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Specialty Coffee Has a Sexism Problem

The prevalence of men in competitive coffee affects consumer trends. But now some industry professional are trying to change that.
Man's hands holding latte

With over two-thirds of Americans drinking a cup of coffee every day, the ubiquitous beverage serves as a blank canvas for both consumers and corporate entities to project their beliefs about what kind of people enjoy certain types of coffee.

At the top of the coffee hierarchy is specialty coffee, an elite community of tastemakers that function as coffee sommeliers for corporations, importing companies, and artisanal brewers. According to Erika Vonie, a Q Certified grader, Coffee Masters Champion, and Director of Coffee at Trade, one of the ways to best ways to advance your career in specialty coffee is through competition.


A seasoned competitor herself, Vonie described these competitions to MUNCHIES as “kind of like a TED Talk meets a tasting flight. It's 15 minutes, you're mic'd, you have a script memorized, and you have to put up three courses […] an espresso course, a milk beverage course, and then a signature beverage course, which is a non-alcoholic coffee cocktail of your choosing. It's a lot of high pressure.”

Vonie got her start working as a barista in college but soon decided she wanted to turn the temporary gig into a career in the industry. She started competing in 2013 while working at Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia. “I spent hours every single day poring over the rules, watching previous competitors’ routines, and creating my entire routine from the ground up.”

Now, Vonie’s position as an industry champion and Director of Coffee offers her the unique opportunity to shape the way average coffee drinkers think about their coffee, but she’s one of very few women in the upper echelons of the specialty coffee industry. And she’s concerned that subjective criteria in competitions like “professionalism” or “appropriate dress” make it all too easy for judges’ implicit biases to show up in the score sheets. “I've been marked down in the past for issues relating to my clothing on stage, a pretty obvious bias when it comes to male versus female competitors,” Vonie said.

In a different competition, she was docked points by a male judge, who found her “intimidating, aggressive, [creating an] uncomfortable experience, and [having an] abrupt tone,” while multiple women on the judging panel offered no similar critiques. “I found this to be upsetting because none of those things have anything to do with how the coffee tastes. It has everything to do with the fact that I am passionate and use my stage time to create a moment.”


This double standard matters. Winners of these competitions often move on to influential positions as buyers, importers, and company curators, operating as gatekeepers and decision-makers for the coffee products that reach consumers in supermarkets and chain stores, but few women ever make it. The first 18 World Barista Champions, from the first competition in 2000 all the way up through last year, were men.

“That says a lot on its own,” Vonie said.

Jenn Chen, a freelance coffee marketer and writer in San Francisco, told MUNCHIES that she feels like “there's a bias for women, and queer people, and nonwhite people, and anyone who doesn't look like they speak English.” Chen frequently attends trade shows and specialty coffee expos as part of her job, where she stands behind a booth and answers questions on behalf of her clients. “I would get the impression that people were not talking to me and were instead trying to talk to the volunteers in the booth or the other people who were working it, mostly men talking to other men,” Chen said. “I'm standing behind the booth and instead they're waiting to talk to someone else. I would just be there kind of twiddling my thumbs.” When this happened a few more times, Chen started to suspected her experience was part of a larger pattern of sexism and racism within the industry. “It just kind of dawned on me that[…]it might be my gender, or my race. People would assume I don't know what I'm talking about. This shows up in industry, and it's not just me.”


As Lisa Knisely wrote for Bitch in 2013, sexism at all levels of the coffee industry is deeply ingrained in its history. “Coffee used to be more of a public space, more like a bar,” Knisely told MUNCHIES. “In the U.S. during the 1950s, it became much more of a staple consumer good that had to be sold particularly to housewives and became associated with women in the home.” She explains that following the success of mega chains like Starbucks, coffee returned once again to the public sphere, fully rebranded as a more specialized and masculinized product—which served to highlight the dichotomy between the daily realities of retail coffee and the idealized world of competition coffee.

Or, as an Australian study reported in The Guardian surmised, even though the majority of baristas are women, male baristas are more likely to advance in their careers to the better paying, more respected industry jobs, where they often perpetuate a preference for flavor profiles that are considered more masculine.

In a 2007 study published in the journal Food, Culture, & Society , author Julie Kjendal Reitz found that sexism in the industry is evident in the way “strong” coffee drinks like espresso are venerated in competition settings. “Coffee was once viewed as a masculine beverage. When coffee crossed the threshold of the home and entered the kitchen, it lost its male exclusivity,” Reitz wrote. “If modern culture maintains that strong drinks are for strong bodies, the association between espresso and men applies.”


