31 Oct 2015

Why Women Do Not Compete in Coffee Competitions

"Men, men, men, men, manly men, men, men..."

Man is born free, and everywhere he lives in chains", the opening lines of Rousseau's 'The Social Contract' is all about how man is born naturally good, but gets corrupted by our society and institutions. Basically, our social constructs form who we are, without us even being aware of it. It is part of us and it shapes us.

Rousseau was all about how we can go back to our free and good ways as individuals in nature, quite literally, and by 'we' he meant 'men'. As for women, his main ideas can be summed up in this line from Emile "Do not permit them an instant of their lives free from bondage". And so it's a little strange to mention him in an article about social construct and the success (or lack thereof?) of women in coffee. But I feel his statement of living in chains works well within the subject.

The World Barista Championships a Sausage Fest?
Since the beginning of the World Barista Championships in 2000 there still has not been a female winner. There have even been years without women in the finals or semi-finals. When looking at other coffee competitions, women are under-represented there as well, even in more feminine competitions such as latte art.

Why? This question has been brought up many times, mostly by men, and especially by Nicolas Cho and Gwilym Davies. They have received both criticism and praise alongside questions as to why this would or could be the case.

Searching for answers on a scientific level
But real answers have not been brought forward. Even speculations have been sparse. Now without claiming I have all the answers, I wanted to put forth my thoughts and opinions after doing some research in social and gender science.

Are women underrepresented?
First things first though. Is it really true women are underrepresented in coffee competitions? The answer simply is yes. If you look at the data for the World Barista Championships, available on their website, you can see this quite clearly with the percentage of participation always under 25%.

...And is this a bad thing?
One question following this fact is Is this a bad thing? Yes, it is. Winning a competition means stature and influence. A short documentary of Prima Coffee, interviewing past winners highlights this as well.
It means better wages and positions. It means carrying women into higher paid positions on a bigger scale. Work is often defined in gender terms. For example more expensive restaurants are more likely to employ men, while lower-priced restaurants tend to hire women (Reskin and Bielby). And we see this gender difference in specialty coffee as well. The more nerdy the store, the more men work there. The more cafe-on-the-corner, the more women there are to steam up the milk. An interesting article on this subject can be read here, in the Guardian: "A study found 58% of 'bar attendants and baristas' were women, but men were 2.5 times more likely to reach the highest tax bracket in that occupation'".

Self fulfilling prophecy?
Even if the answer is yes, do we want to focus on it? Because if we focus on it, are we not making things worse? By saying women are not competing as well as men, is this not a self-fulfilling prophecy? Reading James Hoffman's blog post, especially the part quoting Annete, one could say yes, it is. And personally I am not a fan of calling out a high ranking female competitor for being female. Who cares if you are the highest ranking female? The point is to understand why, in general terms, women are not competing as much as men and why, when they compete, they do not seem to win. 

Although many people have written about women in coffee, not a lot of them have read up on social and behavioural science to see if we can find a genuine cause. I feel if we, and with we I mean the entire specialty coffee community, understand why this is, we can change it.

So what it comes down to is,

do women not compete, 
do women not compete as well as men, or 
are women not judged in the same way as men?

These are the questions I will try to answer.

Do women not compete?
All social experiments show that women are much less likely to compete when compared to men. Even when taking out other influences such as 'confidence' and 'risk attitudes' women are still 12% less likely to compete than men (Buser, Niederle). Not only that, but adding time constraints and pressure (hello, coffee competitions) women compete even less. AND not only that, women are more likely to drop out of competitions when less women compete (Bönte, Jarosch), an other reason to have more women competing in competitions...

Are women less successful?
So, when women compete, are they less successful than men? You might find this a strange question. I know I did, because why would women be less successful? If you are a good Barista, why would you not win a competition, man or woman?

Unfortunately, the figures show something different. To summarise the experiments held by Gneezy, Niederle and Rustichini (which have been tried and tried again by different scientists with the same result) when given a certain task, men and women have the same level of success. However as soon as a prize element is added to the task, meaning the possibility to win something, men start upping their game and increase their performance. Women keep performing at the same level. Say what? Women, we are not levelling up!
It gets even more crazy, the same experiment also found that women do not like competing against men. When tasks are given in single sex framework, the performance of women does increase when prizes are added. For men however, changing the game to a single sex competition does not change diddly squat. No effect...This means men actually perform better when they know they are competing against women.

To shortly summarise, 
when women decide to compete they underperform in mixed-sex competitions, and perform better in single sex competitions. 
Men perform better in mixed-sex competitions.

Again, why? Is this biological? Cultural? Internal? External? What is going on?

Cultural or Biological?
Gneezy, Leonard and List make a good argument for a cultural explanation. They conducted an experiment in a very patriarchal society and a very matriarchal society, trying to assess if culture has an influence on the decision of women to compete. And what did they find? In the patriarchal society of the Masaai in Kenya, women are far less likely to compete than men. In the matriarchal society of the Khasi in India women were much more likely to compete, even when they knew they would probably not win. This would explain why you almost always see the same countries bringing forth a female national champion in the World Barista Cup.

To conclude, culture is important. The way our societies treat masculinity and femininity, changes the way women and men conduct themselves.

