A Conversation On Gender Inequality and Sexism In The Coffee Industry

The coffee industry is a strange one in the business world. The nature of our business tends to encourage a certain open-mindedness, with caring and trust as two pillars that make everything that we do possible. It tends to be especially painful, then, when our co-workers and friends find themselves left behind without anyone seemingly able to hear their voice. And yet, there are still so many blocked avenues that could foster growth and innovation.

Everyone’s experience is valid. It might not present an opinion that aligns with your own, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend the time listening, and absorbing, the truths that each person has in their life. Gender equality and sexism aren’t the only issues in the coffee world today, but they are symptoms of the greater world around us, and sometimes can be simple to address if given enough attention.

What follows is a conversation between three female coffee professionals, with prompts from me — a straight, white, male — hoping to explore dumb questions, and difficult questions, in an environment in which is it safe to ask them. Throughout the two hours of the conversation, I found myself with stumbling blindly over poignant observations that revealed a deeper system of gender inequality that I would never have understood without the chance to be a willing set of ears.

I would hope that, since you’re here, you’ll feel the same. The spirit of this project is to embrace the truths presented from personal perspective: to embrace personal experience and search for empathy and reflection. It should be noted that parts of this conversation have been edited to remove personal details, and to re-arrange some answers to make responses read in a more linear timeline, but otherwise, what’s printed here is the exact transcript of that conversation.

-Jesse

jesse

Hi all — it’s pretty safe to say that everyone else here knows each other fairly well, but I haven’t had the pleasure to meet anyone else in person before. The idea of this project started when I stumbled on all three of you addressing the idea of sexism in the workplace, specifically the specialty coffee workplace, being ignored oftentimes in Twitter industry conversations.

When I brought up the idea that one of the best things I could do was to listen, I thought it might help to generate a bigger conversation and more proactively create an environment where I could listen more intently, and try to learn and understand more about how these problems pop up, and perhaps create some new conversation that others can learn from too.

ashley

For me, I noticed this as an issue when a string of amazing articles came out by women about gender issues and bigger issues of intersectionality. I published a piece on sexual harassment and abuse of power, and only got responses from those in other marginalized groups.

I felt like a lot of people finally started speaking out and the only people that noticed were other women, POC, etc., which was juxtaposed against the outrage our community feels about what I sort of feel are “not as important” like cold brew, or what Anthony Bourdain feels about hipster coffee.

jesse

So, to introduce myself to everyone a bit more formally, I, Jesse Raub, have been working specialty coffee for about ten years now, and currently for a large well known roaster doing wholesale education for five years. Would you all mind introducing yourself a little more for the records?

liz

I’m Liz! I’ve been working in specialty coffee for about 5 years now, entirely at a roaster retailer in NYC where I started as a barista literally just to supplement my income so I could survive / to do something “mindless” after having my soul nearly totally crushed by teaching in the NYC public education system. I became a manager after about a year, and then in January of this year was made into Director of Retail where I now oversee soon-to-be 8 stores. And I do ALL of the hiring for them, other than at our upstate location. So I spend a ton of time thinking about diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, because it’s super important to me.

becky

I, Becky Reeves, have been working in specialty coffee for 6–7 years. I’ve held a lot of positions from new hire, trainer, shift leader, manager, decent technician, production, and so on. I have experience as a competitive barista, placing in the top 6 in my region. I’m currently in Portland Oregon flexing my barista muscles.

ashley

Something Nick and I talked about when we recorded our podcast about this issue was that if we can’t make things better in coffee, which is a niche industry full of misfits and outsiders, then we need to work harder.

Oh, intros.

Mine is basically the same as Liz. Coffee to escape teaching, managed cafes in NYC, started writing for a well known coffee magazine three years ago, moved to SF to be head trainer for notable roastery, left because of bro culture, and now manage a cafe in Oakland.

becky

It’s harder to get men to feel as passionate about this issue compared to cold brew, the term “third wave,” ect.

jesse

This leads me directly into a few thoughts that have been kicking around in my head for awhile. As a white, straight man in my early thirties, it does get tricky to participate in these types of conversations — my demographic is either the aggressor, an ill-equipped sympathizer, or too often just someone who’s willing to turn a blind eye. This third one troubles me the most, because it seems to be the most damning in the coffee world. To me, that does seem to be where the sting of sexism and gender-discrimination hurts the worst: compared to most social groups, the coffee industry tends to have pride in being open, accepting, and progressive. Can y’all speak to how sexism or gender-discrimination specifically in the coffee industry might show itself?

ashley

Yes!

There was an instance where a few guys with a roastery were wondering why they weren’t getting many resumes from women.

