Sexism in Beer: The Experiences of Women
A few months back, a woman contacted me about sexual harassment she had experienced. This was just weeks after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke and at the start of the #MeToo movement. I met with the woman and heard her story, and guessed by what she’d told me that she wasn’t the only who had experienced sexism, harassment, and possibly worse. After that initial conversation, I sat down with six other women and had written conversations with another seven. They work in many areas of beer—brewing, sales and distribution, retail, and journalism. Some have been in their jobs a long time, some are relatively new to it. About two-thirds were from Oregon, but others were spread around the country.
My goal in speaking with these women was just to listen. One of the tragedies of the #MeToo movement is that men have been blind to it, and their silence allowed it to continue. I wanted to understand the scope of women's experiences, and I wasn’t even sure an article would come of it. I did post one, somewhat oblique article about this in December, but I continued to hear from other women (and one good-hearted man).
What follows is my best effort to reveal what these women said so that others can benefit from their stories as I have done. Once our conversations started, I realized that harassment is only one dimension of the difficulties presented to women trying to flourish in a heavily male-dominated world. Women do face harassment, but beyond that they are often marginalized, ignored, and belittled in ways intended and not. The whole cloth of their experience is valuable in understanding what it’s like to be a woman working in this masculine world of beer.
I have decided not to ask the women to reveal their names. All of them wish to remain working in the beer world and are hopeful things are changing (and the beer world is in many ways no worse for women than the world world). Their identities are really far less important than their words—and I hope as you read this you’ll see that they ring true.
The stats for the number of women in brewing aren’t easy to come by, but the picture they paint are stark. Only two percent of breweries have women-only founders. Just four percent of breweries have a woman as brewmaster. The numbers increase somewhat if you include any female ownership—but still only brings the number to 20%. Though things are changing, breweries remain overwhelmingly dominated by men. As a consequence, walking into a brewery is something like entering a locker room. Men exist in a state of unguarded masculinity. They may not be overtly sexist in their behavior (most aren’t), but they behave like no women are even around. Women walking into this space land on the periphery—allowed in, but only on the condition that they adapt themselves to the way of things. “You have to have a pretty thick skin,” a brewer told me. “There’s just a lot of joking around in such a male-dominated field.”
For women walking into this world, it feels absolute and pervasive. A woman who works with breweries told me, “As a woman, it’s always there. ‘That’s just the way that boys and men behave’ is something that is pretty much drilled into you as a girl.” My sense in talking to these women is that even though the experience is pervasive, it also feels normal in a strange way. Three of the women I spoke to even used that word. “This way is so normal, so you haven’t thought about it,” a brewer told me. Despite calling it “normal,” the reality is that it's an alien world for many women. One told me, “It’s exhausting for women to fight in the world every day just for their space, let alone to be safe in that space, or to flourish in that space.”
The pervasive sense of masculinity isn’t as strong outside the brewhouse. Some women reported that their experiences were generally positive. “I also just may have fewer of these interactions,” a woman who works in retail told me. “This could possibly be because I am married and am somewhat in a position of power.” A writer echoed this sentiment. “I also want to make clear that most men I’ve encountered in the beer industry are kind, professional, and respectful.” Still, she acknowledged the other side of the equation. “That said, I know that sexual harassment exists in the restaurant industry, the beer industry and in every industry.”
This was something most of the women mentioned—the beer industry isn’t a special case. Everywhere you look, the rules are different for men and women. The beer industry may have a more entrenched sense of masculinity, but it wasn’t worse than any other part of society. “Grocery shopping, gas stations, soccer practice, church, the office—it’s everywhere.” Men may find it hard to hear this—I did—but women report experiencing sexism in every corner of society.
The Worse Old Days
That’s not to say that things are static. Two of the women I spoke to have been in the beer industry for a decade or two, and they pointed out how things used to be far worse. A woman working in retail told a simple story that helps put it in context.
“My husband and I like to have family TV nights where we watch an episode with our kids. We often go back to some of our childhood favorites only to realize that the general family sitcom of the 80s is unacceptable for my kids to see. They are full of sexual innuendos, belittling stereotypes, and what we deem as sexual harassment. Watching these shows, I realize how much I’ve been exposed to these unacceptable behaviors my whole life and am very conscious on passing on a healthier and more progressive understanding of what a woman should and shouldn’t endure to my kids.”
