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ristretto: confessions of a “girl barista”

Image: Petteri Sulonan

Image: Petteri Sulonan

When you hear things like “workplace discrimination” or “sexism at work”, your thoughts tend to drift towards glass ceilings, high-profile Lean In scenarios or the experiences of trailblazer women working in predominantly male areas. You don’t tend to think of the hospitality industry (AKA dealing with people and cleaning up their mess) as being a battleground fraught with gender issues and power discrepancies. However, in my experiences as a small town “café girl,” as with any human interaction, gender inevitably gets a little bit in the way.

I was so excited to start work as a waitress in a busy CBD café. It was my first café job and I felt like I was moving up in the world, out of the retail job I’d had since high school. The café was the kind that stocked three different blends of coffee, had about four baristas on at any one time and catered to a motley crowd of inner-city professionals.

A few weeks into the new job I started to realise a few things:

1. All the baristas were typical, twenty-something hipster guys. Moustaches. Chinos. Boat shoes. The works.
2. All the waitresses were “girls”. (Barista: ‘I’ll just get one of The Girls to clear that table for you.’)
3. My boss was sexist.

My boss and I got on OK, until I realised that she was a female chauvinist pig if I ever saw one. She would flirt with the baristas; laugh coyly when they turned up hours late for a shift, hungover and in track pants. She even didn’t really mind that while they were drinking gin and tonics out of take away coffee cups, I was experiencing some pretty crappy workplace bullying.

I decided that it wasn’t the job for me when I was turned down for a position as a trainee barista because she said she would ‘only hire guys.’  Any time I would hint or mention about being trained up on the coffee machine would be met with outright patronising laughter from the head barista, reinforced by passive-aggressive condescension from by boss. What?! Will my vagina ruin the creme? When I finally confronted her about this she spieled some post-feminist garble about it being ‘dirty work that only men should do.’ I left/was made redundant soon after that.

Not all cafes are like the first one I had the misfortune to work in. I now work in a little grungy joint that has none of the pretentiousness of the last place and I can finally call myself a barista. Well sort of. It took a long time to get my new boss to let me on the coffee machine, but he finally did, because this time I wasn’t taking no for an answer. Even though I make good coffee, my boss is still the head-honcho, regardless of the fact that his lattes are basically flat whites in glasses and don’t even get me started on his cappuccinos. When I stay on the coffee machine too long he gets restless and doesn’t know what to do. He hovers over me (I’m 4’11”!) or blocks my way to the milk fridge. None of this is intentional or malicious, but just a manifestation of internalised, subtly sexist ideas about café roles and skills.

A friend recently said that they honestly do not give any thought to the gender of the person making their coffee. And you probably haven’t either. You just want to get your morning soy double-shot latte and be on your way. But customers have internalised subconscious expectations about who does what in cafes as well. As a “girl barista” I am met with different behaviour and treatment from customers to my boss. When he makes a good coffee he’s ‘A Great Barista’ and ‘Knows his coffee’, whereas when I make an equally good coffee it’s all ‘Aww, well done! You did a good job.’ I’m not a barista to them – just a waitress who can use the coffee machine.

This isn’t to be a sob-story about the lousy jobs I had and how my boss was a meany, but a reflection on the fact that sexism can exist in areas where you think it doesn’t. It can also be subtle and unexpected, coming from people you didn’t think would hold such views. The clear division of skills, power and labour between (male) baristas, who are valued and celebrated in café culture, and (female) waitresses, who are ignored/unappreciated/patronised on a daily basis, indicates that patriarchal gender roles can still have an impact on some areas of work.

These are my experiences of working cafés in my sleepy little corner of the world, and are not necessarily representative of café culture more broadly. Is your barista a typical hipster guy? A lady? Do you work in cafes and have had similar experiences? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

And if you think you have what it takes to be a good barista, go for it. Chtmelbourne can help you to be one. 

9 thoughts on “ristretto: confessions of a “girl barista”

  1. Yes!! This is so true. The amount of restaurants I’ve worked in which would not let a girl near the bar or the coffee machine is ridiculous. I used to see the difference in the ways guys were treated in comparison to girls as well: we were hurried up and rushed, but it was ok for the guys to lazily do the easiest jobs. Horrible.

  2. I am a barista too, and have been for a long time, since way before being a barista was considered a desirable job, and certainly before it was a male dominated industry. When I first started making coffee there was one boy in the coffee shop and hospitality was certainly treated as a female dominated industry, and boys who waited tables or made coffee were thought to be ‘probably gay’. I have seen the coffee industry change into somewhat of a monster over the last 10 years, and have experienced quite a lot of sexism, although not in the same way as you seem to have.

