What are the challenges for women who work in coffee?

Josephine Walbank
January 31, 2022
coffee beans

Despite growing awareness of gender inequality in the coffee sector, women continue to face challenges at many stages of the supply chain.

Many female coffee producers have lower access to resources such as land, finances, and education, despite operating between 20% and 30% of all coffee farms

While it is clear that women contribute significantly to the global coffee sector, equality for women working in coffee is by no means the norm.

Information on this particular topic can be difficult to find as collecting data can be problematic, and studies from reputable sources sometimes contradict each other.

However, achieving gender equality starts with understanding what needs to change.

I spoke with three-time barista champion, coffee expert, and MTPak Coffee ambassador, Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery about the challenges facing women working in coffee, and how they can be addressed.

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women working in coffee farming

Gender inequality in the coffee industry

Much of the world’s green coffee supply comes from low and middle income nations, where gender inequality is often still prevalent.

Depending on the region, women often face obstacles when attempting to own land or manage finances. Land ownership can be restricted, or in some cases completely prevented, by legislation.

Even in countries where laws allow women to own land, there may be prohibitive restrictions. For example, a woman must be married to own land, or she must have her husband’s permission.

In addition, women are responsible for the vast majority of labour on a coffee farm, such as fieldwork, coffee harvesting, processing, and sorting.

“Studies have shown that female-led farming structures are often less profitable short-term, but they are far more sustainable,” says Nicole, who runs the Female Barista Society and hosts the She’s The Barista podcast.

“These structures leave nutritious land for future generations, and help these women secure their survival and protect the environment.”

Research collected by the International Coffee Organization reveals some women may harvest smaller crops or are less likely to sell crops to markets, which leads to a lower income

This additional restriction of finances means women in coffee find it difficult to purchase farms for themselves. If they do have the opportunity, they are often left with low-quality plots of land.

Gender inequality doesn’t stop at the farm. It can be seen throughout the coffee sector, including the gender divide in roasting and barista professions. Both fields are commonly male-dominated.

“Even though I have proved I have just as much drive as other male baristas, I still find myself in situations where the level of inequality frustrates me,” Nicole says.

“Multiple times, I have been asked to be an ambassador for a business. When I request a contract, I am often told I should be ‘happy to be given the opportunity’.

“Apparently, as a woman, I should be happy to have work, but shouldn’t expect to be treated as a professional.”

female barista pulling a shot

What are the benefits of gender equality?

Increasing the representation and opportunities for women in coffee could benefit every element of the industry.

If women were to have access to the same land, financing, and technology as men, they could increase their agricultural output by 20% to 30%.

The empowerment of women in the coffee industry may help improve the quality of life for coffee producing communities, as well as inspire future generations of roasters.

Nicole, who is also the 2021 German Brewers Cup Champion, believes women have unique strengths that are not being utilised by coffee farms.

“Women tend to think about their community first; nurturing the people around them, and taking lower risks with long term goals,” she says. “There are also more aspects to how women employ their staff.”

She explains that most female employers would pay their workers above minimum wage, even if that results in less profit but a more stable business structure.

“They tend to invest more money in education, healthcare, and the training of their staff than their male counterparts.”

Thanks to the work of companies such as Fairtrade, the Women in Coffee Project, Sustainable Harvest and Equal Exchange, female-run coffee farms are slowly rising in numbers.

The all-female roastery Girls Who Grind Coffee is committed to working exclusively with women in the industry, from producers to those working on coffee farms.

Not only do they offer specialty coffee produced solely by women, they also provide a platform to drive gender equality at every stage of the journey from seed to cup.

The increased representation of women could inspire fresh ideas within the industry, and help place a renewed focus on improving community development.

women in coffee

How can roasters and coffee shops improve gender equality?

Nicole’s advice for roasters and café owners is to understand the responsibility they have to choose their supplies with care.

“Roasters should really read about coffee pricing,” she says. “Research how much work actually goes into making coffee. We have to move away from the attitude that consumers want cheap coffee, or they are not willing to pay more.”

She explains that consumers often need a reason to buy your coffee or come into your café. “Be special. Be the one who is making a difference.”

Although public awareness around gender inequality in the coffee sector is growing, more needs to be done.

“The biggest problem is the disconnection from the consumer to the farmer,” Nicole says. “People don’t often realise how much work is done by women, and how little access to land, loans and finances they have.”

Roasters and café owners have an opportunity here to move towards gender equality. By incorporating more female-produced coffee on the shelves and in cups, those in the industry can place a spotlight on gender equality.

“If we can show the next generation the passion that coffee brings, and the community it provides, we can build a better paid and equal industry that people want to work in.”

sustainable coffee bags

It is up to roasters and café owners to educate the consumer on where their coffee comes from. This information may resonate deeply within consumers, especially women.

Not only could this encourage consumers to use their power to make a change, but it may help boost customer loyalty and retention.

MTPak Coffee can help move your business toward more ethical practices with our sustainable coffee packaging. Our range of sustainable coffee bags include recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options made from kraft paper.

For more information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team today. 

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