The indispensable role of women in coffee
From pickers and producers to baristas and roasters, women contribute to every stage of the coffee supply chain. Jenna Gottlieb speaks with Lucia Bawot and Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery to understand their crucial role in the industry.
Women are the backbone of global agricultural production. They make up almost half of the world’s agricultural workforce and, in some countries, provide the vast majority of the labour.
The coffee industry is no different, with up to 70% of roles filled by women, who do everything from picking to sorting to processing. In some areas of fieldwork, their contribution can reach up to 90%.
However, according to a recent International Coffee Organization (ICO) report, only less than a third of coffee farms are female-operated.
Unlike their male counterparts, opportunities to rise into decision-making roles are scant, while their access to land, education, and financial resources is limited. As such, many female coffee producers struggle to realise their full potential on farms and their contribution is eclipsed by men.
But this only tells part of the story. Across the entire coffee supply chain, female baristas, traders, roasters, and competitors are often not given equal opportunities to rise into senior positions where they can make a real difference.
“Women are certainly underrepresented,” says Lucia Bawot, a filmmaker and photographer who specialises in capturing women at origin. “And that’s even considering the fact that within the coffee industry, we have made some development in terms of having more women in different roles.
“I think the underrepresentation floats to the surface when we realise there is a specific profile, path, and tag to what being, for example, a female coffee farmer entails.”
Yet by denying women the opportunity to grow and develop, the coffee industry is holding itself back. Studies show that greater active female participation in decision-making roles can lead to broad-based economic development. And, as the percentages show, without their contribution, the industry would struggle to survive.
The role of female coffee producers & pickers
When it comes to coffee production, there is a very clear gender gap between the opportunities afforded to men and to women.
According to the World Bank, male producers have a disproportionate level of empowerment and capacity to exercise “agency” in comparison to their female equivalents. In other words, men have a greater ability to make effective choices and transform these choices into desired outcomes.
The same is true even for those who are considered to be in charge of their farms. This is because women rarely have access to the same finance, training or education as men.
“Women play an indispensable role at a farm level,” Lucia says. “However, the lack of recognition, their opinions being hushed, and their marathon work still being undervalued and unpaid are some core challenges.”
While some male producers argue women serve an important role in taking care of household duties, this perception is a social construct that has become embedded over generations of gender inequity.
Lucia says that when she spoke with women on farms, many felt as though they were being held back from developing – rather than serving in their “natural” roles.
“From my experience interviewing female coffee farmers in Colombia and letting them put sound to their thoughts, these women shared with me a lot of interesting responses.
“Some of the topics are: Why are they becoming mothers in their teens and how this on many occasions can truncate their dreams of learning; why are they still seeing marriage as emancipation and the solution to their future; and finally how their lack of confidence can influence the fact that they are handing the power to the man.”
Undoubtedly, women have made significant contributions on the farm level, which can go even further in the future. This is not in place of providing for the livelihood of their families, but in conjunction with it.
“These women are basically hidden superheroes,” Lucia says. “So again, I wonder, why are we still asking ourselves if women are essential at the farm level?
“I think in this day and age, we should be asking them how we, as coffee industry players, could help them leverage their potential. Because there is not a more beneficial development strategy for the coffee industry, other than one which involves women as central players.”
The role of consumer-facing workers
In 2018, Agnieszka Rojewska became the first woman to win the World Barista Championship despite the competition launching at the turn of the century.
As well as being an incredible achievement, it highlighted the gender inequality that exists in the coffee industry not only at a farm level, but in customer-facing positions, too.
“When I first began working as a barista, I had no one who helped me, no source of information and even when I went to the competition stage, there was a sense of keeping secrets, so I hardly got any help from my peers,” says two-time German Brewers Cup champion and She’s The Barista podcast host, Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery. “I didn’t have the money to afford an expensive trainer – and there were very few online resources to help build knowledge.”
What’s more, a recent study into the bonuses received by employees at a large coffee shop chain showed that male baristas received significantly more than their female counterparts.
But hope isn’t lost. Like the important work being carried out by organisations targeting farm-level inequality, such as the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, there are also various initiatives furthering gender equity for baristas. Many are run by women for women, while others focus on educating men about the importance of gender too.
“There are so many incredible companies, initiatives and projects across the entire global coffee industry that are founded by, owned and run by women,” Nicole says. “By supporting them, you support a generation of women who are seeking to create a more inclusive industry.”
For example, She’s The Roaster is a community organisation working to support women in the coffee roasting industry by raising and distributing funds, hosting events and changing the face of coffee roasters.
“If women keep learning and advancing their skills in the industry, slowly we will ensure that gender will have nothing to do with your knowledge of coffee,” Nicole says.
Photo by: Lucia Bawot for We Belong photo book