    I have been lucky enough to work with a lot of female baristas and male floor staff where the kind of power struggle you describe hasn’t been as obvious. I have, on the other hand, been unfortunate enough to work with a lot of male, power-tripping, chefs, owners and managers. In my most recent job, it often felt like a bit of a boys club, even though majority of the staff were female, and I experienced and witnessed some pretty extreme sexual harassment from the owner himself, who seemed to be of the opinion that every girl loves to be objectified by old, creepy men. I left that job, after 3 years, and realised that I had become a bit desensitised to it and am afraid that this is the case with a lot of women in the hospitality industry, and it is a shame. I have heard the phrase ‘it just comes with the job’ far too often. In fact, I was the only one who ever complained about the inappropriate comments from my old boss in the whole history of him being a cafe owner. The other girls all talked about it amongst ourselves, but no one ever thought it appropriate to complain, since he was employing them, after all.

    Sorry about the long comment! I guess I didn’t realise how much I had to say on the subject! Thank you for sharing your experiences, and I hope that you find somewhere to work that appreciates your ability, no matter what your gender.

  3. This is good example of poor writing. Barista girl :)

    IT’S HOSPITALITY! Just quickly, this is something you do while you get a real job, surely.
    Also, this article makes me feel like you aren’t happy with yourself. Is that true?

    Did you write a draft or just write as it came to mind? Maybe one day after a “really… hard, (hopefully) morally crushing day at work. Hospitality is a piece of piss. It’s for girls and guys, in either order.

    If I may point out, quickly that there is no power struggle in hospitality, it’s a job where you are paid to make people food and drinks, smile, and get your hands dirty.

    There are some that do it better than others and sometimes there can be drama because you aren’t happy that “PHIL OVER THERE, IS A LAZY FUCK”.
    Welcome to the real world, sometimes PHIL is in your workplace. Sometime PHIL is, the bosses daughter and she does nothing but gets paid the same and if you bitch you will get fired. That is one great big hurdle in life, me-oh-my, it is.

    Them Jews got it easy. And those kids in Africa. Especially the girl ones, they have no… Idea.

    But we wouldn’t know about that… would we… because “our” 4″11 frame is stuck! hidden! behind a massive, expensive coffee machine, and your tiny frame is still trying to reach the cups, down from the top… That you cannot reach.

    Perhaps you should have written an article about how you are slow… And short.
    And how that affects you in the workplace.

    “Slow people are not for hospitality”.

    This is how I would start that article.

    And I’ll tell, you why.

    SOMETIMES. PEOPLE. (real people, not like you or me now: on the Internet) go out, and they want food. And they want that food NOW. And they want you to smile. But you have low blood sugar and you’re thinking about things that in your mind make sense to YOU, but you see the world through those ridiculous 3D-red&green glasses so you’re thinking maybe it has something to do with you being a girl and that your boss is standing in front of the drinks fridge because its a conspiracy.

    Maybe your vagina has nothing to do with coffee,(I hope it does not) or the fact that your coffee ability is the same standard as your writing ability or your grades through school. Regardless I don’t think you should judge this book by its cover with this one in regards to hipsters being boys, and the childish routine of boys vs girls in the workplace. “It’s you, it’s always been you”

    Perhaps Oxford has a cafeteria that you could work in?

    Your angle for this article is somewhere, out there lost in; Victimised cliché land.

    Kind and hopeful regards,
    -I wear my moustache under my chinos.

    Patrick.

    • yes patrick.. phil is lazy and africa something something oxford.
      why don’t you write a big long blog article about it and get back to us? I’m sure we’re all very interested in your opinion. Very interested…

    • It’s one thing to disagree but you are plain mean. I think you’re a bully.
      Something about welcome to the real world. Something about suck my cl!t.

  4. ^ oh but I haz and does.

    What are you bringing to the party? Hopefully something with anything. See how I used vague like up you used nothing on nothing. Swashbuckling here we come.

    Retort, retort!
    Counter intuitive!
    Non-sensicle statement.
    Offer of friendship.

    DENIED!

    Your name is Chris.

    But let’s not go off topic.

    Sexism in the workplace, being a barista… Oh yes. *bigtimenods

  5. My first job, thankfully, was in a all-female cafe in a small town. My boss eagerly taught me how to use the coffee machine and I received a lot of training from senior members of the cafe in different types of coffee. Four years later, I now work for luxury dessert company on Chapel St., and have a boss that spends most of her time on the coffee machine. It’s refreshing to see a woman behind a damn good coffee and it’s evident she knows her stuff regarding it. My manager regarded my barista qualifications and experience very highly when she employed me for said position. Until moving to the city, I never noticed the dominance of male baristas but I agree there certainly more male baristas than female – and they, on some subconscious level, probably feel the same way you do. Next time I order a coffee, I might just spare a thought or word for the ‘barista girl’ who made it. Something like ‘this coffee tastes like gender equality’ or ‘great blend’ or something.

  6. Wow. You’ve just recounted the story of my life. Interesting, was beginning to think I must be crazy –
    Patrick shut the *beep* up. You’re exactly what we’re talking about. In fact – why ya even here m8

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