Masculine vs Feminine
And it starts at birth; we do not even realise it. Different experiments show that babies can see gender stereotypes as early as 18 months old, finding, for example, men wearing lipstick laughable. At two years old most children will give stereotypical answers to gendered questions (advocate.com). In Western society feminine is seen as powerless, small, contained, accepting, following. Masculine is seen as dominant, powerful, knowledgeable, strong. Different lists of attributes exist at an implicit level. We have seen this as recent as the way the media has changed their reporting from sport achievements and family life to the dress worn that night in the transition of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner so aptly called out by Jon Stewart.

The more I was treated as a women, the more woman I became. I adapted the willy-nilly. IF I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming (Jan Morris on his transition from man to woman in C. Fine).

The Bitch
But not only do men and women change the way they conduct themselves, men and women are judged differently as well.

To paraphrase an article on Boundless.com:
Men and women see stereotypes and we apply them automatically. We unintentionally respond to people in ways that elicit from them the very behaviours that confirm our stereotypes. We ask harder managers questions to women than men. 
But to win a coffee competition, you need to be seen as knowledgeable and, to a certain degree, powerful and dominant. The problem is that a female Barista can be seen as unlikable when showing her knowledge and leadership, because they violate norms of female niceness. And they can be judged this way by both men and women. I have experienced this more often than not myself.
Not too long ago, when I was training a competing Barista, a male friend of this Barista thought of me as being a very disapproving and condemnatory person in general, while all I was doing was training and guiding a person to a better performance. The Barista herself did not find me disapproving at all, by the way. Often, having a strong opinion, as a women, means you are the Bitch.

Back to the World Barista Competitions
So how do you win a competition as the World Barista Championships, where presentation and knowledge are so important? The score sheets are about as objective as they can be, and becoming more so all the time, but the innate way judges look at a female or male competitor is nearly impossible to change. It would be very interesting to compare videos of female and male competitors, and making notes not only of the information they share but also their body language and then comparing scores given for presentation across the board. 

To summarise
All in all we can say women are less likely to compete than men. And if they do, their performance is less successful in a mixed-sex setting. However, this seems to be culturally bound. Meaning women struggle with internal and external cultural influences when competing in coffee competitions. 

Changing the game?
Does this mean we should change the game? For example, remove time constraints? Or create a female only competition? Should we take presentation out of the game and only taste the coffees blind?
As a feminist myself, I do not really like these options. Because I believe it does not solve the underlying issue. All it will do is create a bigger gap between men and women on the cultural level. However at the same time, female competitors and all judges should bare in mind that there are invisible powers at play.

As female coffee professionals we should ask ourselves why we decide not to compete and decide to do so more often. As female competitors we are wise to look at our presentation and body language more carefully. And as judges we should continuously ask ourselves if we indeed are judging all competitors fairly  and gender free.

Most of the literature used can be accessed for free online. The literature mentioned, plus more can be found below.

reading list                                                                                

M. Niederle, L. Vesterlund (2007) Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much? The Quarterly Journal of Economics

E. Hall (1993) Waitering/Waitressing: Engendering the Work of Table Servers Gender and Society

Catalyst.org (2005) Women "take care", Men "take charge": Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed

S. Brydum (2012) Babies can see Gender Stereotypes advocate.com

U. Gneezy, K. Leonard, J. List (2008) Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society NBER Working Paper

C. Fine (2010) Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

L. Wade (2013) Gender and the Body Language of Power societypages.org

M. Cooper (2010) For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters: exploring how to shift the power dynamic using body language  Stanford University

R. Hoder (2015) Teen Girls and the Persistence of Gender Stereotypes theatlantic.com

T. Behrend, L. Forster Thompson, A. Meade (2007) Gender Differences in Career Choice Influences 22nd annual meeting of the society for industrial and organizational psychology

B. Reskin, D, Bielby (2005) A Sociological Perspective on Gender and Career Outcomes Journal of Economic Perspectives

W. Bönte, M. Jarosch (2011/2012) Gender Differences in Competitiveness, risk tolerance, and other personality traits: do they contribute to the gender gap in entrepeneurship? Schumpeter Discussion Papers

I. Almås, A. Cappelen, K. Salvanes, E. Sørensen, B. Tungodden (2011) Explaining gender differences in competitiveness

U. Gneezy, M. Niederle, A. Rustichini (2003) Performance in Competitiveness environments: gender differences The Quarterly Journal of Economics

Th. Buser, M. Niederle (2013) Gender, Competitiveness and Career Choices University of Amsterdam and TIER

http://freakonomics.com/2013/02/24/women-are-not-men-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/ (hear U. Gneezy explain his research into cutural differences in this podcast.)





  1. Women are less competitive in general (a good thing), in large part because they have lower levels of testosterone. "Girls Only Schools" were created to address this very real issue (many girls flourish in an atmosphere where competitive learning isn't the model).

    Perhaps we need to ask whether a competition is really the most efficient way to promote barista culture and associated skills. Our company was involved in the early (Western) Barista Competitions, but we soon realized that this competitive structure wasn't nurturing the advancement of barista ideas and skills. It just turned into another competition deciding who the winners and losers are and further advanced the "Bro Culture" that many in the industry find a turn off. There are better models to advance barista culture. It's time the SCAA started to look into alternatives.

  2. Perhaps comparing competition in sports (at an olympic level) would enlighten us as to the differences of mindset and competitive nature between a very competitive group and one more mainstream. Sports present a unique, merit based and statistical model that could be illuminating. Are female Olympic-aspiring athletes expressing the same views and mindsets about competition?

  3. Great blog post. I really want to appreciate the thoughts. Anyone want attractive Ceramic espresso cup for coffee may follow: Ceramic espresso cup


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