March 8, 2018

Women in The Coffee Industry: What You Should Know


When it comes to women in the coffee industry, sometimes it’s easier to list what we don’t know rather than what we do know. Information is hard to gather and studies from reputable sources sometimes contradict each other. Even when we do have data, it rarely tells us the causes behind the trends.

This doesn’t mean that we should disregard these studies. It means that we need to change our expectations.

We cannot expect simple, pithy soundbites. In fact, we should distrust any one statistic that appears to be relevant for any industry as extensive and marred by communication difficulties as coffee. How can we expect the same figure to be true for both Iceland and Indonesia? And how can we expect to have an accurate understanding of how much work women do in remote, indigenous producing communities with limited information channels outside of their region?

When evaluating any data, we need to consider the context; the fact that women’s labour, sexual discrimination, and harassment often go under-reported; and the difficulties in measuring and corroborating information.

Yet achieving gender equality starts with understanding what needs to change. So, let’s look at what we do know.

Lee este artículo en español Mujeres en la Industria del Café: Lo Que Deberías Saber

Female roaster inspecting beans

Talor Browne inspects freshly roasted coffee beans. Credit: Talor & Jørgen

Women at Origin: What Do They Do?

There are few places where the “gender data gap” is bigger than on the coffee farm. The Research Alliance of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) is currently working to remedy this with “a three phase project to identify the number of women working in coffee and their unique roles… This data is critical to identify the most effective courses of action for programs, policies, and other interventions to secure the future and sustainability of the coffee industry.”

You might also like: 8 Steps to Building Gender Equity Into The Global Coffee Supply Chain

Yet until this is completed, there is little up-to-date and coffee-specific information available to us. We have to turn to studies of agricultural industries as a whole or a 2008 analysis by the International Trade Centre. The latter should be treated with caution: a lot changes in a decade. However, it gives precious insights into the disparity between share of labour and income:


Screenshot from the digital version of “Women in Coffee”, published in the International Trade Centre’s quarterly magazine International Trade Forum, Issue 3-4/2008

Women were highly present in fieldwork, harvest, and sorting – the manual work required to produce coffee. However, they were less represented in trading, exporting, and analysis or lab work: they were labourers, not decision-makers or business owners. Additionally, few women owned land or businesses. In fact, an SCAA white paper from 2015 points out that, in some coffee-producing countries, the law limits a woman’s ownership rights.

While the ITC data is ten years old, in 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that women “make up around 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries” and “are especially disadvantaged, with fewer endowments and entitlements than men, even more limited access to information and services, gender-determined household responsibilities, and increasingly heavy agricultural workloads owing to male out-migration.”

A Lack of Resources & Support

In 2011, the FAO stated, “Just giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could increase production on women’s farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 percent. This could raise total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, which could, in turn, reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent, or 100 to 150 million people.”

We should be aware that these figures are now seven years old. However, they indicate the additional challenges that female producers face and how these negatively affect the entire coffee supply chain. It’s also worth mentioning that, in general, women in many low-income countries (as coffee producing nations often are) face other challenges, such as a reduced access to adequate health care or education – both in comparison to women in higher-income countries and men in producing countries.

For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where our Ethiopian, Rwandan, and Ugandan coffee is grown, 18.6 million girls are unable to attend school, compared to 15.6 million boys. (Again, we need to emphasise that data like this will vary greatly according to the country and should only be analysed in its local context.)

What’s more, lower-income and indigenous female coffee producers are likely to have even less access to resources, coffee training, and the business networks they need to improve coffee yield and quality and market their crops.

Women coffee farmers sorting hulled beans

Coffee farmers on Limmu Fahem Estate in Ethiopia. Credit: Joe Van Gogh Coffee

Sexual Violence on Coffee Farms

It’s not just resources and support that women struggle with. Sexual assault and rape on the coffee farm often go unspoken about, especially in consuming countries. Yet for many coffee producers, it’s a reality – especially for those in positions of less power, such as coffee pickers, migrants, indigenous women, and children.

In 2017, the Arctic and Mountain Regions Development Institute surveyed an – admittedly very small – number of Nicaraguan coffee farmers. 25% of respondents, female and male, said they had experienced sexual assault. The Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre reported on child sexual abuse among nomadic Guatemalan coffee pickers working in Mexico in late 2016.

Spanish-language website covered high levels of sexual violence on Honduran coffee farms, particularly among migrating and/or seasonal workers. They reported an alarming increase in the number of children as young as 10 who become pregnant. They also quoted female coffee pickers who state that they do not report it due to fear of reprisal or being unsure about who to report it to.

Changing Roles, Extra Burdens

Although women tend to lack agency, being both less represented in decision-making positions and receiving less of the income, they often do more daily work than their male counterparts.

As reported in the aforementioned SCAA white paper on gender equity, women often face a “double burden” as they both work on the farm and do housework. “Men were found to have an 8-hour workday, while women worked up to 15 hours per day,” the report says. This is further complicated by women’s growing responsibility on coffee farms – something that represents additional work but perhaps also the potential for greater influence in the future.

In 2017, the FAO reported that migration of men away from rural producing areas is leading to greater numbers of women working on farms in agriculture in general. This provides opportunities for empowerment even as it highlights a lack of equal mobility. Within the coffee industry, younger generations are turning to new trades and often moving to cities in search of better pay.

We should be concerned that women are, as the FAO reports, less likely to have this opportunity and also forced to take on greater workloads. However, we can also hope that this may lead to a future where female producers have more agency and louder voices.

Read more in A Day in a Female Coffee Producer’s Life

coffee producer

Mary Vázquez, a coffee producer from Aldama, Chiapas, Mexico, and her first natural processed coffee at Finca Paraíso. Credit: Cafeólogo

Women’s Jobs & Coffee Shops

Let’s move from the coffee farm to the coffee shop: who is the manager in your local café? And how much do they get paid?

