International Women's Day isn’t just a chance to reflect on how far we've come, but also an excellent opportunity to look towards the future. In the specialty coffee industry, we are fortunate to have strong, determined leaders at the helm and leading the conversation.
We spoke to six such voices from our partner roasters to create a dialogue about the past, present, and future state of gender equality in coffee:
- Eileen Rinaldi, Founder & CEO, Ritual Coffee Roasters
- Grace McCutchan, Trainer/Educator, Assistant Roaster & Authorized SCA Trainer, Red Rooster Coffee
- Brooke McDonnell, Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, Equator Coffees
- Julia Mayer, Co-Owner, Dune Coffee Roasters
- Rebecca Hurlen-Patano, Co-Owner, DOMA Coffee Roasting Company
- Khanh Trang, Founder & Licensed Q Grader, Greater Goods Coffee Roasters
Below, their responses show our progress so far and how much work is still left to be done.
Why is women's presence crucial in coffee?
Eileen Rinaldi: Something that I didn’t understand as a younger entrepreneur was that my vision for Ritual was only in my head. And that if I didn’t build it, it would never exist. The world needs all the people who envision something unique to be able to build it, whether it’s a café, a roasting company, or something completely different. Coffee is nearly universal and the world will be a better place when everyone who loves coffee feels at home in a café somewhere, feels like their point of view is expressed through coffee. That can’t happen without people making the leap to express their visions for what coffee can be through building cafés, green buying, roasting, regardless of what gender you are.
Grace McCutchan: Women are brilliant! We have so much to offer and our input should always be on the table and considered, as long as women are involved in any part of coffee, I firmly believe that quality will always improve. Also, as a roaster (and a woman) where the majority of coffee roasters are men, I love being a role model for other women so that they might imagine themselves in the industry, working towards a realistic goal as a female coffee professional.
Brooke McDonnell: From producer to purveyor, the presence of women is known, but not always felt. Their voices are not encouraged or heard at every stage of coffee’s journey from seed to cup. Indigenous women from rural coffee communities prepare food and raise children, but have no agency in reproductive planning or allocation of modest resources, muting their contribution to a coffee ecosystem that is fragile at best. When women have a significant voice in coffee cooperatives, priorities and fiscal management improve, increasing chances of a better economic outcome for their community.
An evolving specialty coffee industry needs the renewable energy of successive generations of stewards. Growers, importers, roasters, researchers, and retailers have an emerging audience: young women who want to connect professionally to meaningful collaborative work. Valuing and nurturing the aspirations of women in coffee creates more stakeholders, expanding the vision, sensibility, and voices needed for good stewardship.
Julia Mayer: As half of the population on this planet, women should be involved in every single industry and in every role in government. Because we have lived in a largely patriarchal society, we have no idea what major impacts women can and will have on our world. In the past decade we have seen an explosion of women in leadership roles and this is critical. Women make up a huge part of the labor force in the coffee industry: from coffee producers, pickers, mill workers, coffee buyers, baristas, roasters, managers and owners, you will find us everywhere. We need to be able to articulate our point of view, to speak on behalf of ourselves and to have our voices be heard.
Khanh Trang: Wow there's so much to say about this. Why is women's presence crucial in anything? We experience it all! Without women there'd be no men, bottom line.
In developing countries, oftentimes the women do twice the work as the men and get half the pay. They are expected to end the day with housework after a 15 hour day out in the field. Sometimes there's even sexual harassment, abuse and/or other trauma that goes unreported for fear of retribution. The import/export area of coffee is also fairly male dominated. When we get into the roasting and café level we start to see more women for sure. I'd say, however, that there's still not as many women roasting coffee or entering coffee competitions. I think it's crucial that we see representation because we need those positive role models and symbols to motivate women to keep going in this industry; people they can look up to and say "wow, I could be a roaster, too".
What does your roaster do to support that?
