When I heard CAMRA’s Manchester Beer Festival was holding a debate on sexism in the beer industry I knew I had to go. I’ve written about women and beer many times, including in this column but after Wild Card Brewery’s Jaega Wise spoke out about the issue I started to wonder if I ought to be saying or doing more. So in a way my going to the debate was a way of testing that.
The panel was made up of four women and one man, and chaired by a woman. So far, so feminist. But once they started sharing some truly depressing accounts of sexism it hit home: we all ought to be doing more to make the pub and beer industry more egalitarian – for those who work in it as well as for consumers.
Asked for their experiences of sexism in the industry, it was striking that male panellist Barry Shaw of the Beerhouses pub group said he’d never experienced it, while all of the women on the panel had. Being patronised while choosing a beer or accused of not really being a beer lover were some of the milder examples.
The panel discussed why sexism still happens. Responses ranged from people being ‘desensitised’ because belittling, patronising and objectifying women – be it casually or more forcefully – is often the norm; assumptions about women not drinking beer leading to marketing and advertising still being tailored to men; on to lack of action from organisations like SIBA and CAMRA. Still showing leadership on the issue, Jaega Wise flagged the problem of ‘unconscious bias’. “We need to recognise it when it’s under the radar, people making the decision [to be
sexist] without realising it,” she said.
By coincidence, an edition of the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme broadcast soon after the debate looked at exactly that issue – and is well worth a listen. It examined how even those who hold feminist beliefs, be they male or female, can be unconsciously biased against women because of gender stereotypes they’ve been exposed to – often from an early age and also on a regular basis.
Not only that, but it takes a lot more than being aware of this bias to counteract it. This chimed with many other points made in the debate, including the lack of visual imagery of women drinking and brewing beer, which it turns out is definitely part of the problem.
You might be thinking this is all a bit academic and has nothing to do with pubs. So here’s what Brewsmith Brewery’s Jennifer Smith said when asked what barriers there are to improving things: “There’s a core of very active misogynists who blatantly want to see sexist imagery and would happily feel you up in a bar.” When put as starkly as that I think it becomes clear why the debate was entitled, ‘Sexism is bad for business – what are we going to do about it?’
Nobody pretends this is a problem that can be got rid of overnight, but it’s definitely an issue we can’t afford to ignore. While I agree with the likes of Jaega and Jennifer when they say official written policies from the likes of SIBA and CAMRA are what’s needed to get the ball rolling, it can’t be left to them alone. All of us need to commit to putting a stop to sexism. It begins with refusing to buy and sell beers with sexist names and visual branding, it continues with speaking up about sexism whenever we come across it and until we get rid of it. Claiming that one woman not being offended by something automatically makes it acceptable for all other women is one of the first things that has to go because it overlooks the lesson of unconscious bias. Similarly when an individual woman says she is offended by a sexist pump clip or reports an instance of sexism, discrimination or harassment, she shouldn’t be considered a lone voice.
We’re moving in the right direction with CAMRA debates on the issue, and the likes of Castle Rock Brewery rebranding its Elsie Mo beer with an active go-getting pilot instead of a passive pin-up, but we must not stop there and think the job is done. It might take a generation or more to eradicate unconscious bias but it doesn’t mean we have to be blind, deaf and dumb about sexism in the meantime.