The Margaret Thatcher Effect – On Masculinity, Value and Coffee

As I passed by another brand new hip coffee shop in South London the other day, a frightening realisation struck me. Just as much as women’s ‘roles’ or rather what has traditionally been recognised as such, tend to be devalued, those assumed to be masculine for some reason have more value attached to them, both in terms of perceived importance, as well as in remuneration. But the frightening part of it all is that the same is still true. Additionally, there is still a noticeable adverse knock-on effect of a change in perceived masculinity or femininity of roles, on women’s pay.

Let’s take the coffee shop business as an example. While café work is traditionally perceived as low-skill and low paid, a new variety of, predominantly bearded, expert baristas has more recently started taking over London, and other parts of the world it seems, as I witnessed on my trip to Poland last year. This new breed of, again, predominantly male, coffee making specialist, is fast becoming a profession of sorts, with a whole range of hot spots around the city, hip magazines, coffee tasting apps, specialist training and equipment, and eye-watering prices to match the craze.

Out of interest, I had to check whether my theory about diminishing wages in female dominated professions was also going to prove true in reverse, about the changing nature of the coffee business, since the bearded men have started taking over it, and I looked up remuneration bands for baristas. Indeed, what I found, although I don’t claim to have done extensive, scientific research into this, confirmed my expectations. While barista roles in your standard café, which usually employs young women, don’t tend to pay much more than a minimum wage, those in small, specialist, high-end coffee shops, which tend to charge a premium for their product and… employ bearded baristas, have a pay premium of about 20 per cent.

The question that keeps ringing in my head this afternoon is whether the same thing would have been true if women were to lead this new trend of the cool coffee making expert. Now, although I really don’t know for sure, I suspect it would not. I couldn’t find any academic papers on the topic… Perhaps it’s time for me to re-join the academia and do some proper digging into the dark side of the new coffee business trend..? I did find this quote, that still seems fitting, in a 20 year old Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, book though:

“Gynocentric feminism defines women’s oppression as the devaluation and repression of women’s experience by a masculine culture that exalts violence and individualism”

Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl

Don’t get me wrong, I do love good coffee myself, with a passion in fact, as you can probably figure out from the theme of this blog. But I don’t seem to fit into this brave new world of hipster coffee makers, not as well as the bearded man who usually serves my coffee these days anyway… Considering that I don’t have the capacity to grow a beard, I suspect I might never…

It might seem like my theory is a bit far-fetched, but actually, if you look back a few years, and remember the days when cooking was perceived to be a female domain, there were scarcely any male chefs prancing around on the TV, talking about a piece of meat on the grill as if it was the best thing under the sun… And now? Nearly all of the most renowned chefs in the world seem to be men, and if you wish to get into one of their fancy restaurants to treat your loved ones to the priciest dinner you’ve ever had, you better be prepared to book twelve months in advance…

But the question of value of the masculine and the feminine struck me for another reason that day. As I was passing by the hip coffee shop that afternoon, I was on my way back home from a charity sector training event. The trainees were predominantly female. For about 10 women in the room, there was one man. And this wasn’t the first event of the type that I went to – and they all tend to have a similar gender ratio. I do ask myself the ‘why’ question in most situations like these, but something different was on my mind that time. What struck me then was the question of value. We all know that charity jobs don’t tend to be the best paid ones out there, as non-profits have to ensure that the biggest chunk of their income goes towards the cause that they support, and so those that work in the sector tend to look for more of a balance between remuneration and job satisfaction, rather than simply just a fat paycheque. But what really struck me was just how big the gender imbalance in the sector was. And then I saw the bearded men behind the café bar… and it hit me.

Then, a couple of days ago, after all that happened, I went to a women in tech event, and the focus throughout was on how to encourage more females into the industry, with a big emphasis on promoting women into senior and CEO roles. What seemed to be completely missing was the reasons why women might not want to go into the industry in the first place. We still have a massive problem with sexism very early on in the educational system, with girls being discouraged, even if they show an interest in technical subjects. Not to mention the persistent sex discrimination problem in the industry. The emphasis was on how women must be more assertive in asking for promotions and money… But the question that was completely missing from the conversation for me is – do women really want be CEO’s? Is the fat paycheque really worth having to be forced to behave more ‘like a man’?

A couple of months earlier, I went to another women in tech event, one that opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. Until that day, I didn’t know that I was a techy woman myself! I didn’t know that I could design an app without knowing how to code! I didn’t know about hackathons that, by encouraging women to work in gender-balanced or female-only teams, allowed them to outperform the men, finding new ways to work.

That day, I discovered a new way of looking at the tech world that was almost mystical to me all my life. And so, perhaps it is time we stopped blaming women for problems that are down to discrimination so deeply seated that even senior women within the industry cannot see it themselves?

Where women go, the value of work done seems to drop, if we look at it in monetary terms, and the reverse seems to happen when men step in. Women also tend to choose work in the non-profit sector more often than men. While the number of women in tech careers does actually drop by almost a half, due to discrimination, by the time those who’ve qualified reach 30,  despite bulky remuneration packages. And still, economists seem to think that only when enough women have reached the top in the FTSE100 companies, will we have reached equality… Yet, at the same time, senior men (AND women) in tech seem to be stereotyping against junior women, advising them to be more assertive, rather than looking into the deep seated reasons that push them away from STEM careers. Something has got to give.

Perhaps it is time we redefined the concepts of value and success altogether? Perhaps it is time that we, at long last, started thinking about parenthood as something of high value to society that should be shared equally, so that women have real choices they can make, rather than having to choose between career and kids. Perhaps it is time that we started seeing that there is a world of work of value of there in the non-profit sector that does not float on the stock market, and taking it into account when we look at how far women have come? Perhaps then, we will stop, however unconscious it may be, thinking that having our coffee prepared by someone with distinctive facial hair makes it somehow better…

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