Removing Barriers: Empowering Women in Coffee

by Jenn Gallegos with support from Maria Hill

I have spent my entire coffee career selling the value of sustainable, specialty coffee to the masses. From my role at Coffee Bean International (now Farmer Bros. Coffee), where I was introducing specialty coffee to new consumers, to communicating the importance of integrating sustainability into global supply chains at Fair Trade USA. In my latest role, Vice President of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), I am selling women’s empowerment as a pathway to 100% sustainable coffee.

Jenn bio pic from conv in Col

Studies support the assertion that women perform a majority of the labor on small coffee farms but, despite their contributions, women are often deprived the right to land ownership and excluded from household economic decisions. While we may see women physically present throughout the coffee value chain, their ability to become empowered as an individual is usually sidelined. This directly affects communities considering that when women manage household income they are more likely to invest it in education, healthcare, and other activities that promote family and community well-being.

While there is a high awareness of the gender disparity in agriculture commodities, defining the steps an industry and participants within a supply chain can take to empower, include, and value women is a complex process. While there is clear evidence that supports the economic benefits of empowerment, there is no quick fix for the current system. In order to truly address this issue we need to identify and break down the barriers to progress. Through my work with both Fair Trade USA and the IWCA these are the most common barriers I have observed that exist throughout the coffee value chain.

Cultural Influences

Social norms require a delicate balance of understanding and a more deliberate and disciplined approach. One of the biggest barriers we can remove is our own biases, and biased approaches to solutions. Too often sustainability initiatives are driven from the consuming-side of the industry and fail to take into account local perspectives.

Focusing Only On Producers

Women at all levels of the supply chain deserve the same opportunity to create a sustainable, and viable livelihood in coffee. As an industry we should be actively working to ensure that women are represented in every role from agronomists, to cuppers, to traders, to C-suite executives. Organizations that have strong commitments to diversity should reflect internally on policies and how they actually include and value women’s voices. Thanks to the hard work of of industry leaders like CQI’s Partnership for Gender Equity, the International Trade Centre, IWCA, SCAA, ACDI/VOCA, and Twin Trading, we will soon launch a set of gender equity Principles to hold more of the value chain accountable for improving gender equity in our sector and set an example for others.

Opportunity Gap

As I mentioned before there is no quick fix to women’s empowerment. The perceived lack of opportunity due to different working styles, absence of female mentors, and gender double standards can make career advancement challenging for women. As an industry, we have to work intentionally to not only to create a wide number of pathways for women, but support and encourage women to pursue them.


Successful sustainability programs and standards are rooted in transparency. Similarly, as gender comes to the forefront of the sustainability conversation, transparency will be a major component as well.  We need to highlight the processes, programs, policies, and people that advance women’s empowerment, but also be willing to engage constructively with those that hold us back.

The key to removing these barriers is industry collaboration. Right now the conversation is insulated, it seems like small passionate groups are only talking to each other about the issue of empowerment.  To inspire real change and have an impact as an industry we need to have the issue of empowerment front of mind at every coffee conversation. We need to continue to include more women voices on corporate, advisory, association, and industry boards. We also  need to make the issue of empowerment more visible at industry events. Recently I was invited to speak on behalf of IWCA at the Women Peace and Security conference that focused on the importance of women’s empowerment in global conflict management, and negotiations. The keynote speaker was professor and author Dr. Valerie Hudson  –  she shared a thought that resonated deeply with me: “Women aren’t the canary in the coal mine. The canaries are poverty, malnutrition, ill health, explosive violence, and other problems”. Sound familiar? There are times that this work overwhelms and frustrates me because the barriers, to me, are very clear. There are days I think “yes, it’s only coffee,” but then remember, we are all connected and sharing this earth so working towards a more empowered, sustainable future is a big deal for all of us.

One thought on “Removing Barriers: Empowering Women in Coffee

  1. Pingback: #ShesTheRoaster Celebrates Women Coffee Roasters 🙋

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