Like many corporate, big money industries today, the billion dollar coffee industry is male-dominated. If we go all the way back to its origin, running the first coffee plantations in the Americas was a macho business – men primarily ran them and if women were employed at all, it was for slave labor. The first coffeehouses were considered male domains, and in an interesting historical side note, coffee consumption in the United States didn’t really start until after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, because drinking tea after that was deemed unpatriotic.
Coffee cultivation was taken up in the US many years later, in the latter half of the 19th century, but again it was a male-led movement. More than 100 years later, coffee is an established commodity crop throughout the world and coffee plantations affect nearly 25 million people economically. Today it’s grown mostly in the developing world, where women make up a large part of the labor force.
The coffee industry has continued to evolve since the early days. Looking at recent trends, the specialty coffee world is booming as it focuses on giving the consumer a higher quality coffee experience as opposed to a mass-production coffee chain experience. However, it’s also a predominantly male business and it’s even thought that women aren’t as physically equipped to handle the machinery of the job – all that heavy, complicated equipment. All those levers to pull. There was not a female competitor in the World Barista Championship for the last three years. This finally changed in 2015, with France’s Charlotte Malaval representing as the only female finalist. She wowed judges with her complicated, “Breaking Bad” style of making her signature drink, with beakers and siphons, but ultimately came in sixth place. Gender equality with coffee competitions has fared a little better in the US, with Seattle barista Laila Ghambari winning the top prize at last year’s U.S. Coffee Championships.
To keep this positive forward momentum flowing, we must continue to keep an eye on gender equity in our industry. The United Nations, to give one big and influential example, is all over it — deciding in 2015 that all new initiatives must include gender policies. Since the UN has oversight of the agriculture industry, it’s a good bet that it can effect and enforce change. They know that 43% of the agriculture industry depends on women.
The Food and Agriculture Organization is another global group that is doing studies on women in agriculture today. They know that women make essential contributions to the agricultural and rural economies in all developing countries, and it’s their mission to continue creating jobs – for people in general, but for women in particular. And consider this – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently updated its official policy issuing grants to agricultural development programs that do not explicitly factor the potential effects on women – basically any that don’t get an automatic “no.”
How will the economy be affected if there are more women working in coffee? To begin with, some major inequalities will be addressed. At this year’s Melbourne International Coffee Expo 2015, a roundtable with women in leadership positions in the industry was held where the following issues were addressed:
Not enough women currently represented in management and leadership positions. If they were, productivity would increase by 20-30% (acc. to studies by the United Nations and Food & Agriculture Organizations
Training more women in coffee agriculture would reduce world poverty by 12-70%
There is still a huge gender pay gap, in the coffee industry and all others. Men still earn 25-30% more for the same roles held by women.
Women are not adequately represented in the economics of the coffee industry
It’s encouraging that more women are starting to be recognized – Clair Preston-Beer of Costa Coffee increased overall sales growth by 4.7% and also led one of the most successful summer campaigns in the company’s history. Elaine Higginson runs the UK equivalent of Associated Services, a company called United Coffee UK which employs 350 people – in fact, around 20 billion cups of coffee sold per year come from United Coffee. Both women were recognized in 2011 with awards for outstanding contribution to the coffee industry.
Women are moving up the ranks and taking on positions of power with gusto. Exceptional women in coffee are becoming the example, not the abnormality. In the Bay Area, several female leaders of renowned coffee companies have emerged – Eileen Renaldi is the owner of San Francisco-based Ritual Roasters, considered to be pioneers in locally-sourced coffee beans and craft coffee. Equator Coffee & Teas was started in Marin County by business partners Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell, who began by roasting coffee in their garage. Now Equator is a boutique “concierge” roaster, known for being a great community partner to both the farmers growing their beans and wholesale customers buying from them directly. We’ll be revisiting these women in future blogs to take a deeper look at the philosophy behind their pro-farmer, community-minded business models.