So I responded to them explaining how problematic their understanding of bro culture is (it’s isolating), how the question should be what are they doing to deter women, and how their statement they made (“we’re married so we won’t hit on you”) was troubling.

They responded, and basically completely shut down. I think he did for a few reasons:

  1. When you’re doing and acting in a way that’s successful for you (like bro culture) it’s hard to be told it’s not welcoming to everyone.
  2. No one wants to be told that they’re being sexist, and I didn’t mean to say, “Hey you’re a sexist,” just that the general culture that they propagate and how they’ve found success might isolate others

becky

One of the most disappointing part of that whole interaction was how others viewed it, basically telling Ashley to do nothing. And as women, this is the way we have always been talked to about these types of issues. Men say offensive, ignorant things, but who are we to call them out on it and ruin their image?

liz

OMG I reeeeeally want you guys to see the NYC Tamper Tantrum. A common theme was about defensiveness, and how that is one of the biggest obstacles to progress, and that rather than people LISTENING they just seek ways to double down / distance themselves from whatever problematic thing they said or did.

ashley

Basically, no one wants to be told that they don’t deserve everything they have and have done and that maybe the system works for them and might hurt others but we can’t run away from calling things out because we want to protect male, white feelings.

liz

I think that most men in this industry self-identify as being liberal and progressive. I feel like they can check off certain boxes, mentally, about what they support, without ever having to actually think about their privilege.

Like it’s really easy to be like “I support equal pay for women!” without actually having to look at the ways in which you, as a white man, benefit from a system that allows you to make more than a woman in your same position.

becky

Going off what Liz says; often people think that’s enough. Just speaking it solves it. “I’m progressive and I love working for women, so I can’t be sexist!”

ashley

Exactly. You can say “Yay, we want all the same things for men and women,” but there’s still a lot of things we do to ensure that power systems are proposed to promote the same types of people.

becky

Yeah, totally.

ashley

But if you look at your company and things don’t look equal, there’s more to do.

liz

I also think that we promote this really ugly culture in which women are expected to basically change and be more like men. To be tough, to adapt to the systems and hierarchies and powers as they stand. To lean in.

becky

How do we ensure different types of people get promoted?

ashley

Open applications for every position. I see so many men be “promoted” for jobs that have never been advertised.

liz

YES.

ashley

Leaders already have them chosen. It happened to a guy I know. He’s been at coffee bar for less than a year and he’s the store manager of their flagship store. He didn’t apply, he didn’t voice any interest. Other people have worked longer — he was picked because the owner likes him.

becky

For a while I was the only women in my cafe full of white straight guys (we just hired another girl last week). I’ve made it clear that I want to work more with my company and the Portland coffee community as a whole, but in the back of my head I can’t help but be feel like I’m held back by the white, straight male domination of the Portland coffee scene. It’s hard to feel motivated as a woman because I feel like I work 3x harder but it’s easier for the men in my community to move up in their companies.

ashley

Yes.

liz

Yeah, it’s funny right now I only have two cis male managers!

becky

I work in a company of 35 people and there are 7 women on payroll. We recently got a boom in female resumes and I think it’s because more girls have been around.

ashley

I think so many male leaders conflate skill with identification of likeness. “They’re like me and I work hard so they will too!”

becky

“You would make a good leader because I am a good leader and you are just like me.”

liz

Right, people select for specific leadership skills. Often, stereotypically masculine leadership skills.

ashley

I’m interested in your experiences as a female leader.

liz

Oh man, where do I start? In the company it’s generally fine. It’s outside of the company that it’s hard. Nobody believes I have the job that I do.

ashley

Wait, what?

liz

People literally do not believe that I could have an important job, like when I’m at coffee events.

jesse

Not to stifle the conversation, but there was a point in there that struck me. Most of the companies in the specialty coffee world are actually very small companies, and don’t have an HR department or thoroughly vetted hiring practices. It rings pretty true to me that a lot of the concepts surrounding fair hiring that the three of you bring up are concepts I take as common practices, as I have worked for a lot of larger companies in the past, too. It seems that this really is a weak spot for a crowd of progressive leaning people letting bias and discrimination creep into hiring decisions.

liz

Yeah, that’s why I want to use my position and resources to develop tools/resources for any company to use and adopt re: hiring.

becky

Small businesses aren’t regulated like corporations are. I think we have all been involved in company issues that were wrong / illegal but we choose not to pursue them because there is no HR.

liz

Also the food service industry is notoriously horrible, and there’s a lot of overlap for us with restaurants / bars. You guys should hear my sister’s stories. (She’s a cook; actually now she works for me!)

becky

I’ve worked in most aspects of service. I’ve worked for large corporations and then for small business. And there are vast differences in hiring.

jesse

So, in the past, there were studies that were basically designed to disprove that women were making only 60 cents on the dollar. And what the studies found was that women of that era (1960s or 1970s) were much, much less willing to take positions that required more than 40 hours a week, or overtime, or strenuous scheduling, because it was still expected that women would be home taking care of children as well. The jobs that women would seek would be those that were more flexible in schedule, and often lower in pay.

