was just having a conversation the other night with a girl friend about how she notices all these same things in the sommelier community too! Lots to think of… thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. gregorylent says:

    waiting for somebody in the “coffee world” to be aware enough to talk about alllll the deleterious effects of coffee on the human body, mind, and energy field.

    in just a few years, coffee will be looked at like we have begun to look at cigarettes … definitely not cool. or healthy.

  3. drew w says:

    i am a former several-year-barista and was constantly depressed/aware that though the women that i knew in the industry were among the best, they were structurally marginalized. however, i don’t think i realized how true it was until i switched jobs, and now i work in tech, which has well-known similar issues, and the similarities become even more blatant.

    thanks for your thoughts about this.

  4. Mike Haggerton says:

    Good post, and whilst I agree with many of your comments and certainly with the sentiment, this subject matter is too prone to generalisation. As soon as anyone says ‘men are like this, and women are like that’ it just loses credibility with me, I’m afraid. I don’t support the belief that people behave certain ways because of their gender, and I certainly refute the claim that “men tend to over-compensate for insecurities by self-promotion, attempting to prove strength, confidence, knowledge, success, absence of weakness”. Having said that you’re surrounded by supportive people, I’m not really sure why you would make such a sweeping generalisation, Bek. You’re own experience doesn’t support it.

    I’m a man. I bake cupcakes. I do get the piss taken out of me a little for it, but I’d rather bake cakes than be a macho tit. I don’t think I’m that unusual in this, at least not amongst people with a modicum of social skills. I just get on with it. I came 1st in a cupcake competition recently, winning a lovely 3 course meal for my wife and I. That got the piss-takers on the back foot.

    This debate in its very nature is negative. Let’s just focus on the positive stuff and get on with it. If a woman truly hits a tangible barrier in her progression as a barista, there should be no difficulties in addressing it. Tangible barriers are easy to identify and communicate. Everything else is just nebulous complaining, and that is something that is not gender-specific.

    • Nathan says:

      Mike… while I agree that there are a lot of sweeping generalisations here, and they aren’t by any measure the best way to address the issue with fairness and precision, they’re also often the simplest way to sum up a singular emotion or issue -not every caveat can be made in every situation.

      Have a quick browse back over your own comment, you’ll notice quite a few broad generalisations you’ve made yourself!

      • Mike Haggerton says:

        Hi Nathan. I’m all for summing up a feeling or emotion, but doesn’t it have to be supported by real life events? Sometimes perfectly reasonable people slip into gender-bashing without looking at the facts. It becomes groupthink. Gwylim asked why there aren’t more women in competitions, and whilst it’s a valid question it is now out there without any boundaries and so instead of asking women why they don’t compete, the question has been used as a catalyst to suggest that there is sexual discrimination taking pace, and that such discrimination is the reason less women compete than men. I’ve actually asked folks in local cafes if competing interests them. In general [ok... point taken ;) ] the guys liked the idea and the girls said “why would I want to do that?” so I think there’s a large element of choice on the ladies’ part. So the question should then be “why are so few women choosing to enter competitions?” – which I think is slightly more focused, and less inclined to light the torches of militant feminism.
        It’s £35 to enter the UKBC. Anyone can enter. If women don’t want to, then I too am very keen to learn why that is.

        • Nathan says:

          I think the enormous assumption you’re making is that simply because Bek says that she has a lot of supportive people around her, that she’s never experienced any sort of gender discrimination, which I think is very, very unlikely given her sentiment on the matter.

          The discussion here seems to be heading toward a general agreement: while the gender proportions in the coffee industry aren’t unusual, the ratio seems to be disproportionate within competition and notable blogging circles. The cause of this is what’s being debated. Bek has put forward her take, based on her experience – and it would be a fallacy to dismiss her view as something other than a genuine, primary source.

          Honestly, the role of a man who faces a discussion like this and immediately dismisses gender discrimination as a potential cause is all too familiar and disappointingly hubristic. I think a fairly key point to Gwilym’s raising this issue is the admission that men can, have, and likely will – intentionally or unintentionally – discriminate against women. Let’s not take a step backwards.

          • Mike Haggerton says:

            Just to correct your mistake, Nathan, I’m not dismissing gender discrimination. I’m just not jumping to the conclusion that it must be the answer. Yep, let’s not take a step backwards, but let’s not leap forwards to far in looking for a solution.

