It’s been a hectic several weeks! Been working on consolidating the things I’ve wanted to talk about here that’s happened late March and April, such as our long-awaited Singapore/Malaysia trip, the London Coffee Festival, and more besides. But since processing things chronologically is for chumps I’ve decided to just reverse-engineer my way through and hope for the best. Over the last two weeks I’ve had the unfortunate privilege of gnawing on a hefty topic, one I’ve worried to the bone. And as I’m writing this now it’s surprisingly hard to get out on
virtual paper, given that for the past couple of months it’s something that I’ve constantly worn people’s ears out with. It’s tied to so much emotion it’s as if there’s a bottleneck somewhere between my gut and my mouth, trying to squeeze coherent sentences out - and oh, I want to do this justice!
It’s a fervent hope that one day, gender issues and the tension that surrounds our discussions about a topic that has begun to redefine itself in this day and age will one day talk itself into irrelevance. That one day I won’t have to raise my voice, or speak about it, or agonise over it daily, living a markedly different reality to most of my peers (being a Southeast-Asian immigrant female living in the country of your former colonial overlords while people you meet in your line of work ask you why your English is so good every other day can get pretty monotonous after a while.) So when that reality is compounded by the fact that your industry, similar to many others, is dominated by white males, it’s… well, a ballache.
As a quick disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic. I’ve had the fortune of being surrounded by people who are a lot more educated than I am on the subject, with far more articulate viewpoints and elegant worldviews. What I can offer is only a small slice of a larger, older narrative, with a very specific intersectional viewpoint - and I can only hope that it hits home for some of you, in several places. The U.K. coffee scene was where I started working hospo EVER, too, and it’s been all I’ve known with regards to speciality, working here as a female POC - so of course it’ll be different at home in Singapore, or in other places in the world. But starting out was tough, and sometimes it still is - so I hope this post brings a small comfort to those who are going through the same thing.
With the blazing spotlight on gender equity issues at the end of 2017 and leading into the new year, it was really only a matter of time till it caught on, as social media tends to make things do. Don’t get me wrong - I’m pretty chuffed people are talking about it, in the same way I enjoy Dr. Pimple Popper videos. There is an inherent, weirdly satisfying joy in lancing a boil, painful and messy though the process may be. It’s been an oddly cathartic and funny process to watch a large majority of my male friends and coworkers in the industry squirm or fall silent whenever this surfaces, but also oddly touching when acknowledgment, simple apologies, or even active participation and discussion happens! Shortly after #metoo came the unfortunately necessary #coffeetoo; keeping up with the Four Barrel fiasco drove the point home, and while I’ve been very lucky to not have experienced the same type of overt sexism and gendered harassment as some of the stories I’ve read or heard, the discussion over what construes gendered microaggressions and defining gender stereotypes in the U.K. coffee industry is only just rising to the fore.
I had the incredible privilege of sneaking into Tate Modern a couple nights ago with the ninja boss lady Maiya for a U.K screening of the documentary ‘Gender In Coffee’ by Xavier Hamon and Hannah Stapleton, made early this year on location in Mexico, Nicaragua and the West Coast of the U.S., and with a foreword by Kimberly Easson and organised by the lovely Tom Haigh of the Tate Roastery (who also do their very own Gender Equity Project which is super cool and you should check out.) Kickstarted into being in January and finished with days to spare in April, it follows the story of upholding gender equity ethics within the coffee supply chain, with a strong focus on relational dynamics within coffee farming families and communities. It was definitely very heartening to see the bar at the lovely Tate Modern packed to bursting with people from within and without the industry wanting to be part of the conversation and Q&A after the screening.
You can watch the documentary in the link above - it’s free and available on Youtube. I won’t rehash the film on here, but instead discuss a couple of details that I noticed about the film and the discussions that followed after.
For a start, the mood in the room seemed almost… hesitant! Like people didn’t know where to start, or what questions to start asking! Most opinions that night were volunteered by women, which was encouraging in some sense but also disappointing in another… I just felt it was time we moved the conversation past preaching to the choir, so personally I was truly looking forward to any dude brave enough to pick the mic up and volunteer a view. In general though I do kinda feel that here in the U.K. people are only beginning to grasp the enormity and complexity of the issue of gender and constantly worried about saying the wrong thing or stepping on the wrong toes and incurring the wrath of women scorned, which was probably contributing to the mood. Sadly.
For my part, I ventured an opinion about the hiring processes of the U.K. coffee industry and how they weren’t necessarily free of bias, which was in turn contributing to the self-perpetuating over-representation of white men, which differed from hiring practices heard about in Texas (56:35-57:03). I said that I didn’t believe that installing gender quotas would solve the problem, nor did it tackle the root of the inequity nor generate paradigm shifts between the community - that it was essentially a crude stopgap, but was at a loss for how to approach resolving the issue. Unfortunately my question got waylaid by a lady from Volcano Coffee Works, who primly pointed out that at Assembly Roasters they have a nearly “50-50” gender split (good for you, lady, and I were that it was the same for all of us!) She did however provide a pretty useful link that she says helped her work with several talented young women, female professionals and mothers looking to get back into part-time and freelancing work whilst having to balance work-life commitments - check it out here. However, another lady in the room did point out several useful subliminal prompts to pay heed to in ads if you’re gunning to attract female potential employees, below the level of their perception, such as the language companies employ which may be more attractive to men/women based on how “masculine/feminine” they’re perceived to be within the context of an ad. So the next time you want a “superstar gung-ho barista who will man the bar and rock it like it’s hot and sling shots like there’s no tomorrow” you might want to wonder about why you’re attracting more of a particular demographic…
Maiya also brought up the issue of underrepresentation of women in high-level coffee competitions, especially those with a worldwide following like the World Barista Championships, Coffee Masters, etc. Up to date, there has never been a female World Barista Champion, or a champion of colour. More unsettling is the underpinning idea that for the most part, coffee championships are judged by a homogenous panel. No points for guessing.
Perhaps during the evening and in our fervent discussions on the way back to the station, Maiya and I belaboured the fact that part of why this issue is so ingrained is that for the majority of our peers in the industry, this problem is simply invisible, a non-issue - how can it be a problem if it doesn’t affect you? We also wished that the film had interviewed more POC, especially when the focus shifted to within the U.S., as well as touched more on issues on the ground for baristas in the industry instead of the production-heavy focus the film had - but for the first film of its kind in the industry it’s something to applaud and share with the world for sure.
For the record, there is a wee part of me that’s tired of pinning the blame on this particular demographic - in the sense that I constantly have to pull myself back from the edge of being a bigot, ngl. I won’t mince these words - it can be so devastatingly easy to let anger and resentment cloud your judgment as it did when I started out in the industry. It comes in waves and surges; for a long time, gender and colour were all I saw. “He got the position because he’s white.” “God, the mansplaining is killing me, I know how to rinse a portafilter.” It’s still a struggle to rein those initial stereotypes in, especially when you are starting out new somewhere, or you don’t know someone well or how they operate or deliver their thoughts. I’m an avid believer in not turning into the asshole you despise (and god knows I’m not perfect, or the number of times people have called me out for behaviour I was blind to over the years) - and I don’t believe that you get rights to playing the minority/gender card and stereotyping your historical oppressors. This post is an attempt to bridge that divide.
Sierra Burgess-Yeo - amateur coffee-maker, professional cat-lover and Olympic kimchi-eater. Lives in London. Freelance barista, coffee writer and project pursuer.