December 8, 2011 at 4:19am
This strikes me as an odd first post for a feminist blog, or a coffee blog, but I’m passionate enough about both subjects to write in depth about them, and I do think this needs to be discussed. I started writing this as a comment on James Hoffman’s blog on a post in which he shares a video of Gwilym Davies, dressed as a woman, speaking of the lack of women “beyond the shop”, or higher up in the coffee ladder than just working in a local cafe. He speaks of the fact that there has never been a female World Barista Championship winner, and that the lack of women even competing is startling. He asks why, and how we can fix this problem. The comment got so long that I eventually realized I would need my own blog to contain it, and here we are.
There’s a good chance not all my blog posts will be feminist, and there’s a good chance they won’t all be about coffee either. However, the video, and James Hoffman’s re-posting of it, touched a nerve with me. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been a barista for a while now. I love coffee. Intensely. I love my craft, and I’m passionate about it. I talk about it to the point of boring and frustrating my friends, and even some of my co-workers. Sometimes I accidentally scare customers away by answering their innocent questions with much more detail and enthusiasm than they had expected. To steal a phrase from my old boss, I’m a coffee nut.
Since leaving, and then re-entering into barista work, I’ve noticed a lot of things about the industry that make me uncomfortable, that I hadn’t ever picked up on when I was younger. The incredible lack of famous female baristas, female WBC winners, female roasters, and female cafe owners and managers is something I’ve only just started to think about.
Let me start by saying that I am so relieved to find other people talking about this issue. I’ve always loathed the WBCs with a passion, writing them off as “wankery bollocks” and nothing at all to do with real coffee, but I hope to enter the New Zealand competition next year, because not enough women do. It is genuinely refreshing to see men speaking of the lack of gender equality within the coffee industry with candor and sensitivity. When raising the issue with co-workers, I have found many women who agree with me, and many men who either think I’m ‘making a storm in a teacup’, or who simply reply with an overwhelming, “So what?”
The ‘why?’ of the issue is, in some ways, far too complex a question to answer. I’ll try to explain some of the ways in which I, as a woman, have felt affected by sexism within the coffee industry, and the reasons I feel women might be discouraged from entering things like the WBC, and hopefully that might shed some light on the situation.
The hospitality industry has always been rife with sexism. When I got my first job as a waiter at fourteen, I remember noticing that all the chefs were men, and all the waiters were women with the distinct exception of the managers and maitre d’. I also remember noticing that it was common practice for chefs to make degrading, insulting and overtly sexual comments towards the female staff, and after trying to make a complaint, I quickly realised that the chefs are the ones with all the power in a restaurant. You didn’t criticize them, and you certainly never tried to get them fired. Not if you wanted to keep earning a wage.
Any waiter will tell you it’s not uncommon for a head chef to shout, throw pots and pans and generally try their best to make the wait staff and chefs de partie cry on a busy night. What they might not tell you is that it’s also not uncommon for a chef to ask for sexual favours, make frequent rape jokes or attempt to cop a quick feel while you’re doing the dishes. Nobody talks about it, but everyone knows it’s happening. At the time, I thought it was unique to the restaurant I had landed a spot in, but as I moved from job to job, I quickly noticed a pattern. In silver service establishments, I was I sent home or chastised for not wearing enough make-up, and introduced to the head chef as, “Our attractive new waitress”. In grungy restaurants I was told to flirt more if I wanted to earn any tips.
At sixteen I took a course on making coffee, and got a job in a friendly looking vegetarian/vegan cafe, thinking it would be different, especially since it had a female head chef. I eventually quit, after the fourth time the owner got stinking drunk in the bar down the road, and came back as I was closing to leer and suggest things at me. At that time, I was so used to it that I honestly might have put up with it for longer if I’d been earning any more than minimum wage. I started subconsciously seeking out jobs in cafes owned or managed by women, but those opportunities were slim, and it seemed to me like the standards were lower. Eventually I stopped making espresso altogether, and for almost five years I worked with autistic children instead.
Coming back to espresso feels sometimes like embracing an old forgotten lover, and sometimes like a rematch with an undefeated foe. I’m not writing this so you’ll pity me, I’m writing it because I don’t believe my experience of hospitality as a woman is unique. Because there are few courses or training programs which can reliably train a potential barista to make a decent cup of coffee, it tends to be something we’ve all worked from the ground up to get at. Most of the baristas I know started by washing dishes or waiting tables. I think one of the biggest reasons there are almost no female managers, owners, head chefs and senior baristas around is that women simply get sick of all the sexist treatment long before they reach the level where they can start to manage or compete. All the skilled and experienced women leave for an industry in which they feel they can at least complain when they are sexually harassed.*
It’s not just the flirting, or the sly touches, though. It’s not just staff. As a woman in a customer service based job, you have to accept that the nicer you are to the customers, the more they’ll hit on you.** It happens less as I get older (which is both a relief and frightening to think of the frequency of it when I was well below the age of consent), although it’s hard to say if I’ve gotten less friendly or less attractive. Perhaps just more confident in turning people down before it gets anywhere. Male customers are almost guaranteed to comment on my appearance when I start a new job, letting the manager know the new girl is pretty, or that he sure is lucky to boss around so many beautiful women.