  5. Gwilym says:

    Mike … Female participation, and winning, in competition is much greater in other countries like Russia, Holland, Indonesia. The lack of females make great contributions to speciality coffee in our shops but there lack of voice in competition, blogs, and talking at official events or unofficial meet ups in pubs. I do not feel comfortable with this situation, I do not see there absence as helping the progression of speciality coffee.
    There has been a lot of denial and trivialising of the situation. This is a difficult subject to approach without the dismissing charges of ‘militant feminism’ and ‘stop moaning’ I applaud anyone who puts themselves out there risking these criticisms to get this conversation going

    • Mike Haggerton says:

      Gwylim, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m ok with what you’re saying about a lack of women in competitions, blogs and events. I’d like to see more. What I’m saying is, why assume there’s some awful conspiracy going on?
      I’ve asked women – some. Granted not ever woman! I’ve shared their response. The ones I’ve asked have no interest in it. Are you ignoring that? The competitions are open to all. Are you ignoring that? It does seems so, but if you would like to comment that would help.
      I’m not really clear what your goal is, Gwylim. To get more women into the industry even though they don’t want to? Of course not. Probably to create an environment where women want to enter competitions etc. I want the same. But I don’t think this debate is helping. It has, so far, resulted in several blog posts with a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus spin, and couched claims of discrimination. I think it is a sensitive subject that needs thoughtful consideration and structured debate, and to be brutaly honest I think it’s irresponsible of someone with your influence to kick off this topic without more prior consideration of how to get a positive result from the ensuing debate. It pains me to be saying this, because I’d hoped my first conversation with you would be more pleasant :) I enjoyed your speech on this subject at tamper tantrum, I agree with the intention, so I just hope you’ll take my feedback in the spirit it is intended.

  6. Mike Nunn says:

    So I work for a coffee company where the overwhelming majority of employees are female. You probably know it. The owner is female, our green buyers are female, our head roaster is female, the entire management is female bar one. It is an alternate universe. They are incredibly talented, passionate and knowledgeable and have decades of experience in speciality coffee.

    What they don’t do is enter competitions, blog or make a big fuss about things. I don’t think they feel like they are missing out. They are quietly doing a brilliant job. It is an honour to work with them.

    • Bek! Thanks for the post. I think it’s somewhat ironic that most (all?) of the posts are from men so far, so I feel inclined to chime in. While I don’t necessarily agree with the three options you’ve laid out for women, I see where you’re coming from. I think the “be a bitch” option is super unfair, since when men speak their mind, they’re strong and confident, but when a woman disagrees, or speaks differently, she’s a “bitch” (Hillary Clinton is a perfect example). I’ve been in that boat before, and it’s not fun (or fair). As society evolves and women continue being awesome and confident, this will change. I’ve given talks around the world and have certainly felt some tension with the male-dominated crowds, but that’s okay. We just accept that change is slow and every time you present yourself to the world, you’re helping to change opinions and stereotypes (hopefully for the best).

      I think there’s a fourth option you’ve left off, and it’s the one I’ve been following since I joined the coffee industry over five years ago: do your best, and only care about people’s opinions that are important to you. Here’s an excerpt from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants I think you’ll enjoy. Be strong and do your thing, Bek. We’ll get there.

      “So, my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”

      (@Mike Nunn- I know exactly who you’re talking about, and couldn’t agree more.)

  7. Gwilym says:

    Mike H. We know very little about coffee, there are challenges ahead and we still struggle to make delicious coffee consistently. There are a huge number of females actively involved in coffee but I never hear their voice. Taking coffee forward with the voice of all will be much more productive.
    Barista competitions are a visible part of the Speciality Coffee industry.
    If females do not want to compete that is fine but I would like to find out why this is not the case in other countries.
    There is obviously not a ‘conspiracy’ our small bubble is just a reflection of our larger society

    • Mike Haggerton says:

      Thanks Gwilym.
      If I might make a suggestion, why not create a simple online page which you can distribute a link to, asking women in the UK coffee industry to vote (multiple choice) or post a short paragraph giving their main reason why they don’t compete, blog and/or aren’t more actively involved. That would give you a single repository of real data, helping move one step closer to a root cause, and subsequently towards options to improve the situation. i.e. if workplace discrimination was the most common reason, you’d then have some statistic evidence supporting that statement.

      This could be set up on a blogspot page in a matter of minutes, or Google+, Facebook, etc. and using social media (you have over 3000 twitter followers, plus retweets) it could be quickly distributed and shared to get a good response rate. The key thing would be not to present it as a loaded question, to ensure it captured ALL reasons.

      Just a thought.

      • Nathan says:

        This is a sociological issue; I don’t think you can encapsulate it by gathering some survey data.

        Surely it’s best resolved by treating individuals as individuals and developing personal relationships to understand the problems and find real solutions.

        • Mike Haggerton says:

          Nathan… Come on, you can’t have it both ways. First you defend the concept of sweeping generalisation, then when I capitulate and offer an approach to making that generalisation deliver some tangible and positive outcomes, you do a u-turn and say that this issue has to be resolved on an individual level. I get the feeling you’re just trying to get the last word in.

          Look, on a micro/individual level I completely agree with you. Problems are best resolved by people speaking to the people around them. That is why I think the first place to start is to ask the women you know why they aren’t ‘more active’, and then if possible address any barriers to women being more active.

          But since the discussion started by Gwilym is being hosted on a macro level, looking critically at the whole UK coffee industry, then my previous suggestion was also at a macro level. I suggested a way forward to find out the answer to Gwilym’s question. I can’t agree with you that sociological questions such as this don’t benefit from analysis and capture of data. Ever heard of social science?

          But we don’t have to agree, Nathan. I was just trying to be helpful.

  8. Peter says:

    Post more stuff.

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