This past weekend, the best baristas in the world descended on Seattle for the 2015 World Barista Championships. If you’ve never been to a barista competition before, the most accurate description I’ve ever heard is that it’s part Olympics, part dog show. At the championships, baristas share new ideas and push the industry forward—while, of course, showing off their skills. But in this high profile coming-together of coffee people, you’ll notice something. As the six top-notch finalists pulled their shots this weekend, only one woman—France’s Charlotte Malaval—was in the running. Of the 50 baristas representing the best of their country’s coffee industry at the 2015 World Barista Championship, only 12 were women.
This is typical. While there are many, many women working in coffee, the people who represent the industry at national and international barista competitions tend to be overwhelmingly male. I ran some numbers. By my count, female baristas competing in the regional competitions leading up the World Baristas Championships do just as well as the male baristas—there are just way fewer women competing. There are typically three times as many male baristas in each competition, which often leads to a male-dominated winner’s circle. Of the past six years at the World Barista Championship, three years have had one woman in the group of six finalists and three years have been all-male. In the U.S. barista championships, women have fared better (Seattle barista Laila Ghambari won the top prize last year) but are still a minority.
U.S. National Champion barista Laila Ghambari pouring a perfect cappucinos. Photo by Laila via Creative Commons.
Despite coffee being an everyday part of most Americans’ lives, the coffee industry—like most trades or interests—is pretty esoteric. There’s a whole culture behind that morning cup of coffee that most coffee drinkers never think about but which shapes and directs the $30 billion industry that deals with the world’s second most traded commodity. Competitions, among other coffee conferences and trade shows, are an important part of that culture. But the gender gap in coffee is not often discussed. In my experience, when people bring up the issue of gender disparity in coffee circles, it’s often poorly received and the discussion tailspins into tangents.
I have endless respect for anyone who enters barista competitions—it’s an intimidating challenge even for seasoned coffee pros. I volunteered at my first coffee competition—the North East Regional Barista Competition in New York—in 2012, after I’d been working in coffee for three years. When I arrived at the production studio where the competition was being held, the three competitor stations set up with an espresso machine and grinders reminded me of a cafe in the way a couch and backdrop on an empty stage would remind me of a living room. Competitors were practicing and setting up, polishing their glassware and mentally running through their routines in corners. It felt like simultaneously being backstage at a play and in the audience. Loads of coffee people were milling around, many who had come to the city for the weekend just to attend the event and support their friends.
After watching the competitors and talking to judges, I realized I wanted to compete. I saw how much I could learn and improve through the hours and hours of practice it takes to come up with a competition routine. I’d not only need to be certain that I could make and accurately describe four perfect espressos, four perfect cappuccinos, and four signature drinks of my concoction; if I competed, for 15 minutes I’d get to talk about my views on coffee to the most important coffee people in the industry! Swoon.
That aspect—where competitors talk about what’s important to them about coffee and the industry—is what makes coffee competitions especially important. It’s what makes barista championships more than just a challenge, turning them into forums for coffee people to talk about the industry and innovation. Being a competitor means being a crucial part of that important forum. It’s why lots of coffee professionals, of all genders, feel like competing can help their career in coffee: it can show that they are committed to learning and that they have something significant to say about coffee. The lack of women in these competitions means not only that it’s mostly male baristas representing the public image of the industry, but it’s mostly men setting the discourse for what’s important in the industry.
After volunteering for the North East Coffee Competition and adding another year of experience to my coffee career, I entered my first coffee competition, the 2013 South West Regionals. That year, the competition was held in a production studio in the Arts District in Los Angeles. Leading up to the competition, like many competitors, I was spending sometimes 40 hours a week training—in addition to working full time. For weeks, I spent all my spare time preparing for competition and I spent whatever money that didn’t go toward rent on purchasing ingredients, glassware, and molecular gastronomy kits. Paradoxically, the more I trained, the more anxious I became.
