Sexism in Beer: Introduction

This is part two of a four-part series on sexism in the beer industry. The rest of the series includes: part two, the experiences of women, part three, a brewer's perspective, and part four, what you can do.

Men dominate the beer industry. This is not a controversial observation. Current statistics are spotty, but as recently as four years ago just 4% of the country’s head brewers were women, and just 2% of the breweries were exclusively women-owned. Things have definitely changed since then, but parity is a long way off. Given the recent cases of harassment by powerful men in other industries, many people have used this moment to subject the beer industry to a good, hard look. Is it a sexist environment? A dangerous one? Are women prevented from entering the field or succeeding because of institutional barriers? These are all important questions, and I'll be devoting a series investigating them this week at Beervana.

Tomorrow I'll post a long piece that details the experiences of women who work throughout the beer world, from the brewhouse to sales, distribution, and retail, as well as women who write about beer. On Wednesday, I have a guest post from working brewer who provides her own unvarnished experience. And finally, on Thursday I'll post an article about what we can all do to make our corners of the beer world a more welcoming and safe place for women.

There is an important context to all of this, however. The reason we're taking a new look at behavior in the workplace isn't because we've only just discovered the pervasiveness of harassment. That has been around, and tolerated, for a long time. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, for the first time we've begun to question why we tolerate sexism and harassment. It's a watershed moment because the invisible superstructure that supports this toxic culture is itself being questioned.

Humans are social beings--so much so that our consciousness is substantially formed by the social world we inhabit. The unacknowledged (and usually unnoticed) agreements we have with each other allow us literally to navigate our world. This starts at the level of language, and how we speak reflects thousands of little agreements we share. Some cultures have different parts of speech for people of different status, which codifies power. Others have gendered nouns, which is a different and more subtle way of enforcing a gendered worldview.

The little rules are everywhere. How close do people stand to one another? How do they greet each other? How do women and men speak to one another? What type of clothing do people wear—at home, in public, at work? What foods are considered appropriate? The list goes on and on, but the upshot is this: so much of what we consider “natural” and “normal” are actually social norms we’ve spent centuries refining. They are not inviolable natural law; they're unspoken agreements.

Within a society, we can have little glimpses of these formerly-invisible structures of consciousness when certain norms are questioned. That very thing happened when the #MeToo movement was sparked by a rash of especially egregious cases of sexual assault. As one abject example, in Hollywood the “casting couch” was considered a hazard of the trade, something young women were expected to navigate as a matter of course. Following the revelations about how Harvey Weinstein systematically preyed on women for decades, everyone stopped to consider, with horror, this “normal” danger. On what planet was this all right?

Not every field is as sociopathic as Hollywood, but few are left unsullied by at least a residue of sexism. Thanks to the light #MeToo has begun to shine on these issues, we are getting a high-def look at that residue, and it’s not always pretty. Within beer, this has begun happening as well. The borderline misogynist commercials of the 80s and 90s would be entirely unacceptable today. Casual sexism of the kind that routinely appears on beer labels now attracts widespread condemnation. What is less obvious is how much of this flows naturally from the latent sexism--or simple masculinity--of an industry dominated by men and the perspective men hold.

The overt sexism of advertising is only one dimension. We as a culture hold many assumptions about the places of men and women in the brewery, in the office, in the pub, and as customers. Nearly all of these assumptions were created by men who don't see women as equal partners--many times, by men who don't see women at all. This is a rare moment in which we can consider what might change if we include the voices and presence of women.

I hope the next few days offer a start to this discussion.

I am a white, fifty-year-old man—precisely the demographic most responsible for creating and maintaining the current culture in beer. When I first encountered a case of harassment, I did what most men have done since #MeToo arrived: I threw up my hands and thought, “This is not my war to fight.” There’s a benign element to this (the last thing the world needs is another 50-year-old, white mansplainer), but also something cowardly. People like me failed to notice the toxic culture around us, we benefited from it, and in our neglect we allowed it to flourish. It’s inexcusable to now say, “Sorry we broke this, but it’s up to you alone to fix it.”  

I have a platform here at Beervana, and I am hoping to give it over to the voices of women in the coming days. I’ll be writing most of the posts, but you’ll be hearing their voices. Throughout this process, I’ve done my best to simply listen and learn, and I hope the posts contain simple reflection (and minimal mansplaining!). It has been enormously enlightening to speak to these women, at times harrowing, but at other times hopeful. Men of goodwill are victims of toxic culture as well, and in listening and learning, we have the chance to help transform our cultures (whether workplace or social). Indeed, men have to be a part of the solution. It's in this spirit that I've approached this series.