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“More and more women are working in beer, but the culture has not caught up.”

Claire Luchette
June 26, 2017

This spring the Brewer’s Association, the national group that represents small, independent beer brewers took a stand some felt was long overdue: They came out against derogatory beer labels, issuing official guidelines on how to avoid demeaning advertisements. But for many women in the industry, beers with names like Double D and Leg Spreader (which had buxom women on the labels to match the names) are more than just provocative branding. They reflect what they feel are the problematic gender dynamics that remain part of their world.

A May article in The Guardian explored how female-owned breweries are working to eliminate sexism, and Julia Herz, the program director for Brewers’ Association in the US, said sexist incidents are “rare bad examples in a much larger sea of good.” But for many women in the industry, these post-gender breweries feel like exceptions. Working in mostly-male environments can mean isolation, unequal treatment and lack of support for female employees. Laura Palmer, the Oregon market manager for 21st Amendment Brewery, jokes that the main issue is “everybody sucks.” On sales calls, for example, Palmer says she’s treated differently than her male coworkers, which can range from being ignored to flirted with to blatantly harassed.

“You see female sales reps expected to be experts in wine and beer, while dudes are only expected to know beer,” says Palmer. “So women have to work twice as hard, and they get less respect and get paid less." Then, there’s the issue of infrastructure. Women who wish to file complaints about male higher-ups often have no one to turn to—smaller companies rarely hire HR representatives.

Women are finding ways to bind together. In 2007, brewmaster Teri Fahrendorf started the Pink Boots Society, an Oregon-based network of female beer workers that’s focused on providing education opportunities for women. “There is no gender-based glass ceiling in the beer industry; there is only an education-based glass ceiling,” says executive director Emily Engdahl.The group was created, Engdahl says, “to assist, inspire and encourage women beer industry professionals to advance their careers through education.”

Yet many women disagree that the answer lies in educating women, a tactic that ignores the problem of harassment. For Palmer, lack of respect is the biggest issue. No one expects female sales reps to know anything about their products, she says. They often ignore her, or don’t listen to information unless it’s presented by a male colleague. And, in many liquor companies, women are still expected to work as promo girls, and wearing revealing clothing is part of the job description. 

As more and more women are working in client-facing jobs in beer sales and marketing, the work of brewing is still mostly done by men. Female brewers are expected to conform to their work environments—to lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg advises, but it feels more like “manning up.” Since she started her job a year ago, Colleen Rankin, the assistant brewer at Sam Bond’s, has had to wear too-large men’s rubber gloves while brewing and cleaning equipment. Her boss said buying new gloves that fit her would not be worth the expense. “I feel like the gloves are an everyday reminder of the broad subjugation and othering of women in brewing,” Rankin says.

At brewers’ meetings in Eugene, Oregon, Rankin says sales reps are referred to as “sales guys.” And until recently, most brewing jobs were posted as the gender-specific “Cellarman.” Now, many companies invite applications for the positions of “Cellar Technician” and “Cellar Supervisor.”

“More and more women are working in beer, but the culture has not caught up,” Rankin says. There has, however, been progress. Besides issuing guidance on derogatory labeling, the April announcement by the Brewers Association also made it clear than beers submitted to the Association’s annual Great American Beer Festival and biannual World Beer Cup would be subject to review, and the Association can refuse to announce aloud any questionable names—although beers with problematic labels and names can still compete and win.  

Some women believe things will change. Bre Goulette, an assistant brewer at PlankTown Brewing, hopes more women will seek to change the industry from the mash tuns to the marketplace. “Brewing is hard, heavy, dirty work,” she says. “However, I don't think this has to stop anyone. I would love to see more women in the industry, and I think we will.”

Engdahl at the Pink Boots Society is optimistic, too. The organization is thriving, she says, and she hopes that eventually, “’females in brewing’ will cease to be a necessary subgroup of the larger brewing industry.”

Until then, the work of changing the culture is left in the hands of the few women working behind the scenes. Rankin, for one, is eager to push back. She just bought her own gloves and plans to expense them. She says, “It took me a year to feel like creating the waves might be worth the trouble.”