ER: I’m the founder of Ritual, but it’s a co-creation along with my staff, past, present and future. I have 82 employees who help make Ritual what it is. Other people’s input and vision for our coffee has been essential to our success. We embraced being inclusive from the start, so that means that people who might not have had a voice other places had a big impact at Ritual.
GM: I feel incredibly fortunate to work for a company that feels a social responsibility to hire folks of diversity. One of my bosses is a woman and she really understands the challenges that the marginalized community — and more specifically women — face in this industry. She is an inspiration, very smart and knows how to work against problems in order to fix them, as well as how they can change in regards to someone’s background. Red Rooster is made up primarily of women and those who work here don’t have to give up any innate rights as women either, they can still have children and work their job because Red Rooster made sure to offer an onsite daycare facility. The only coffee company to do so. This is just one of the many things that this company does for their employees.
BM: Approximately 50 percent of Equator’s workforce is women. Management and senior leadership team are led by women. We hire women in all of our departments which leads to a diversity of ideas, supporting an inclusive and productive culture.
Internationally, we source coffee from women-run cooperatives and partner with organizations that benefit women - Grounds For Health, International Women in Coffee Alliance, The Future of Hope foundation are just a few of the impactful efforts we continue to support.
JM: We are a company co-owned by Todd Stewart and me, Julia Mayer. Women have always held positions of leadership at Dune and pushed us forward: the first person we hired to roast coffee alongside Todd was Kellie Kreiss, a longtime barista with an amazing palate and vision. And yet: without vigilant stewardship, it is easy to have management slip to inequity. Last year we evaluated ourselves and recognized that men made up over 80 percent of the management in our company. I reached out to peers, including Ashley Rodriguez from Boss Barista, and we formulated a plan of positive descrimination until we reach equity in leadership. Todd and I are deeply committed and honestly a little obsessed with representation within our company. We are a small company but we absolutely must protect our values! As a woman owned company this is critical to us.
KT: Overall, at Greater Goods we pay higher prices for our green coffee, but we make a point to seek out and support female producers at origin. Our head roaster is female, and she is super-involved in the coffee community. She participates in competitions and the Coffee Roasters Guild Retreat. The men and women who work for us get equal pay for the same work. That's a no brainer for me.
That being said, oftentimes there's this misconception that female producers at origin are progressive and all about women's' rights (this is a very privileged first world view), when the reality is their male partners have migrated out of the country in search of more income. Sometimes they come back and sometimes they don't. When the men don’t come back, the women are left to tend to the farm, raise the children, and take care of the elder generation.
What positive changes have you observed in your experience in coffee?
ER: We’ve definitely made some good strides in being a more diverse and inclusive industry. We still have a ways to go, but the relevant café owners, barista competitors, and other visible icons of our industry are way more diverse than ten years ago.
GM: It is deeply gratifying to work in an industry that is constantly working towards positive change. It’s a proud feeling to attend a US Coffee Competition and witness organizations bringing marginalized folks to the forefront. I couldn’t imagine working a profession that was not constantly fighting for human rights on every level. There is always work to be done and growth to be had, but I admire organizations that are constantly pushing progressive change.
BM: More women are participating as decision-makers and influencers in specialty coffee.
Rebecca Hurlen-Patano: Women have a stronger role in the coffee supply chain and have taken on leadership roles. These opportunities for growth in job position and pay will continue to benefit women socially and financially. There is still a long way to go.
JM: The biggest change I have observed is that the conversation has changed. Sexism and discrimination aren't tolerated at all. This was not the case for me when I entered the coffee industry 25 years ago. Over the years, I have witnessed women rise to the forefront: we are the editors of our industry publications, we are creating companies, we are winning competitions, we are driving our industry to its best version of itself. Now as a woman barista you know that you do not have to accept anything less than absolute respect in your workplace.
KT: I've noticed a lot more doors opening - it's not as taboo to see a female roaster or producer. Coffee is a great avenue for social awareness at origin and at home in our own communities. Coffee people come from all walks of life, and great strides have been made to make the industry more inclusive as a whole. Today we see some fierce women like Aida Batlle or Lucia Solis paving the way and recognized as positive role models for women all over the world.