Now, this study was part of a disgusting smear campaign, but it does speak to the motivation of some people of the era ensnared by gender role socialization and how sometimes employment opportunities become stifled for women due to societal expectations. So, with that in mind, one thing that I’ve witnessed with a lot of female co-workers of my generation is that the drive or expectation for a college-educated, upwardly mobile middle-class citizen should be one beyond that of coffee employment.

A lot of promising female baristas that I knew always looked at coffee as a secondary career with academic pursuits always in the forefront, and a lot of male baristas I know come into the coffee world with the focus of achieving a lifelong career in the coffee field. This would typically lead into fewer women in higher-level positions, just by law of averages and seniority, but I feel like the tide is changing for younger generations of women who are beginning in the coffee world with the same long-term career goals, and we’re starting to see more women assuming positions of authority across the board. Does that feel true?

liz

Yes — I think as the industry has grown there seem to be more opportunities in the middle. There are now larger companies that offer the stability of a salaried job and health insurance. I guess it’s true for me, too. I wouldn’t have stayed in the industry if I hadn’t been given opportunities to step up. I tried to quit coffee and when I came back it was on the condition that I would be given a leadership role (which looking back was pretty ballsy of me, haha!).

Ownership is still SO male though.

becky

I think in a broad sense it’s true. Most companies are attempting to have women have a voice but it’s still small compared to the male one. Have a corporate board full of men is normal but if we had a board full of women, then that is strange.

It’s easier for men to get the backing, the investors, and the loans to become an owner. I’ve seen my female and male friends try to open business and it seems easier for men to be approached to start a business, when women have to work hard to prove that they can own a business.

liz

Yes, exactly.

becky

And this leads to an overall issue that I think we all deal with in the cafe is that (white) men are seen as being smart or capable until proven wrong; but women have to “prove” themselves. Like when I answer a coffee question I get the “Whoa, you know so much!” response.

liz

Also, I feel like the risk is harder for women to take at a certain point. If a woman wants to have a family I think she feels pressure not to make a risky decision like open a business. It’s “safer” to stay in middle management. ESPECIALLY (going back to HR stuff) because most companies aren’t going to offer good maternity leave.

becky

Well and the pressure of a family ALWAYS falls on the women.

ashley

I think this speaks to the idea of passion, and coffee for the sake of coffee.

I think passion is a privilege — so I can see men earlier being able to continue to pursue coffee because their concerns aren’t as vast and they have more social capital.

Being able to follow a passion (usually without pay or on the dime of other) is most certainly a privilege.

liz

Agreed.

ashley

I think this is a class issue coffee faces too — you can be a poor 23-year-old making minimum wage if you have social and material goods from your family but if you have to support your family or if you have kids or if you have other constraints you have to consider what’s best for those concerns.

liz

YES.

jesse

The idea of passion being a privilege is a strong one to consider.

becky

Yup.

ashley

Oh 100%.

jesse

Personally, I was able to pursue a career in coffee through the emotional and financial support of my wife.

liz

I just hired an amazing woman who initially turned down a job with us because she had a kid to support and couldn’t leave a stable, salaried job to work an hourly one, even though she REALLY wanted to work for a serious coffee company.

Whereas I’ve had like, two young, white dudes give up their lives to move to NYC and work for us.

Because they could.

becky

Wow. Yup. Exactly.

ashley

I think a big problem with gender stuff is the conflation of romance and sex with discrimination, and that women’s issues in advancement are only tied to their sexuality and if they’re being hit on or not. A good portion of women’s issues aren’t sexualized. Sexualizing is the problem.

becky

Yes. Flirting happens to everyone. Being denied a raise or promotions, being followed from work, getting comments about smiling happens way more often to women.

liz

yeah it’s creepy sometimes when dudes bring up the sexualization stuff. I’m like, I didn’t make this about sex, YOU did. Reminds me of like the dress code stuff at schools, where it’s the administrators/parents sexualizing young girls.

becky

Yeah today a male customer insinuated my second job is being a prostitute.

jesse

Jesus.

becky

Like would that have happened to my male coworkers? Because I said “Once I’m done with work I’m mostly horizontal?”

jesse

And I suppose, at some point in time, it isn’t out of the question that you might have made that joke yourself about your own poor phrasing, or a close friend might have, and it would have existed as a joke.

liz

Yes, but customers (especially male customers) feel totally okay crossing boundaries.

becky

Yes totally. It wouldn’t have been inappropriate if my co-worker or my friends said it, but it was clear that this guy I didn’t know was sexualizing me. He didn’t even know me.

