Why more women are needed in the coffee industry

Why more women are needed in the coffee industry

Although the topic of women in the coffee industry is extensive, it remains difficult to find reliable information tackling the subject. Surprisingly little research has been done in the field. Moreover, the existing studies are often narrow or not gender desegregated.

Why is this?

Lack of interest and available research dollars may be part of the problem. However, a bigger factor is the scope of the coffee industry. The production, processing, and consumption of coffee takes place in every corner of the world. And the roles and treatment of women vary throughout. 

Additionally, coffee beans – even the best ones – are produced in some of the world’s least developed regions. They may be difficult for researchers to access or lack records. In many, women are in a position where it is challenging to speak out.

What can we say?

Despite the absence of rigorous studies, there are well-established trends that warrant discussion. Indeed, much of the gender inequality we see in the coffee industry is just a reflection of gender inequality in society as a whole. And this holds particularly in the world’s poorest regions.

In this article, we’ll dig into those trends to understand the present state of the industry: what needs to change, and how those changes can happen. 

Women On The Coffee Farm

Let’s start where the coffee starts, on the farm. Coffee estates are often in less developed regions of the world where women’s rights already lag. So it is here that we see a significant gender gap. It is also here where a data gap hinders our insights.

The most often cited study was conducted by the International Trade Forum in 2008, but at 13 years out of date, we must now take it with a grain of salt (references can be found at the end of this article). It revealed a disturbing trend in the industry that continues to this day, even if the precise numbers have changed.

It showed that women do the majority of the labor on a coffee farm, including harvesting and processing. However, they are less likely to be involved in the business end of the supply chain, things like certifications, trade, marketing, and transportation. The result is that while women put in more work, men have greater control over business decision-making and finances. Thus, men typically hold a greater share of profits.

Additionally, women are said to carry a “double burden,” because along with working the farm, they also hold responsibility for child rearing and household chores.

What About The Ownership?

A 2015 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) white paper found that women own between 3% and 20% of the land in developing countries. Many are prevented from ownership by legislation, and even in places where laws allow it, there are prohibitive restrictions. For example, a woman must be married to own land, or she must have her husband’s permission.

Women are more likely to have smaller and lower quality plots, because they have less access to financing than men.

Women also have poorer access to healthcare, education, training, and business networks. All this impacts the quality and quantity of coffee beans produced.

A 2018 study of East African coffee producing nations found an average 39% wage gap between men and women. Often women are unable to join the co-ops to market their coffee because they don’t own land, can’t afford the fees, or face prejudice. This, in turn, means there are fewer women reaching positions of power to make policy changes.

Gender Equity In Coffee Roasting

The gender inequity observed on coffee farms continues in coffee roasting. Yet, here, the reasons are less clear cut. Roasters are more likely to be located in the so-called developed countries, and such countries have achieved greater progress in women’s rights. Fun fact is that despite considerable progress in the past half century, women working full time in the western world continue to earn just 80% the wages of their male peers.

There is little data on gender equity in the coffee roasting sector, but anecdotally it is dominated by men. The global coffee news site Perfect Daily Grind reports that articles on roasting have the biggest gender divide in readership, and a woman has yet to win the World Coffee Roasting Championship (WCRC).

How Do We Explain This?

Part of it stems from prejudicial hiring practices. A frustrating number of women have reported that male hiring managers thought they were “too small” to handle the tasks of a roaster. Another factor is the absence of female role models and mentors in the industry; many positions don’t even see a woman applicant. Basically, it’s a vicious circle.

According to Juliet Han, head roaster at the UC Davis Coffee Center: "It takes diversity in people to hire diversity. It takes women in management positions to hire other women."

In response to this, the Roasters Guild Event Committee, with help from the Specialty Coffee Association, established She’s The Roaster. This movement and associated hashtag (#shestheroaster) aims to “promote and encourage self-identifying women in the coffee industry to become professional coffee roasters.” So far, it seems to be working, with more women than ever participating in the WCRC. Hail to that!

Women Baristas

Are there any? Of course. But not nearly enough!

In Cafes

Even when it comes to cafes, the customer facing end of the coffee and espresso business, we still see a wage gap between genders. In this case, it isn’t that women are paid less but that they are less likely to hold higher paying positions, like cafe management and ownership.

The same “double burden” phenomenon we see on the farm is present in the developed world as well. All this is despite significant progress being made on this front. Women remain more likely than men to shoulder additional burdens outside of work, including child rearing and household responsibilities.

While women don’t necessarily face hiring discrimination in the cafe, they are more likely to suffer harassment and poor job security. And that goes double for LGBTQ+ women and women of colour.