What changes do you hope to see in the next 10 years?
ER: Women represent about 50 percent of entry level positions in the food service industry in the US. About 40 percent of small businesses are owned by women (51 percent or more). But when you look at how many women-owned businesses gross more than $1 million, it’s only about four percent of those businesses.
I’d like to see ten coffee businesses owned by women gross more than $10 million. I’d like to see 50 new coffee businesses owned by women gross more than $1 million. Then we can start really seeing what the impact of women is on the coffee industry!
GM: I’d like to see more outreach in the smaller communities, more events that are working to bridge the gap between every single chain of hands in this industry, especially in rural areas. I live and work in a small farming community in Appalachia, Virginia and it can be incredibly difficult to find that kind of support and connection without traveling over an hour to attend an event.
Red Rooster is made up of 80 percent women, many of whom are new mothers and traveling to attend a workshop, “meet the producer tour,” or even a latte art throwdown is not something they are really able to do.
BM: A result-driven focus of science and sensibility to combat the existential threat that climate change poses to coffee. Women should be full participants in the effort to find solutions. Incentives to keep young people from leaving farm communities, while also encouraging women to become farm stewards.
RHP: More women owning property, participating at top levels in all aspects of the supply chain.
JM: I believe as a country we are on the precipice of a shift away from a patriarchal structure. In order for this to actually happen, we need to financially support women through childbearing (if they choose) so that we don't have to lose our careers in order to have a family. This is the most important thing we can do, alongside representation in leadership industry wide.
I am currently in Honduras visiting our producing partners, and I am so proud to see just as many women here buying green coffee, cupping coffee. This means that companies are supporting equity and growth. I am proud to be a part of an industry that takes representation so seriously.
KT: I hope we can continue to lift each other up regardless of the external world we live in.
My hope is that we'll all come together as a community, regardless of race or gender identity or anything else, to share our resources and help each other grow as coffee professionals. Specific areas for improvement are equal pay for everyone everywhere, safer workspaces, and more access to education and agricultural resources for women in producing countries.
What is the most important work that needs to be done to get there?
ER: We need to continue to make the work that women are doing in coffee visible, which shows other women that they can do it too! For example, I met a woman in Japan who said that I changed her life. That when she heard about me, she realized that she could roast coffee too. It hadn’t ever occurred to her, because she hadn’t seen a woman roasting. Let’s do more of that. And spend money in the places that are doing things right!
GM: We can’t solve every problem quickly and individually. It definitely took me a while to come to terms with that, but I think if we can continue to make tiny changes, in our own community, towns, and shops, and really listen to each other speak about the struggles that we face, no matter our background, we can continue to make the specialty coffee industry one of the best professions to be a part of. We need more education in rural areas, more progressive thinking and creative outlets.
I love seeing a female produced green coffee make it’s way into our roastery, it’s the perfect opportunity to educate coworkers and customers on the gender gap at origin which includes but are not limited to proper finance, knowledge, and productivity. The only way to achieve gender equality is to foster empowerment within our own company here so that those tiny changes are one day made into a big difference for the entire supply chain.
BM: Cultivating the aspirations of a new generation of women in the coffee industry.
RHP: Education. Empowering women by recognizing the barriers of gender dominance in typical roles/positions held. Being sensitive to cultural norms and supporting both genders in allowing change to happen. Listening.
KT: Education, education, education. At the farm level a lot of women are deprived of that. Sometimes they're living in rural areas in developing countries where women are traditionally treated as laborers and baby makers. If they are given access to the tools they need to learn and grow, I bet they'd be able to get the job done as efficiently if not more so than their male counterparts. As a first world country, you'd think the US would be a progressive leader in this area, but there's still a lot of work to be done at home. There's a lot of stigma and fear around change, but anything's possible. The first thing to do is start talking about the issues, and then educate our communities.