If you look at the craft beer world, as recently as ten years ago, it was extremely rare to find a woman in the brewhouse. Twenty years ago, it was considered normal that women would function merely as sexual objects for men drinking beer. One of the most harrowing stories came from a woman working in distribution. As a young woman in the mid-1990s, she encountered some behavior that seems shocking by today’s standards.
“My colleagues would invite girls into the office to ‘interview’ them to be Bud Girls. The girls would put on Budweiser bikinis and march around the marketing department in front of me while all of the boys took photos and gawked. They’d pin the pictures to the bulletin board and talk about the ‘candidates’ all day while boys from the other departments came by to see and vote. Then they would sit around and play ‘hot or not’ for the rest of the day. They would take me to female strip clubs for lunch and think it was funny. I was trying to fit in but having a difficult time finding my space. I really liked the people I worked with, but didn’t necessarily condone their behavior.”
As she continued in her career, the men actively tried to flush her out of the industry.
“The company was basically being run by a bunch of good ‘ol boys who thought that I was a joke. They never sought out to teach me a single thing. They never wanted me around and they didn’t respect me. While they’d all leave the office to go golfing, I took up golf. While they left the office early to go boozing, I walked around the building and talked to my colleagues and learned what they were doing. I read everything I could. I signed up for every training class. I attended every meeting I could whether I was invited or not because I wanted to learn. I listened and I learned. I took on every job that others didn’t want to do.”
In order to succeed in her career, this woman had to be so much better than her co-workers that her contribution couldn’t be ignored. To get the same consideration for advancement men received routinely, she had to demonstrably outperform them. Her story ended happily, but the expectation that women needed to be twice as good as men to get the same professional opportunities was a given at the time.
Far more common now are constant cases of subtle denigration. I heard examples of this from every woman I spoke to. A brewer, recalling her time as a server, told me, “When I served beer, everyone assumed I knew nothing and would ask the men.” Another woman working in retail explained how male co-workers would interrupt her when talking to customers and interject their (often inaccurate) comments, sometimes entirely hijacking conversations.
A writer mentioned another very common experience. “I feel like I always have to prove myself,” she said. “When I tell men I have beer knowledge, they tell me theirs.” She encountered men who assumed she didn’t know what she was talking about and tried to correct her. Another time, she was judging beer and the lead judge wouldn’t look at her, but did look at all the other male judges. “As a woman you are sometimes not acknowledged. It’s demeaning.”
Female brewers encounter men—not usually in the brewery—who think they’re not competent. One mentioned that when the delivery drivers show up and she starts to load kegs into the truck, she often hears something offensive. “One asked the other [male] brewer, ‘Can she handle this?’ One guy said, ‘Oh honey, what can I do?’” This was a pervasive attitude and she said it felt like, “Isn’t that cute? She thinks she’s a brewer.” In this case, the brewer set the driver straight, though. She told him, “Why don’t you go fill out the paperwork and I’ll load the truck? Also, my name’s not Honey.”
One constant refrain I heard was that men always assumed women were in marketing and sales when they met them. One brewer told a story of being out with one of her brewery’s sales staff, a man, when they stopped to look at a grain mill for the brewery. The man who came to answer questions assumed the man was the brewer. Female brewers tell versions of this story over and over again. Perhaps the most passionate comment I received on this point, though, came from a male brewer who had witnessed it himself. “When you go to a beer industry event, everyone—meaning bearded brewing dudes—assumes that the women are all in sales and marketing. And I find that absolute bullshit. So every asshole says, ‘So, are you in marketing?’ as a ‘polite’ opening. They may mean well, and are not being predatory at all, but the pure sexism of it all is just so crappy.”
While women have to put up with standard-issue sexism all the time, it sometimes escalates and becomes an actively hostile workplace. One brewer mentioned that men constantly sexualized her when she formerly worked as a server. Another expressed concern about sexualization and pointed out that when she wore her standard brewer gear it didn’t happen much, but if she dressed more “girly,” it did.
The demeaning approach from men can become extreme. A woman working in distribution described how her male coworkers used to treat her.