Don’t get me wrong, I love compliments. Please, in the appropriate situation, feel free to tell me as often as you like that you think I’m beautiful- I’m unlikely to get sick of hearing it. However, when male bosses, co-workers and customers only ever comment on my looks, and never on my skill or enthusiasm, it makes me feel like that’s what I’m valued for. Like maybe if there had been another applicant with only half my skill level, but twice my beauty, I might not have this job.
It is a discouraging thing to be constantly reduced to how good you can make yourself look, and I imagine for a lot of women who are more deeply affected by it, it might be daunting to think of entering a male dominated competition. The thought of entering a room full of men who will be watching and judging me, not only on my skill as a barista, but also on how well I fill out my sweater is distasteful at best, and frightening at worst.
Which leads me to a sensitive, but important factor in the lack of female competitors. It is a terrible fact of our society that one in four women is sexually assaulted. This statistic is horrifyingly large. Hospitality and Tourism is a massive industry, and it is 60% women on the ground level. That is, statistically speaking, a lot of women who have been raped or abused in their lifetimes.
As a survivor, there have been times in my recovery where even the thought of something like the WBC would have been a trigger. An almost entirely male competition where I was under pressure to impress and having my every move judged was an unthinkable scenario to place myself in. I don’t claim to speak for any other survivors, but while we’re pondering reasons why women might not feel comfortable entering the WBC, I think this has to be considered.
I think the next biggest problem is a societal one, not directly tied to coffee or hospitality. One of the comments on Hoffman’s post was this wee gem,
Perhaps there’s an element of it that girls are generally better at having social skills and multiple, varied interests, while barista competitions let blokes put everything they’ve practiced in solitude (OCD, geekery) and combine it with the show pony/boaster role they’ve developed at bars and pubs.
which amounts to the dismissive and offensive notion that women are social and flighty, while men are focused and driven, with an added kick of machismo. I refute this notion wholeheartedly, but I think it is important to consider why it might seem true. I don’t believe that passion is a quality that society values in women. When you think of a man who is completely devoted to one thing, and spends all his time and money and energy on refining and perfecting his chosen craft, he seems driven, focused, and a little bit sexy. When you think of a woman like that, she seems crazy, hormonal, hysterical. Women are not encouraged to focus too hard or enthuse too deeply about any one thing, lest they be seen as unstable.
Furthermore, it’s a well documented fact that women have never been encouraged to study anything mechanical, technical or scientific. The majority of the role models we are presented with as children are philanthropists, virgins and sex symbols. Women known for their great hearts and great beauty, but never their great brains.
I don’t believe it possible to be a truly great barista without some technical knowledge of the workings of an espresso machine, or the science behind extraction. Of course, anyone can read about these things, regardless of their gender, but what if you’ve been told (overtly or otherwise) your whole life that these are things you should avoid? What if every aspect of your education, and your every experience of science and engineering in popular culture encouraged the idea that if you tried hard at these things, you would be ridiculed? That no one would take you seriously? That you would have to work twice as hard as your colleagues, and be content with half the pay?
Would you shy away from educating yourself about anything that seemed scientific, or mechanical, or even mathematical? Particularly in a field where misinformation and snobbery abounds, and you are likely to be met with sneers and smirks if you step a foot in the wrong direction. What if you couldn’t ask anyone to help you understand these things, because you knew you would be laughed at, or brushed off?
Whenever I get a new job I have to brace myself for the inevitable well meaning male co-worker trying to “show me the ropes”, regardless of the fact that I work in establishments which wouldn’t have hired me if I didn’t know the ropes like the back of my hand. I’m always open to learning new things, and I will be the first one to admit that I still have plenty to learn when it comes to coffee. In particular, every cafe has different systems and ways of doing things, and it’s helpful when the people you work with are forthcoming in how management likes things done. However, there’s a big difference between enthusiastically sharing knowledge with your fellow baristas, and patronizingly offering to “have a look at their technique”.
When I think of entering any type of competition, I can’t help but imagine a room full of all the men I’ve ever worked with who have questioned or even downright insulted my ability as a barista. I think many women considering entering a competition might think to themselves, “Why should I willingly enter into this, when I’ve already been judged my whole career?” The glass ceiling for women in the upper levels of the hospitality industry is no new thing. Most women know they will have to spend their career proving themselves, their skill and their dedication, over and over again, and any small mistake will be judged as a total lack of capability.
Worse, it’s not just a personal failure. When a woman fails to prove herself a skilled barista, she’s being held as a representative for all women. Something like this:
but replace ‘math’ with ‘coffee’. Knowing that, as a member of a marginalized group of people, I will be a representative for all other members of that group is a daunting thing when faced with something as publicized as the WBC.
Another commenter on JimSeven asks:
Is it really a question that needs answer? I think rather if we can see the that there is a lack of input from a group of people that we know can be of benefit, why not find ways to encourage their participation?
