ristretto: confessions of a “girl barista”
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.