In Competitions

Barista competitions might seem pretty esoteric to the average coffee drinker. But not necessarily.

Barista competitions can be incredible opportunities for those building a career in the industry.

It’s not just about the glory of a win; competitions provide a space for networking, career development, and the exchange of ideas.

The two premier competitions are the World Brewers Cup and the World Barista Championship. The former has yet to have a female winner, and the latter had its first only in 2019. On average, only a third of the entrants are women and they make up just 10% of finalists.

Assuming there’s nothing about an extra X chromosome that makes one worse at brewing coffee, why is this? There are a number of answers.

One is that WOMEN HAVE LESS TIME. Preparing for and traveling to a competition requires a significant time investment. As previously mentioned, women tend to spend more time on unpaid work.

Another reason is that women are LESS INCLINED to enter competitions in which they’ll be competing primarily with men.

And finally, there are EXTERNAL ASPECTS: marketing, cultural conditioning, lack of training, and availability of a support crew.

How Do We Promote Gender Equity?

This article has been a bit doom and gloom so far, but in fact there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

There are a number of ways to promote gender equity across the coffee product chain, and many of them are already underway. Large systemic changes require patience and perseverance. The most important thing is that both men and women get involved, especially in developing regions where men still hold the balance of policy-making power.

At the farm level, co-ops, NGOs, and export companies all need to work on ensuring women have equal access to training and financing. Perhaps even more importantly, WE NEED TO PROMOTE gender equity within households and businesses; including joint decision making, joint ownership, and shared labor. This is probably the hardest change to implement because it requires evolving cultural norms. But, it also has the potential to be the most meaningful.

The coffee industry has demonstrated a noteworthy commitment to collective action and collaborative initiatives that drive resiliency and sustainability at origin. Gender equity is a topic of growing interest linked to this sustainability focus.

At the other end of the supply chain, roasters, importers, coffee shops, and even home baristas need to source coffees that are working to promote all of the above. Use your wallet to vote for equality.

Finally, we need more data. Organisations and universities need to fund research into women’s role in the coffee industry, because it is easier to deliver change when it’s backed by statistics. Those not directly involved in research can still lobby for it and invest in it.

A first step to closing the gender gap is closing the data gap.

You can also support organisations working in this area, for example the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, She’s The Roaster, The Women in Coffee Project, the Partnership for Gender Equity, as well as branches of the SCA and CQI.

Why Should We Promote Gender Equality?

Of course, we should promote gender equality for its own sake. Women deserve the same opportunities as men. But in case you need more convincing, there are some specific reasons to address this problem.

First of all, we could be drinking better coffee. With access to land and financing, women can increase agricultural output by up to 30%. And with access to technology, education and training, the quality of that output will be enhanced as well. There are already case studies showing that women coffee farmers improved their cupping scores once they were granted access to the same supports as their male counterparts. Our specialty Peru single origin is purchased sustainably through the farmer directly!

Secondly, giving women in developing areas money and decision-making power, whether in the coffee industry or not, has been proven to enhance overall economic growth in rural areas. Compared with men, women are more likely to put their earnings into things like nutrition, school fees, health care, and household improvements.

Final Thoughts

This is just the beginning. We need to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing women in the coffee industry, and then we need to address them. The reward will be a more just society, with better quality coffee as an enticing side bonus.

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  2. International Trade Forum Magazine. (2008). WomeninCoffee. Retrieved from http://www.tradeforum.org/Women-in-Coffee/
  3. Specialty Coffee Association of America. (2015). A Blueprint for Gender Equality in the Coffeelands. Retrieved from https://www.scaa.org/PDF/scaa-white-paper-gender-equality.pdf
  4. International Coffee Association. (2018). Gender Equality in the Coffee Sector. Retrieved from http://www.ico.org/documents/cy2017-18/icc-122-11e-gender-equality.pdf
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  9. Johnson, P. (2016, March 16). 8 Steps to Building Gender Equity into the Global Coffee Supply Chain. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2016/03/8-steps-to-building-gender-equity-into-the-global-coffee-supply-chain/
  10. Brown, N. (2018, January 23). Partnership for Gender Equity Exploring Field Project Results in Nicaragua. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/01/23/partnership-for-gender-equity-exploring-field-project-results-in-nicaragua/
  11. Kubota, L. (2018, March 8). Supporting the Coffee Industry Requires Supporting Women. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/03/08/supporting-the-coffee-industry-requires-supporting-women/

Originally written by Julia Bobak of Homegrounds 


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