Does the commenter realize how marginalizing his question is? If we, as the elite male baristas in charge of everything, feel that this other group of people can benefit us, why not just ask them to join? Does he really think it’s that simple? That before now, no organization or industry had ever thought of just asking women to be more involved, and that the patriarchy would magically crumble? I mean, it’s not like our society was built around systemic prejudice and oppression, is it? Women can vote now, so what’s the problem? I don’t think the commenter in question meant to be offensive, but unfortunately his question only serves to highlight the overwhelming male privilege present within the coffee industry.
So, what does this mean? That I’m a butch-man-hating-lesbian feminist who thinks men shouldn’t be allowed to enter the WBC at all? No. Nor do I think all chefs are assholes, all men are rapists or all restaurant and cafe owners only want to hire beautiful young girls so they can terrorize and abuse them while keeping them underpaid. For all that I’ve written about, my experiences in the hospitality industry have been overwhelmingly positive, and I still maintain the passion for coffee I’ve always had.
Some of the issues I’ve written about might not ever be fixed; they certainly won’t be fixed in my lifetime. Rape statistics, and whether or not women are regarded as intelligent, scientific or driven are things to be aware of, but I very much doubt they can be remedied from within the coffee industry, no matter how hard we try. Similarly, the preconceived notion that men are more knowledgeable and hold more authority is something that will persist, regardless of whether we want to think that way or not.
Many of the issues within the coffee industry are universal. Women have these same troubles within plenty of industries. Sexual harassment and being patronized by male coworkers certainly isn’t unique to hospitality. No matter how much the men involved in the WBC try to welcome women into the industry, we will always have to think things like, “Will I be judged as too aggressive or butch if I try to sound assertive and professional? Will I be judged as too girlish and flighty if I try to sound casual? Will I be judged as overly sexual if I wear clothes that flatter my body? Will I be judged as too mannish or casual if I wear clothes that hide it? Did I place well because of my performance, or because of my body?” I think these are things most male competitors might not have to consider, and they make the thought of the WBC just that little bit worse for women.
What can we do? If you are an employer, hire women. Encourage them to compete. Expect them to improve their abilities as part of their job description, and make it easy for them to do so. Compliment them on their skills, not their appearance. Make it clear that sexual harassment is unacceptable in your establishment, and won’t be tolerated. Don’t make jokes about how jealous their boyfriend would be if he knew you were bossing them around or if he saw them being so nice to a male customer, and if you find out their boyfriend is actually a girlfriend, don’t make jokes about that either. Don’t expect them to wear make-up as part of tidy work attire, unless you expect that of your male employees as well. If a customer asks you for one of your employees’ phone numbers, even if they’re a valued regular who always spends a lot of money, even if you think you saw her flirting with him, don’t give it to them. If one of your employees complains about a customer acting inappropriately, don’t tell her you’ll deal with it, then let them back in the next day.*** If you aren’t sure whether or not something you’re about to say is appropriate, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to a male employee. If the answer is no, don’t say it. If you notice the owner of another cafe or restaurant doing any of these things, tell them it is unacceptable.
If you are a barista, respect your female coworkers, and be aware that perhaps you might be overly critical, or patronizing or insulting of their skills because on some level you don’t think they belong there. If you do have those thoughts, acknowledge them. Work on them. We will almost certainly applaud you for it. If you have a friend working in a cafe or restaurant where they are being treated with sexism, tell them to quit or complain. Encourage them not to put up with it.
If you are a male competitor or judge, be aware of your privilege. The more you’re aware of it, the less likely you are to rub it in someones’ face, or unconsciously make a decision that is influenced by it.
I think overall, the more people within the industry who talk about it, the more things will change. The more women who enter and compete, the more women will continue to enter and compete, and the easier it will be for us to feel comfortable doing so.
p.s. You know what would really push this post over the top!? Some pictures of female baristas making coffee in their underwear. Surely that would never happen, though… right? Sorry, but it does.
*For anyone inclined to victim blaming, I don’t consider myself delectably irresistible to the opposite sex (I’m certainly on the chubbier side of ‘healthy’), and I always made an effort to dress modestly and sensibly for work. Furthermore, I doubt any female hospitality worker would dress in a way that was flattering because she loves being cornered and groped by her co-workers. Most likely she knows that tips are an important part of how she pays her rent, and male customers don’t tip unattractive waiters. And sure, I sometimes flirted back with the chefs when they got frisky. It’s far better to be thought of as ‘slutty’ in the kitchens than for anyone to think you’re a ‘frigid bitch’. Slutty gets your ass smacked, or ‘joking’ requests for a round of blow jobs. Frigid bitches get tripped while they’re carrying plates, or complained about to the managers until they get fired. It’s much easier to ‘forget’ to warn a frigid bitch that a plate is particularly hot.***
**I’m sure there are men reading this thinking, “I would love it if women came into my cafe and hit on me every day!” If that’s you, this explains privilege far better than I ever could. There’s also this, although it is slightly less relevant, and considerably less subtle.
***Yes, these are all things that have happened to me in the past while working in hospitality.