“My boss said, ‘Put on that cute little tennis skirt and get out of the beer business.’ He assigned meaningless tasks to me. He would bully me into being at the office at 5:30 a.m. every day. He made me drink at sleazy bars with him. He made me be a merchandiser or sales representative on routes that took me to the rural areas of the state where I was constantly harassed by on-premise owners.”
A writer encountered a situation in which a brewery owner was abusive during an interview. “I knew that our exchange was, in a way, newsworthy. But I felt I didn’t want to become ‘that chick beer writer who complained about XYZ’ and have that be what I was known for.” She wasn’t scarred by it, she says, “But it does represent a time I felt really low about my ability to be taken seriously in the industry. I was a professional, conducting an on-the-record phone interview, and I couldn’t even get usable quotes from the exchange. This brewery’s sexually problematic conversation literally left me unable to do my job.”
Finally, one brewer described a bizarre situation in which she wasn’t hired for a job. The owner apologized, but said his wife objected to him working with a woman. This was problematic for many reasons, but she pointed to the thing that bothered her most as a woman. “Why did he and his wife assume I was sexually available?” she asked. Unfortunately, this assumption seems far too common.
The worst cases are the most severe. I didn’t speak to any women who told me they had been raped in the workplace—but a woman well-placed to know said explicitly that such things have happened. “Women have been raped and sexually assaulted in our industry,” she told me bluntly. To warn other women away from these businesses, two women mentioned under-the-radar resources that circulate among women in the industry to avoid these workplaces.
Far more common is the kind of sexual harassment that can derail a career or drive a woman from her job. One woman was harassed by an executive at a brewery where she was working. He would do things like put money in her back pocket and make lewd comments. She recalled him looking at artwork and commenting, “The boobs on my body are better than the ones on that.” When she rejected him it prevented her from moving up the ladder because he called her “hard to work with.” No one backed her in the organization, including women in the company, one of whom told her, “You’re just interpreting it wrong.” She was told that if she didn’t rock the boat, her career would advance. She ended up leaving the brewery.
Another woman working in sales had a similar experience. Over the course of two years, she was constantly harassed by a coworker. “While I was at a work lunch, alone with a distribution manager, the man began asking me explicit questions about my sexuality, sexual history, and began telling me details of his own. After that instance, he began belittling me professionally and was incredibly hard to work with.” She eventually ended up leaving the position. That story, too, has a happy ending; she decided to fight back and hired an investigator and is going back to her position. It made me wonder, though: how many women out there had stories that ended unhappily and no longer feel safe working in beer?
A final example I heard about wasn't a case of workplace harassment. The woman to whom it happened works in administration and is also very active in her local beer community. One of the men in the community began giving her way more attention than she wanted—both online and in real life. She told him to stop, but he didn’t—and in fact sent her a message telling her she couldn’t escape him. She didn’t want to use the word “stalking,” though his behavior seems to qualify. The worst part was that since the beer community was so small, she couldn’t get away from him. He found her on social media, at beer events, pubs, and festivals. This made him not only difficult to evade, but drained away the joy she felt in participating in these events.
She wasn’t certain if the man’s goal was to intimidate her or was some kind of extremely awkward attempt to charm her, but whatever his intentions, his behavior was exhausting. “This takes up so much fucking time in my day,” she said. The comment was specific to her situation, but when I mentioned the quote to other women, they nodded with recognition. It’s a sentiment that women related to in many different contexts.
How to Handle Matters?
Amid this wide range of experiences, women weren’t entirely sure how to manage their situations. A writer explained that the force of the culture encourages women to ignore men behaving badly. “I think that women are implicitly encouraged to downplay their feelings about incidents such as this; we tell ourselves that others have had it worse, that this happens in every industry, that it really wasn’t a huge deal. At best, that can help some women move on rather than getting stuck on an incident, but at worst it trivializes this behavior and perpetuates it.” One woman I spoke to who doesn’t work in the beer industry put it this way: “Our membership in the community is purchased by our silence.”
Even active measures can seem like ways to avoid the situation rather than confront it. A writer described one tactic she had used.
