If you’re like many Americans of late, you’re steering clear of large chain coffee shops in favor of smaller, independent spots where the barista can tell you the names of both the farm your coffee beans came from and the person who roasted them. As opposed to mass-production chain and retail coffee, “specialty coffee” is devoted to giving consumers a high-quality coffee “experience.”
Specialty-coffee folk pay attention to coffee at all levels: bean varietals and soils, correct roasting, flavor profiles and aromas, acidity, espresso dosage, and flawless service and presentation. In other words, they’re coffee snobs.
This niche market, unheard of before 1974, now makes up almost 50 percent of the “value share” of the approximately $30 billion U.S. coffee industry each year. The largest professional trade organization in coffee, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, has been influential in developing baristas into professionals within the service industry. While the coffee retail industry used to be more like so-called pink-collar fields such as nursing and teaching, efforts to make espresso slinging more professional have led to a masculinization of the workforce. That is, the more a job is thought of as “skilled,” the more social prestige is associated with it, the higher the wage, and the harder it is for women to get, keep, and advance in the field. Whether in terms of wages, visibility, career advancement, or coffee competitions, female baristas lag behind their male counterparts in this burgeoning professional service field.
As one female rep from the Peet’s Workers Group in Chicago told me, “Before the coffee culture started growing, it was more likely that a shop was going to be predominantly women. The high customer service, physicality, and skill while barely making minimum wage made this job, like being a waitress, a job you took because you needed to.... Now, however, it seems like so many independent shops offer more than minimum wage and have far more men than they did before. Now that the job has become ‘skilled,’ be it in the roasting or latte art, it has become a whole different industry.” But at corporate chains, she added, baristas are often “still viewed by some as unskilled workers.”
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.”
Like these chefs, women baristas struggle to gain recognition for their craft and knowledge of coffee. For most of us grabbing our morning cup of joe on the way to work, competitive barista culture is an alien world. But in late spring each year, baristas gather to compete in the World Barista Championship (WBC), one of the pinnacles of professional achievement in the industry. High-ranking national barista competitors are evaluated by sensory judges, two technical judges, and a head judge in three categories: espresso, cappuccino, and signature (nonalcoholic, espresso-based) drink. They have 15 minutes to make the 12 drinks they serve to the four sensory judges, during which time they put on a kind of coffee-service performance. Competitors carefully select music for their routine and frequently dress up—vests, ties, hats, and suspenders are common attire at the competitions.
The Specialty Coffee Associations of America and Europe have been jointly hosting the WBC since 2000; out of 14 international competitors who have taken home the title, not one has been a woman. The winner of this May’s competition in Melbourne was male, as were the baristas taking second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Out of more than 50 international competitors, only seven were women, all from Latin America, Africa, or Eastern Europe. Five of the six finalists were Caucasian men from Western countries. Though barista competitions are ostensibly designed to test the technical competence and expertise of competitors, the judges’ perceptions of these qualities clearly dovetail with expectations about gendered performance, even as these expectations intersect with the competitors’ nationality and ethnicity.
The 2013 US Barista Championship Finalists
Women competing in the United States Barista Championship have fared slightly better than those at the WBC; four women have won the national title. (Heather Perry won twice.) All in all, however, the “professional” (and famous) face of coffee is still largely a male one.
Although we no longer think of coffee shops as masculine places, coffeehouses were once explicitly male-only spaces. In her 2007 article in the journal Food, Culture, and Society, Julie Reitz discusses the gradual transition of brewed coffee from public coffeehouses to the feminine domestic space of the home. However, Reitz maintains that the masculinity of the public coffeehouse hasn’t entirely transformed. Espresso is still coded as a strong, manly drink, in part because it is still a drink made and consumed largely in the “masculine” public sphere.
Reitz notes that espresso beverages served with milk are feminized; the more milk, the more feminine. It is not uncommon to hear specialty baristas of all genders mocking people who drink a l6-ounce latte or a decaf mocha, as these drinks are implicitly understood to be “girly” or “sissy” when compared with the virility of an espresso shot. Further, the image of specialty coffee shops is built on their contrast to corporate-chain coffee shops, spaces associated with mass consumption of oversize, low-quality, “frou-frou” coffee beverages. The specialty coffee shop sets itself apart from this pedestrian, feminized world; in this way, Reitz notes, espresso’s cultural trajectory parallels that of hard liquor—historically served in bars as a masculine beverage reserved for a masculine space.