That’s what’s not okay.

liz

Like the number of times I’ve had men grab my arms from across the counter to look at my tattoos. That’s why I like joking with customers now that they have to pay if they want to look.

becky

Once I didn’t wear a bra to work and someone who I had never seen before said “Wow it must be chilly in here,” and glanced at my boobs.

We could all go on and on honestly.

jesse

I believe it. But it is true — until this point we’ve been talking about hiring practices or societal norms, and they haven’t been sexualized at all.

liz

This sounds ridiculous, but I worry if I wasn’t in my position at the company I work for, we would not be diverse or inclusive. Like if they had promoted a man to my position it’d be a totally different company, and that’s a problem. It shouldn’t be just because I’m there and being loud and obnoxious about it.

jesse

Here’s a direct pivot off that thought, however. Misogyny and sexism are constructs of a traditionally male centered society. But these thought processes aren’t reserved entirely for straight men to hold or project into the world. I have a friend who was complaining about how the entirety of her management team had just turned over into a female management team — CEO and all top director positions at a very, very large company, and she was lamenting her assumption of the change to social culture because, as she put it, “you know how women get.”

So in that regard, if the potential for sexism and discrimination exists across the gender spectrum as a byproduct of gender-role socialization in a patriarchal society, is it possible that a straight male could be just as progressive in promoting diversity and inclusivity in a company as a female, or is there still a potential gap in understanding not being a part of an oppressed group?

liz

YES. I was actually just reading about this for my article! There is this ridiculous phenomena where MEN are sometimes better at promoting diversity and inclusivity because they’re applauded for being risk takers on inexperienced candidates, whereas women / persons of color feel the pressure to stay a traditional course.

Also, at a coffee event, I had a woman who is a very loud and out feminist say something sexist to my face.

ashley

This is an issue I have to think about for myself all the time: how sexism affects the way I see myself and those around me. And how it informs the assumptions I make about others.

becky

Yes 100%.

ashley

I do think Liz is right that men are often more applauded for taking issues of diversity on and how they are “innovators” for doing so.

becky

Totally. Like it’s a bold step to stand up for women’s issues.

ashley

There’s an article that I think was in the New York Times put out that women talking about diversity are taken less seriously because it’s “expected” that’s what they’ll care about.

liz

Harvard Business Review

“Women and Minorities Are Penalized for Promoting Diversity

According To New Research.” https://hbr.org/2016/03/women-and-minorities-are-penalized-for-promoting-diversity

becky

Hmm. Yeah but when a man wants diversity, it makes him a pioneer.

ashley

Right.

becky

Sometimes I feel like I come off annoying to my co-workers for talking about issues, but I wonder if it would be annoying from a man.

liz

Well, I get irritated at my friends for applauding every male celebrity who says something feminist. I’m like, “You don’t get a gold star for upholding an extremely basic standard of decency.”

And yet…

becky

But Joseph Gordon Levitt is more applauded than, say, Natalie Portman is.

ashley

becky mentioned that her coworkers are good about referring back to her. “Oh, you should ask Becky!” if they have a question about a coffee — I think a similar strategy could be employed in this issue, too.

jesse

To play Devil’s Advocate again, isn’t applauding people in the position of power for taking a stance contrary to their own self-preservation something that definitely drives more attention, traction, and potentially a paradigm shift towards examining these issues further? Obviously, the issue is that women voicing the same ideas, or even more coherent ones, aren’t always treated with the same level of regard.

becky

It’s does, 100%.

ashley

I don’t want to discourage others from speaking out. But it’s frustrating when someone makes a point and you’re like, “I’ve been saying that all along.”

becky

But it still kinda pushes the issues forward. Like, women are still the ones who can’t talk about their issues.

ashley

YES.

liz

I think one of the issues is that I feel like men only say it when it’s safe. Also, it’s lower stakes.

becky

We still have to stand behind a man and be backed up for it.

ashley

Like it’s not real if men don’t voice it.

liz

Yes.

becky

YUP.

liz

Men can afford to demand equal pay for women, because it’s not gonna hurt them in any way to say that.

ashley

A lot of people asked if I got fired from my last place of employment because of the sexual harassment article I wrote, which I thought was interesting because it means that people must be afraid to speak their whole truth.