Much like in coffee production, there is a striking division of labour. In 2017, PayScale recorded a gender pay gap of 13.6% in the US for Accommodation and Food Services. It mentioned that the biggest barrier to equal pay was “equal opportunity”; while there was still a pay gap when comparing compensation for men and women with the same job title, women were also less likely to hold higher-paid positions.

When women aren’t in positions of power, they aren’t just lower-paid. They’re also more at risk of reduced job stability, harassment and discrimination, and more.

What’s more, we need to consider other equality issues and how they may interact with gender. The pay gap generally increases for black, Asian, and minority ethnic women. The LGBT+ pay gap has been tricky to analyse: some studies suggest that LGBT+ people can earn more than their straight counterparts, others that they earn less. However, LGBT+ people generally face significant barriers in the workplace, which can vary immensely according to the country. Lesbian and bisexual women are also more likely to have experienced mental health issues, which can necessitate greater support at work.

Disabled women may face discrimination and find their workplace isn’t always as accommodating as they need it to be. Moreover, with 26% less chance of employee interest for disabled applicants, there may be financial pressure on them to not quit their current workplace. When an employee consider themselves unable to resign, they are vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.

barista training

Andrea Allen speaks about café management and barista training at La Marzocco Cafe in Seattle, Washington, USA. Credit: Onyx Coffee Lab

A Lack of Women on The World Stage

The World Barista Championship (WBC) has never been won by a woman. And over time, their presence in the finals has been dwindling. In its first six years, women made up 10% of finalists. In 2007, we had a golden year for women in coffee competitions, with four female finalists: Heather Perry of the US, Miyuki Miyamae of Japan, Anna Kaeppeli of Switzerland, and Silvia Magalhaes of Brazil. Yet in the last nine years, stretching from 2009 to 2017, only two women have made it through: Miki Suzuki of Japan (2017, 2012, 2011) and Charlotte Malaval of France (2015, 2016).

The World Brewers Cup (WBrC) fares little better: having been running since just 2011, no woman has yet to win the title. And while women have won some of the other coffee competitions, such as the World Latte Art Championship, these are less celebrated than the WBC and WBrC.

With gender having no impact on coffee-making ability, we have to ask what’s causing this discrepancy. Generally speaking, fewer women make it to the WBC. Is this indicative of fewer women competing or fewer qualifying?

The world championships are preceded by numerous qualifying in-country competitions and only World Coffee Events would be able to do a statistical analysis on whether women are less likely to progress to the next stage in all these competitions.

Even if women were less likely to qualify, would this be indicative of judging bias or fewer resources and training time? And if women actually progress equally well through the competitions in comparison with male baristas, and the biggest explanation lies in the lack of female competitors, what causes this? Is it the way the competitions are marketed? How women are often culturally conditioned to be less competitive? A lack of training and resources made available to women? Fewer women in managerial positions in coffee shops?

Or – which is most likely – is it some combination of all the above?

Read one female Barista Champion’s story in Interview With Andrea Allen: Where Are All The Female Coffee Competitors?

Barista woman

Miki Suzuki and Mie Nakahara. Credit: Miki Suzuki

Behind The Scenes: Female Roasters & Visibility

If the default appearance for a barista champion is male, so too is that of a coffee roaster. Unfortunately, little data exists on the often-commented-upon gender gap in roasting. What we can tell you is that, at Perfect Daily Grind, we notice our biggest gender divide with roasting articles – despite the fact that most of them are written by women.

Like baristas, a female roaster has yet to win her particular championship (although Joanna Alm of Sweden has been in the top four in three out of the five times it has run).

shestheroaster is working to support women in the coffee roasting industry by providing events, raising and distributing funds, and changing the face of coffee roasters.

Coffee roasting

Clara Svensson roasts coffee at Koppi. Credit: Koppi Fine Coffee Roasters

A Grim Outlook, or Reasons for Optimism?

It’s not just the coffee industry that’s struggling with gender inequality. In 2017, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported that it will take 100 years for men and women to achieve equality; 217 for full economic equality. Tragically, in 2016, these figures stood at 83 and 170 years respectively. For the first time since it began recording data, the WEF has found decreasing levels of progress.

With this in mind, it’s easy to feel bleak about International Women’s Day 2018. Yet there are many valuable organisations working to improve conditions for women within the coffee industry. We’ve already mentioned some of them; others also deserve mention.

The IWCA, which has chapters around the world, works to “empower women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives; and to encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry.” The organisation conducts various national projects based on improving equity and coffee production in general, through things such as building infrastructure, providing training, and conducting research.

The Partnership for Gender Equity, which is part of the Coffee Quality Institute, has taken a methodological approach to the issue of gender inequality. They’ve drawn up seven principles for the coffee industry to follow and are also developing tools for businesses to use.

Barista Connect is a series of coffee events “dedicated to improving equality by empowering and inspiring women in various roles within the international coffee community.” Speakers from across the supply chain lead presentations and workshops for the female attendees.

#coffeetoo is a grassroots movement designed to counter sexual harassment and assault in the coffee industry – something that, while its impact on men should not be understated, predominantly affects women.

Our goal, as a coffee industry, should be to not just accept inequality. We must work towards increased representation, agency, and pay for women until these standards in line with those of men. This starts with understanding the challenges women face at all levels of the industry – as well as how they vary according to country, culture, race, sexuality, disability, and more. Only when we understand a problem can we work against it.

Discover more in 8 Steps to Building Gender Equity Into The Global Coffee Supply Chain

Featured photo credit: Ana Valencia

Perfect Daily Grind

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