Compounding the lack of visibility and prestige for female baristas in specialty coffee is the service industry’s differing—and often sexist—expectations for female workers. One woman I spoke with, who has worked in specialty coffee in Atlanta and Portland, Oregon, emphasized the social aspect of discrimination against women baristas, saying, “On shift, male coworkers would engage with male coffee shop regulars in a manner that I found particularly isolating, dominating the space physically and verbally.”
Another barista, who has worked in specialty coffee in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Olympia, Washington, echoed those sentiments, saying, “I worked at one place...that told me how enthused they were to have me there. They said that the specialty-coffee world needed more women. The problem was they never really let me in. I was never invited to hang out after work. I was the only woman working there, [and] the vibe was always just a boys’ club. The worst [came from] men who were higher up in the specialty-coffee industry. They would come in, I would be on bar as lead barista, and I was treated like the child butting into an adult conversation. I have been in the industry for my entire working life (12 years), and I am still in the same minimum-wage-plus-tips position.”
The April/May 2012 cover story for Barista Magazine, “Coffee Women of the Pacific Northwest,” featured three female baristas posed elegantly in nature with coffee-brewing equipment, wrapped in blankets and chic woolen sweaters. The women were profiled in interview format with a short conclusion piece titled “Being a Woman in Coffee.” The story begins, “They were gathered around a wood stove at a party under the stars in Portland, Ore., laughing and sipping microbrews, talking about coffee, husbands, lip gloss, the Pacific Northwest, and back to coffee again.” Yet despite the idea that the story is ostensibly about being a woman in a male-dominated field, the article never once addresses sexism.
Specialty-coffee online magazine Sprudge ran a spoof on the Barista Magazine article titled “Coffee Women: Brewing Coffee Outdoors.” The parody consisted primarily of photos of Swedish barista Anne Lunell comically posing with coffee-brewing equipment in the Swedish countryside (as seen at the top of this article). It is unclear whether the spoof article was meant to mock the tokenism and latent sexism of the Barista Magazine article or the idea of profiling “women in coffee” in the first place. Anette Moldvaer, co-owner with James Hoffmann of London’s Square Mile Coffee, addressed the tokenism of “women in coffee” on Hoffmann’s blog, saying, “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.”
Many people in specialty coffee are explicitly interested in gender parity, and a few of the better-known professional male baristas have publicly addressed the topic. For his 2011 “Tamper Tantrum” talk in Dublin, 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies appeared dressed in frumpy drag, jokingly calling himself Susan and saying he was the first woman to win the WBC. Instead of giving his originally scheduled presentation, Davies devoted the time to a rather bizarre and impromptu discussion concerning the lack of female presence “beyond the shop.” He noted, “You cannot avoid from looking at [barista competitions]...and saying, ‘That is a sausage fest.’ That is not a reflection of the barista community.... I started discovering this world beyond the shops—blogs, forums, the little conversations that we organized in pubs. This event...it’s full of bravado and strutting and people enjoying being onstage and it’s characteristically empty of females.” Although Davies’s intentions were good in bringing up the issue, his joking drag, odd choice of language, and clear lack of preparation unfortunately gave the talk an unserious air.
Responding in part to Davies’s talk, Hoffmann (also a World Barista Champion) devoted a 2012 blog entry to “Coffee and Gender.” He encourages addressing explicit forms of sexism in the coffee world, such as women being paid less or being passed over for promotion due to their gender. Ultimately, however, he advocates for a gender- (and race- and sexuality-) blind approach, writing, “Did I miss a meeting where we decided that equality was no longer about stopping the definition, pigeonholing and labeling of people based on an arbitrary characteristic such as race, sexuality, or gender? It’s awkward, it’s patronizing, and I’m fairly sure that very few of those being labeled define themselves professionally based on their gender.... I think a sole focus on gender results in discomfort and division.”
If specialty-coffee baristas are sincere in their calls for equality, there needs to be a shift in the conversation to talking explicitly about sexism in the spaces surrounding coffee so that the masculine is no longer the default. It isn’t that women are intentionally excluded from, or invisible within, the world of specialty coffee. It’s that they have substantially less power overall. Restricting the conversation in specialty coffee to one about women, instead of one about sexism, effectively forecloses an essential discussion about workplace equality both feminists and baristas (and feminist baristas!) should be having. Perhaps over their next cup of coffee?
Lisa Knisely holds a PhD in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and is an assistant professor of the liberal arts in Portland, Oregon. One of her most cherished pastimes is reading feminist philosophy with a cappuccino.