So it can be both good and bad when a member of a non-affected party (men in this case) speak up.

becky

Again; back to the issue with my male coworkers back me up; my advice isn’t valid until my male coworker is like “Yup! She’s right.”

liz

Yes, when I was a manager that would happen all the time. Customers would ask me a question, then go to my white male employee and ask him the same one, and THEN be satisfied when he agreed with me.

ashley

That happens a lot. Most men think that’s crazy but that’s totally par for the course. Male coworkers being thanked for your drinks.

liz

I wouldn’t be offended if they ever asked like, a female employee, but they always went straight for the white, male employees.

ashley

I read this article in Medium that talked about race and how we don’t talk about racism well because we’re afraid of damaging white feelings. I felt a lot of that resonated with me re: sexism.

liz

UGH YES. Every time I talk about racism I feel like I basically end up consoling a white person. It gets exhausting.

jesse

So, occasionally doing something sexist doesn’t necessarily make someone a sexist or misogynistic person. But being confronted about a poor choice of words, or a set of actions often triggers defensive behavior rather than an apology. Asking women to confront sexist occurrences more delicately in order to force the aggressor into stronger empathy is in itself it’s own matter of discrimination by making the woman conform to the situation. So where does that leave us?

ashley

Oh, I LOVE THIS QUESTION. I think the Black Lives Matter movement has dealt with this issue very well.

becky

Yes, great question.

ashley

People expect members of marginalized groups to be conciliatory but that is basically saying, “Our majority group feelings matter more than yours in the marginalized group.”

And to be a member of a marginalized group doesn’t mean being uncomfortable sometimes. It means being uncomfortable ALL THE TIME.

I walk 7 blocks to work. It’s literally a 6 minute walk from work to home. I get called so many things on that short walk alone.

becky

Can you blame us for coming off angry? I understand that being soft and calms solves things, but isn’t that also what women are expected to be? If ever a woman handles something aggressively she’s seen more often as a bitch, but if a man handles it in the same manner, he is a boss.

And more than just uncomfortable. Often the marginalized group can be in danger.

liz

Yes!

becky

So yeah. I get pissed when someone tells me to calm down when I’m talking about an issue that personally affects me every single day.

ashley

To think of the discomfort one feels momentarily when called out is to trivialize the amount of discomfort people in minority groups feel all the time about their well-being, safety, job advancement, financial stability.

becky

It’s about understanding how to use being uncomfortable to benefit everyone. You think the civil rights movement didn’t make people uncomfortable? Or the protesting of the Vietnam War? The whole point is to make the oppressor and opposition uncomfortable as a sort of “HELLO THIS IS ONLY A SMALL PORTION OF HOW WE FEEL!”

Things wouldn’t change if we all felt content about issues.

And here it is. An open and honest conversation about gender in coffee. It involved lots of questions, explanations, analogies, and reflections of personal experiences. And I hope it was as engaging and eye-opening as it was for all of us.

When Jesse first proposed this idea, it was with a bit of caution — he didn’t want to offend or push any of us, but the three of us were immediately excited and ready to answer questions and share with others the issues we saw in our community. We understand that asking these questions can be difficult, and we hope by reading this you feel more comfortable tackling sensitive issues and engaging in meaningful discussion about how others experience the world around them. It can be even more difficult to accept that the things in your life and the choices you’ve been privileged to make don’t come as easily to others, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

These views and experiences are just a small subsection of what some women go through and feel everyday, and there’s no way we can speak for the hundreds of other women and members of other underrepresented groups. We hope that forums and discussions like these inspire others to ask questions about their viewpoints, look critically at their workplaces and leaders, and allow the voices of the once silent to speak out about the inequity they’ve faced. No matter how difficult it can be to feel uncomfortable when confronted with these issues, it can’t compare to the suffering, discrimination, and inequity many others face simply because of who they are and what they look like. It’s understandably challenging to accept that the things in your life and the choices you’ve been privileged to make don’t come as easily to others, but it’s important to acknowledge and discuss openly and without restraint.

We’re getting to a critically exciting, albeit nerve-racking, point where these issues can no longer be ignored, and must be talked about with the hope of making positive change. There’s so much potential for coffee to be the model for what other industries should aspire to. We pride ourselves on attracting and embracing people from all realms of experience — but we have to question if we truly do when our companies and businesses no longer reflect that. In this discussion, we’re not asking for men or members of privileged groups to “fix” problems or to apologize for their own successes, but to look at things contextually and take proactive steps to break down the barriers that most people face.

-Ashley

Follow Up On Twitter:

@ashcommonname

@beckyreeves

@lizsdean

@jesseraub

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