An Industry in Transition: Tips for Women and Men Who Want to Succeed Together


By Tammy Baiz, Solutions Espresso

I have worked in the specialty coffee industry for over 17 years. As I meet and get to know customers, vendors, and peers, I am often asked how I got in the business. The story is long, and romantic, and eventually devolves into sea stories of my days as an Oceanographic Technician. The transition into specialty coffee as co-owner of both a service company and a coffee shop was personally difficult. I went from a strong, confident woman who was very good at her job, to a complete novice. I didn’t know anything about coffee, business, or fixing espresso machines, and was out of my element for years. I never thought I would be in this moment, able to claim that my career as an oceanographic technician helped prepare me for a career in specialty coffee. Not only did my experiences as a field technician enable me to understand what coffee techs go through in the field, it has also provided me a unique perspective on the current drive to achieve diversity in the industry. 

The #MeToo movement is highlighting gender relationships in the workplace, and the imbalance of power. People in power have done horrific and criminal acts, and their companies and cohorts have protected them. Businesses, organizations, and government are under enormous pressure to ensure all genders and races are not only included and welcomed into their workforces, but treated equally and fairly. The Specialty Coffee Association is no different, and is making great efforts to diversify, including inviting and engaging women in SCA activities, and specifically in the Coffee Technicians Guild. This outreach is actually a difficult enterprise. In the U.S., the specialty coffee technical force has been predominantly white male for a very long time. Other countries may also see their technical workforce defined by a particular gender, race, culture, or economic class. This reality may not mean other races and genders were actively excluded, it may just mean the people who chose to engage in the field, fit a certain demographic. Expanding that demographic will benefit the industry, however, the process will be tricky and sometimes uncomfortable. The lessons I learned as one of very few women in the predominantly white male oceanographic technical force, may be helpful to all of us participating in this process.

Don’t just be gender and color-blind in hiring, also be gender and color-blind when looking “up”

There is no doubt that women and people of color have been discriminated against in society and in the workplace. Discrimination is often overt, but sometimes it is through an unconscious bias. We are all being called to examine our own habits and conscience when hiring and promoting individuals, to ensure we are looking at attitudes and experience over shape and form. When I began my career in oceanography, I was hired by a middle-aged white man, into a department of middle-aged white men. I wasn’t the first female technician; I was told there had been a previous woman in the department, “but she didn’t work out." I was never told why. There were no women to mentor me and no women in my direct leadership hierarchy. At the time there wasn’t really pressure to have more women in the industry, so I wasn’t a “token female” hired to fill some quota. I was hired for my confidence and my skillset. If I had walked into that job, with a chip on my shoulder because I was alone and outnumbered, I would have failed to recognize the wealth of knowledge represented by this group of veterans. I would have been too busy proving I could do it myself to learn what I need to learn to be successful.  

These men had been there in the early days of oceanographic research and had developed a lot of the procedures and techniques themselves. We have that same resource in the CTG. It is important that we don’t get so embarrassed by the current demographic that we lose the resource they represent. It is equally important to recognize that being the “first” or the “only” doesn’t mean you are a “token,” but instead part of the evolution of the industry. If it turns out you do represent an attempt to be more inclusive, then make the most of it. We all need to make the most of our opportunities, learning as much as we can from those with more experience regardless of their differences from us. You may end up changing some attitudes, breaking down biases, and paving the way for others, or you may simply gain the necessary skills to move on and up in your career.

Recognize the work space and who is at work

One of the common themes of the #MeToo movement is that men in positions of power believe their female subordinates are “consenting adults” and acting out of free will. This is simply not true, and everyone in power positions, regardless of gender, needs to recognize that. When a person who is your subordinate is with you, that person is “at work” regardless of the setting, and so are you.  

One of the ships I worked on had bunk rooms instead of individual staterooms. Six people, regardless of gender, would share a room with 3 sets of bunk beds. One night before an early morning departure, I went down to sleep on the ship. Unbeknownst to me, there was a new crew member asleep in the science bunk room and I accidentally woke him up as I was stowing my gear. A few minutes after crawling into my bunk to go to sleep, he put his head through the curtains of my bunk and asked if I wanted some company. It was startling and scary. I was trapped with no escape and I didn’t know this man. However, I simply said, “No. NO!” and he went away. I wasn’t assaulted and he wasn’t my boss. This experience was minor. What so many women have experienced in the workplace is abusive and insidious. I share this episode because it does highlight a clear difference in our perspectives during the incident. He thought I was in his bedroom, but I knew I was at work.  

Some people in power just have poor character, but sometimes the abuse of power begins in subtle ways. If you are flying to a conference with a coworker and are having drinks at the airport bar, whoever is the subordinate is at work. If you are riding in a van to a job site, talking about plans for the weekend, you are still at work. If you are in a position of power, regardless of whether you are a male or female, your subordinates are always “at work” when they are with you. Accept it and behave yourselves!

Reputational Risk is real and is evaluated differently by men and women

Owners and operators of businesses assume reputational risk every time they send an employee out unsupervised to represent them. But individuals assume reputational risk daily, usually without even realizing it. Women constantly have to gauge and adjust how they present themselves, out of fear of being perceived too bitchy, too ditzy, too trashy or too nasty. If she’s too smart she’s threatening; if she’s too pretty she’s not serious. If she cries, she is weak. If she’s in a meeting and gets aggressive, she’s likely to be labelled a “bitch," whereas a man might be labelled “intense." If a woman is hanging out with a group of male co-workers, she has to calculate the risk in participating in a bawdy joke. Five out of six guys might just think of her as “one of the boys,” but at least one will think she’s flirting and act on it.    

In today’s politically-correct climate, I hear men complaining that they have to be so careful in what they say and do. Frankly, it is about time. If you are at work and behaving or speaking in ways that you wouldn’t want your wife or daughter to know about, you need to adjust your behavior. Instead of waxing nostalgic about the "good old days," concentrate on making the industry a safe and welcoming place for your daughters and granddaughters to find careers.

I am excited about the creation of the Coffee Technicians Guild and the growth and evolution of our industry. I look forward to a great future, where we are naturally diverse and not thinking about whether we are appropriately diverse. By the time I left my 10-year oceanographic career, my boss had hired 6 more women. Four “didn’t work out” for various reasons, but 2 of them continued their oceanographic technical careers eventually moving up and out to other departments and facilities. The port captain fired that sailor who asked if I wanted company because his daughter was entering the maritime industry and he knew the industry had no place for men who didn’t recognize what behavior was appropriate in the workplace. Diversity and awareness will happen in this industry, one hire at a time. In the meantime, do not ever mistake a room full of specialty coffee technicians as being a boys' club with a few representative tokens. I may be in that room, and I am not, nor will I ever be, a token. I have attended several mostly-male events, and I have been welcomed and accepted on sight, before they even knew me. One thing to remember about specialty coffee technicians: we are all in this together and we are all ready to get to work.