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Valuing the Labor of Women in the Coffee Industry

Bringing financial equity into the coffee sector.

by Ashley Rodriguez | March 10, 2022

It’s difficult to overestimate the global value of coffee. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, 125 million people worldwide rely on coffee as a source of income. However, the way that money and resources are allocated often leaves out a crucial segment of coffee’s labor force: women.

Women are undervalued and underrepresented at every stage in the coffee supply stream. From farming to roasting to working behind the bar, gender equity is a significant issue that directly impacts the future viability and sustainability of the coffee industry as a whole. As a coffee bean travels from the farm to your cup, it’s important to think about the labor that women contributed to bring this coffee to you and how we can raise awareness and work towards a more equitable future.

Farming, profit, and land ownership

In 2015, the Specialty Coffee Association (then the Specialty Coffee Association of America) released a report called, “A Blueprint for Gender Equality in the Coffeelands.” In this white paper, they found that “overall, women earn less income, own less land, control fewer assets, have less access to credit and market information, greater difficulty obtaining inputs, and fewer training and leadership opportunities.”

Attitudes towards gender equity vary from country to country, but the white paper found that, even though women countribe at least half, if not more, of the labor required to grow and produce coffee, they often don’t see any financial return on their labor.

“Women touch every coffee bean that comprises the brew in our morning cup,” says Kimberly Easson, head of Equal Origins, a nonprofit organization that addresses gender equity issues in coffee and cocoa growing. “Yet despite their significant contributions, they continue to be a hidden workforce that doesn’t benefit from the considerable investment made in sustainability and direct trade initiatives.” Tasks early on in the lifecycle of a coffee, like fieldwork and harvesting, are dominated by women while tasks that involve the exchange of money, like transport and sales, are dominated by men.

There’s also the issue of land ownership, which generally favors men. Women often face significant hurdles getting their names on deeds or do not have the same access to inheritances as their brothers or spouses might. When women do own land, they are less likely to have access to credit and to financial resources that allow them to invest in their farms.

It’s critical to address the gaps in gender equity not just for its own sake, but because investing in women is proven to positively affect the coffee industry. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that, if given the same access to resources as men, women “would produce 20 to 30 percent more food and their families would enjoy better health, nutrition and education. If women had equal access to agricultural resources and services, food security would be greatly improved and societies would grow richer, and not only in economic terms.” Giving women the same access to resources as men could result in increased food and agricultural resources to feed over 100 million people.

A lot of the struggles outlined above have plagued gender equity for decades, but COVID-19 has thrown another wrench in the ongoing fight to value the work of women on farms. “The economic consequences of the pandemic will last for many years to come and unfortunately, the coffee industry is not immune from this fate,” says Mansi Chohski, Regional Community Director for the Specialty Coffee Association and Strategic Alliances Chair for the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA).

“There is an immediate need for monetary investment as local agencies are experiencing smaller budgets post-pandemic. The IWCA has seen success in supporting projects that are conceptualized and driven by the local women as opposed to outside groups coming in with their own idea of how to ‘fix’ the local community,” Chohski says. For example, the IWCA chapter in Honduras is working to rebuild a library in the town of Marcala to provide a safe space for the community, an initiative driven by the women of the region. This project is being funded by Caffé Vergnano in Italy, and will hopefully provide a blueprint and a proof of concept that investing in women-led projects is both important and leads to greater success for all. “The most powerful advantage of supporting and investing through IWCA is the global network and impact,” Chohski shares. “Once a project is piloted and successful in one location, chapter leaders are sharing this information within the IWCA network so all can prosper and gain.”

Organizations like Equal Origins and the IWCA are attempting to highlight the disparities in resources between men and women on coffee farms and bring attention to the importance of investing in women-led projects. Consumers can look to coffees that come from women-owned farms or women-led cooperatives or roasters that work with groups to promote equity in decision-making and farm leadership.

Equity behind the bar

It’s no secret that gender disparities exist in coffee shops and roasteries, but for however evident this problem feels, there’s surprisingly little data about women’s outcomes at the tail end of the coffee supply chain.

This article by Julia Bobak attempts to collect as much information about women in coffee as possible, using workplace data across all sectors to show that women are generally paid less than men and are often denied access to managerial and jobs with upward mobility. In the coffee industry, that can look like women working barista and cashier jobs but not getting the opportunity to manage a shop or get behind the roaster. On top of that, roasting is sometimes incorrectly seen as a “physical” job, and employers fall victim to their own biases as they look for applicants who fit their idea of what a roaster should look like or be capable of doing.

You’ve likely seen some of these trends in other sectors. One way to understand gender disparities in coffee is by looking at the food and restaurant industry. Women are often well-represented in low-wage positions (women make up over half of all servers, for example), but when we look at who is celebrated and lauded within the food and restaurant industry, it’s often men — specifically, white men.

The coffee industry is no different. In 2018, Agnieszka Rojewska became the first woman to win the World Barista Championship, a competition that seeks to find the world’s best barista. The competition has been held annually since 2000, but it took almost a decade for a woman to take home the title, and if you look at the roster of top finishers over the years (the competition usually recognizes the top six scorers), it’s almost completely dominated by men.

As a consumer, the best way to support women in the coffee industry is to actively seek out roasteries that support women. Look behind the bar and see who’s serving your coffee, or ask if there are women in managerial and decision-making roles within an organization. Awareness and critical inquiry are the first steps to promoting gender equity — we can’t solve a problem no one is talking about, so if you can, be vocal about the importance of gender equity within the entire coffee supply chain and take action where you can. The more voices that join the fight, the quicker we’ll move towards an equitable (and more sustainable) future.