“For example, during GABF, it was always common for my male colleagues to go out with [men from the industry] until the wee hours of the night, drinking and carousing. And hey, that’s what GABF is for! But my female editor and I usually only stayed out until 11 or so, because parties seemed to get rowdier and drunker after that, and it seemed prudent to go back to our hotel rooms, sleep, and get ready for the next day. Part of this was for our own health’s sake, but it was also to avoid any potential awkwardness or uncomfortable circumstances that could come from ending up as the sole woman out at a brewery party at 3 a.m.”
Men are generally unwilling or unable to reach out and be leaders in changing the culture, but one brewer said she’d noticed that her presence alone was changing things. She has observed how her presence creates a different consciousness in the men around her. “They no longer say things like, ‘You’re a pussy’ around me—they have the capacity to police themselves.” Nevertheless, she also knows that she’s going to have to lead the way. “Women are responsible for being the diplomats.” In order to ease this transition, they have to be the ones to make it easy for men. She feels that’s unfair, but also that it’s the only way things are going to change.
Women brewers have formed a tight-knit community in Portland (the majority of the women I spoke to) and this has also helped create a sense of consciousness among their male peers. One brewer referred to them as her “lady brewer girl gang.” They all have this sense of shared experience. Although most are tomboy types, she says, “we’re never going to be one of the boys.” Having a group allows them to commiserate in solidarity. As women become more common in the workplace, they are changing the culture just by being present.
Hope for the Change
One of the main reasons women didn’t want to go on the record for this story was because they feel hopeful about the direction things are headed. The beer world is an exciting place to work. There’s something inherently satisfying about making a tangible product, and whether the women were making, distributing, selling, or writing about beer, they enjoy being in this industry.
When they looked to the future, they were hopeful. Each generation gets more comfortable having women in the workplace and better able to see them as equals. A few of the women I spoke to mentioned that younger male coworkers were better than the older generation. One brewer said, “Age definitely plays a role. Young people, my generation, seem to behave differently. Older guys are more ignorant.” Another woman who had worked for wineries drew a contrast there. “The beer industry is younger. It was worse when I worked in the wine industry because it’s older and feels like an old-boy’s club.”
There may be regional variations as well. If so, Portland may be ahead of the game. “The brewers themselves have been awesome,” one mentioned, before adding that “it may be a Portland thing. It’s more progressive here.” A woman working in retail also wondered if Portland might be unusual. “I very much have enjoyed my career as a woman in the Portland beer industry,” she said.
As an outside observer, I’ve noticed that the number of women in positions of power and respect—particularly brewers—has jumped by an order of magnitude in the past five years. This has begun to change the dynamic. I’ve watched men hesitate when they start speaking as they reexamine their prejudices. It’s far from universal, but illustrates the power of having women increasingly seen as experts. One woman mentioned that her company had transformed radically, and this was having a real impact on the dynamic. “We had seven members on our executive team: three women and four men. Our executive team was also racially diverse. We had women in every department and several in management.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but one of the most profound ways to change the culture is to change the people. As more women enter this field, they will naturally change behavior.
No one likes to dwell on the uglier side of sexism and sexual harassment. The women I spoke to were largely cheerful and positive about their jobs and the industry they worked in. They certainly don’t want their identities reduced to victims, and I don’t think they would want this post to end on that note.
I’ll shift to my own experience in speaking with these women. I got very emotional when I heard their stories, and found myself deeply inspired by the grace with which they handle their situations. They are so often held to a series of invisible standards: because the assumption is they can’t do their jobs as well as men, they have to turn around and do them better than their male coworkers; when subjected to harassment or sexism, they’re expected to handle it with grace and not upset or embarrass their coworkers; and they’re expected to conform to the ways of men unquestioningly so that men don’t have to examine whether those ways are abusive, selective, self-serving, or just plain wrong. It is unfair, and as I listened I burned with the injustice of it.
The women who spoke to me for this project gave me the rare gift of feeling a bit of their experience. Women working in beer now are part of a pioneering generation; they’re willing to put up with a lot of frankly unacceptable behavior knowing that the next generation who come in will find a better place. This is not the first generation of women in the beer industry, but they will likely be the generation that changes things permanently. They are bold, brave women, and I admire them tremendously.