Views from The Bar

Melissa Cole laments the beer world’s institutional sexism

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Did you know that women are 17% more likely to die in a car crash and 47% more likely to be seriously injured than men? I didn’t until recently and, as someone who survived a very serious car crash in their early 20s, it came as something of a jolt, to say the least.

But why is that? Well, it’s because seatbelts and car configurations are designed around an average man, meaning women need to be closer to the steering wheel, aren’t properly protected by the seatbelt and suffer more traumatic injury as a result. And that’s not even the surface of it, nearly every part of our lives is touched by data that is predicated on the male gender norm, which is conversationally laid bare by Caroline Criado-Perez’s incredibly detailed book Invisible Women which, in my opinion, should be on every STEM-related company’s reading list up and down the land, as well as every school.

Now, you might be wondering why on earth I started a column on beer with that truly depressing set of statistics, well, it’s because it’s part of a wider picture of how the world is consistently setting everyone who identifies as a woman backwards via the medium of stereotypes... which is, incredibly, only slightly worse than the medium of interpretative dance.

Jokes aside, there have been a few reports out in the past month, pertaining to the beer world, that have had me tearing my hair out with rage, wondering how we seem to still be at an almost standstill in some areas when it comes to equality.

Now, gender inequality studies frequently hit the headlines, but rarely do they include beer. However, this one from Stamford University by researchers Shelley J. Correll, Sarah A. Soule, and Elise Tak suggests that gender stereotyping seriously affects the way we assess beers. And if you are a woman making a product in traditionally male-orientated markets like beer, wow, did it make for depressing reading.

The first part of the study saw participants choosing whether they associated everyday things with being masculine or feminine and, leaving aside the obviousness of high heels and men’s active wear at either end of the scale, there were some genuinely baffling results in there.

For example, if I were to say to you ‘bacon’, would you inherently associate it with being ‘masculine’? Well, if you do, I’m not sure we’re going to be friends, but then you’re not alone, because the participants of this study did, although coffee is considered gender-neutral... personally, I’m just bewildered tea wasn’t even in the equation.

Moving on, perhaps more worrying were all the other words that were associated with being ‘feminine’, like ‘stroller’ which shows how far we have to go with equality in child care has to go and also because things like ‘hand tools’ were the second most masculine associated products, which does explain why last time I went to a hardware store some well-meaning youth tried to steer me towards the ‘pink’ tools, until I meaningfully picked up a sledgehammer whilst maintaining disconcerting eye contact, that is.

And, if you’d like more weird results from this part of the study, then let me introduce you to the fact that computer monitors and printers weren’t far off as being identified as solely masculine because... I don’t know, women haven’t been involved in the invention of the computer at all right? I mean, apart from women like Ada Lovelace who wrote the first algorithm and, oh never mind, you can search all that stuff on the internet yourself.

The researchers determined that two ‘equally gendered’ products were craft beer and cupcakes, but when the 200 participants were asked to assess a craft beer label with, and without, a woman’s name on it, the beer with the woman’s name was routinely marked as less value for money and that it would be lower in their expectations of quality and taste.

However, when the same exercise was done with the cupcakes, there was negligible difference in the perception of the taste, value and overall experience of the product if it was made by a man or a woman... which is pretty astonishing when you think about it.

The one small silver lining in all of this was when the beers were assessed by a knowledgeable research candidate, because they were almost unaffected by the gender of the brewer, and nearly all candidates were warmer to the product if it had an award on the label, which seemed to ‘vouch’ for the professionalism of the brewer involved, whether male or female.

Speaking to Stamford’s Insights magazine, Correll and Soule were quick to point out that the issue is definitely not about women modifying their behaviour, but that there’s an important job to be done around changing people’s ‘stereotypical thinking when it comes to inherent bias’, which is a nice way of saying ‘sexism’.

Which brings me to the next, raging blood pressure inducing, report that came out a few weeks ago, and the second in the past year from the industry group Dea Latis, which was set up to promote women in the beer industry and encourage more women to embrace beer as an option in their social repertoire.

The reason I get up in the air about reports like this is not always because of what they contain, but because it’s what myself and God knows how many other women have been saying in the beer industry for decades now, beer advertising and marketing is nearly always male-orientated, different-sized glasses do make a difference (and that women aren’t alone in their desire for smaller glassware, particularly for higher ABV beers), branding is consistently off-putting and there is simply not enough beer education out there to engage with women, who have been utterly disenfranchised from beer over the 40-50 years or so of marketing.

But what really shocked me about this report as a whole, is the tremendous internalised misogyny that turned up in it from the female participants. When the report’s authors Annabel Smith and Lisa Harlowe deep-dived on the findings of the last report, they uncovered this awful feeling that women had of being ‘judged’ by their peers for drinking beer, the idea that they might be seen as looking ‘rough’ and from a ‘lower social class’.

Which brings me back to the comments made by Correll and Soule, when they say that it’s vital to address the issues of inherent gender bias, whether that’s through ensuring that women in the beer industry are encouraged strongly to move through the ranks, whether it’s ensuring that there are strong childcare programmes in place for all parents, putting more employees through better training and allowing them to be seen as more visible role models or whether it’s supporting initiatives that invest in women in the industry.

It’s also about eliminating a lot of the toxicity in the beer industry at the moment as well; in the rush to seem like everyone knows something, there are entire forums that are driving women away with bullying and sneering attitudes because ‘they really should know this stuff in 2019’, there are multiple figures in the industry that seem hell bent on being more ‘woke than bloke’ without stopping to think that the way they comment on issues of gender bias comes from an inherently privileged position and that holding an opinion that seems ‘right on’ isn’t the same as being ‘on side’.

And there’s a job to do by all of us, industry and drinker alike, to educate each other with kindness - in the current political climate this has never seemed more necessary but we all seem to be in such a hurry to cut each other down in order to have the last word, often due to frustration and exasperation, myself included at times, so perhaps we could take a moment to remember that beer is the ultimate social lubricant, and that we could all use it to rub along a little more civilly. 

On a happier note though:

I have a few bits of happy news that I feel like I should share to counter-act some of my doom and gloom!

The thing I am most excited about at the moment is the prospect of visiting the new Rooster’s brewery tap. Rooster’s, for those of you who don’t know, was responsible for my beer epiphany and it holds a seriously dear place in my heart as a result.

The new-look CBR in Hyde Park in summer has certainly piqued my interest, I don’t have a lot of information about it at the moment but I’m excited, if only for the fact that it’ll be nice to be at one of their events that doesn’t leave me with the possibility of losing a toe on the cold Old Truman Brewery concrete floors.

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