I realized, while preparing my routine, that I was running into a familiar problem that many women encounter. I’m competitive, I tend to be a perfectionist. But I wanted to be myself in the competition and be proud of doing things my own way. I was worried that those things—doing well and being myself—might not go together. Watching the World Barista Championships, you’ll often find the people who do well have a certain jocular, snappy confidence. The most successful competitors are at ease with performing. While I’m okay getting up on stage and pretending to be someone else, pretending to be a more confident and more assertive version of myself—someone who’s totally comfortable with being the center of attention—wasn’t something I felt I could pull off. I struggled with this a lot. Then, a few days before competition, a male friend gave me an unwittingly unhelpful compliment: Unlike most female competitors, he said, I didn’t seem like I was trying to be a “tough bitch” or “one of the guys” or a “cute and flirty girl.” He didn’t realize that his unhelpful comment only highlighted the pressure I was already feeling to fit into a stereotypical image of what a powerful woman looks like. Why does successful woman need to mean tough bitch or a sexy flirt? Couldn’t I just be myself?
I’ve talked to other barista competitors, male and female, about the experience and pressure of competing. Lots of them bring up feeling the need to balance “being yourself” with appearing confident. Maybe for women, it’s more complex than just appearing confident; it’s about feeling pressure to be confident in the right ways. The confidence gap is well documented in other fields—perhaps this is one underlying reason for why fewer women compete.
Lisa Knisley spoke to this in her 2013 article for Bitch about sexism in the speciality coffee industry, “Steamed Up”:
Despite the relatively feminine face of service work in the United States, women baristas are now suffering from some of the same setbacks women chefs have encountered for several decades. As sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre wrote in a 2011 post at The Feminist Kitchen, female chefs struggle not only with difficult working hours incompatible with having children, but also with the “macho environment” of professional kitchens and the impossible balance of appearing “strong” without being overly “masculine” or “bitchy.” Additionally, Harris and Giuffre maintain that women chefs face sexist critics who overlook their technical skills and professional ambition in the kitchen, representing them as “motivated by the caring act of feeding people, not personal ego or financial success.”
I think there are more reasons than just the question of confidence, though, and I’m not alone. While a couple people have written about the gender gap in coffee—focusing on coffee growers and barista competitions—we’re much more comfortable talking about sexism in the abstract. Bring up the fact that you’re a woman in the coffee industry who has experienced sexism and the air in the room turns a little sour. I think it’s in part because we’re supposed to be a culturally sensitive, progressive industry—one that’s centered on creating welcoming places for conversation and being above discrimination. But as the industry became more widely perceived as a “skilled” job, the culture also became more masculine. Entire brands were built around the idea of “manly coffee.”
In my experience, the “manly coffee” trend was in tandem with baristas putting more emphasis on the importance and complexity of coffee rather than on giving the customer a great experience. Lately, it feels that the culture is changing—good service and creating relationships with customers is getting more focus. Which is great! But who is determining what fads swing in and out of fashion in coffee? Those with the highest profiles—and those people are still largely men.
Another idea that kept coming up when I talked to other female baristas about why they had or hadn’t chosen to compete was that a lot of them found a million other things more important. They didn’t see barista competitions as worth the time and money it takes to compete. They wanted to focus their energy elsewhere—whether that was in their daily efforts at the cafe or outside of coffee entirely. They either felt that coffee wasn’t ultimately where they wanted to end up and so carving out a space for themselves in the industry’s hegemony wasn’t all that important, that they could learn more and have more say through other routes like judging or becoming Q-graders, or that they enjoyed accomplishing things as a part of a team and so competing in the barista competition wouldn’t be as rewarding for them.
My point is this: Whatever the reasons are for why fewer women are competing in coffee, we should be talking about the issue. We should be having the discussion about what economic, social, and cultural factors play into the gender gap in barista competitions. We should be questioning whether women are being paid as much as men in coffee, whether they are promoted as often, and whether they have as many leadership roles and voices. Feminism shouldn’t be a gauche topic to bring up among friends, in general or in the coffee world. Maybe, coffee being so culturally cool, it could set a model of gender equality, breaking the mold instead of conforming to it. If it did, that would be the only way I could love coffee more than I do.
Related Reading: Steamed Up — The Slow-Roasted Sexism of Specialty Coffee