Vonie added, “I think our society kind of has it beaten into our heads that if you want to be this strong masculine type, you drink black coffee. Anything that is sweet and sugary is considered non-masculine. It's kind of this ‘sugar and spice, and everything nice. That's what little girls are made of.” Specialty food industries often rely on subtle gender markers to advertise their quality and target audience. Whiskey, craft beer, espresso, and cold brew are complex, “elevated” drinks for a refined palate; whereas brunch, cupcakes, and rosé are “for women,” and therefore lesser, and literally “basic.” Pumpkin spice lattes, for example, are just regular lattes with sugar syrup, but because of their association with women, they’ve become a meme. By now, part of the collective fatigue towards pumpkin spice anything is based in a critique of capitalist excess, but the initial annoyance aimed at pumpkin spice-flavored foods was based on the assumption that they’re designed to appeal to women’s unsophisticated palates. In other words, the issue is twofold: The association of strong drinks with masculinity, combined with a cultural bias towards elevating men’s preferences as inherently more worthy.

“Where I see subtle—or not-so-subtle—gendering in the coffee industry is in marketing and design,” said Ghambari, Director of Education & Training Operations at Stumptown Coffee Roasters. She references “steampunk” style equipment, logo design, and social media tone. “Even cafe design itself, with dark wood, metals, loud music, the bearded cool guy barista stereotype,” Ghambari said, “when the truth is a majority of people I see or have worked with in cafes are not cis white men.”


“Specialty coffee is a fairly new industry, and we're still figuring things out,” Vonie said, and she’s hopeful that the industry is on the verge of a cultural shift. In 2014, the Coffee Quality Institute founded the Partnership for Gender Equity which published a research report including industry recommendations to promote gender equity as an institutional value, at all levels of the supply chain. The report focused actionable guidelines on improving conditions for women working as coffee farmers in countries like Uganda, Colombia, and Indonesia, as a way to shift gender dynamics at a grassroots level.

Kimberly Easson, Strategic Director of CQI’s Partnership for Gender Equity, told MUNCHES that the report “really validated or underscored things that maybe I knew, or things that were in the back of my mind that I hadn't directly related to coffee or related it so personally into the lives of coffee farmers. There are gender inequalities that exist up and down the supply chain, within the U.S. as much in Uganda or any other coffee producing country.”

Since the report was published, “there have been some new behaviors that companies have taken on within their supply chain,” Easson said. “Making sure that if you're going to host a training[…]that it be 50/50 male and female farmers. Those kinds of things are starting to happen. We see more companies that are putting into place policies, and starting to do more investment in work that focuses on women and gender equity.”

At the other end of the industry, last June marked the first time a female competitor, Agnieszka Rojewska, won the title of World Barista Champion. Watching Rojewska take the crown was a “ground shattering” moment for Vonie, both personally and professionally. “I got very emotional,” she said, “to see her take that win just meant a lot for myself, and I'm sure many, many other women throughout the industry.”

Vonie’s own Coffee Masters win last year “was like a lightning bolt shot into my brain, letting me fully understand that I am good and talented at this profession,” she said. “This is why I am entirely dedicated to diversifying competition and the industry at large. Representation absolutely matters, and being a finalist alongside another woman was unprecedented within the specialty coffee competitions up until then.” Now she’s using her position at Trade and within the competitive coffee circuit to encourage professional camaraderie among women. “What drives me forward is witnessing the female camaraderie within the coffee industry —especially competitive coffee—firsthand,” she said.

That mentorship and community of women in the industry “has radically changed the trajectory of my career path,” said Ghambari. “My current position is the first time I walked in knowing my value, due to the help of advice from other women. It’s the first time I feel compensated appropriately, taken care of, and that they see that same value.”

Vonie believes women’s success at the highest levels of specialty coffee will encourage a diversity of flavors and products that reflect the range of real coffee consumers more accurately, as well as a much-needed degendering of coffee culture more broadly. “Let the coffee speak for itself, the positive attributes, and all of the delicious things about it, without bringing gender into the equation. I'm making a very concerted effort to take gender and sexualization out of the language with which we speak about the coffee, and just let it speak for itself.”