Homebrewing Has a Gender Problem

It isn't necessarily craft beer's gender problem, but it's a problem nevertheless. Now, before anyone gets all up in arms (in either direction) let me state at the outset that this isn't going to be an overtly political, or social, or legal commentary.  There won't be (much) psychologizing.  There will be some empirical observation, attempts at logic, and a not-terrifying bit with statistics.  The upshot is that we have a quantifiable gender problem, and there's not much point in denying it - nor even in fighting over it.  We should skip that part and just get right to fixing it.

A word of warning about this week's post: this is a simple problem with (what I think is) a simple solution, but the explanation is a little complicated, because it needs to be.  If you're OK with that, read on - if not, scroll to the last section.  Either way, I hope that everyone reading will take it in the spirit in which it's intended, and that if you're offended that you know I don't mean any offense.  

Disclaimers out of the way, let's get to work.

Defining the Problem

Here's the short version: on the question of sex and beer, we homebrewers are probably getting the conversation wrong.  Tell me if you've read any of these articles lately (they come in lots of different forms, under different titles, and by different authors, but these are the possibly-hyperbolic archetypes):

  • "Blatantly Sexist Beer Names: How Men Use Porn to Sell Beer to Other Men, Insulting and Ignoring Female Drinkers"
  • "Hey, Women Can Brew Too!  Did You Know That?  Here are Spunky Women Who Can (and DO!) Lift Heavy Things!"
  • "Women Drink Craft Beer!  And It Isn't Even All Fruit Beer!," AKA "How to Deal With an Alehole of a Bartender Who Assumes You Don't Know Beer Because You Have Breasts"

Now, while I agree that all of those articles have legitimate and potentially important points to make, I'm not sure that they apply to home brewing or homebrewers.  These are things that seem to be common in the commercial beer world, and while I'm positive there are anecdotal examples, parallels, and analogues in homebrewing (since a lot of sexism is driven by broader outdated and unproductive social norms), I'm not sure that we have these problems on anything like the scale in which we see them in commercial beer.

Why do I say that?

First off, I just don't see it much in the homebrewing world I inhabit.  Now, maybe it doesn't ping for me because I'm a man, so I did some basic research.  Just taking the beer name thing into account, I pulled up the results of the most recent competition in our area, which had more than 750 entries across 30 tables with three winners each - that's a list of 90 beer names.  Of those 90, only one had a name that could even be described as sexual, feminine, or female-related (much less sexist) - "Red Belle."  Which means that there were as many potentially-sexist and maybe-sexual beer names in this competition's results as there were beers named after Ethiopian emperors (A Dark Mild named Haile Selassie - is that racist?).  There were puns - far, far too many puns - but no explicit (or even implicit) sexual references.  I realize this is one limited data set, but if I stroll through the beer section at Wegmans (another limited data set) I come away with images and language that would have passed for near-pornography when I was a child in the long-ago early 1990s.  So maybe there's something to the idea that sex and gender don't drive nearly as much of home brewing culture as commercial beer culture (though as I said, as part of a broader social phenomenon, homebrewing isn't immune from sexism).

And maybe I'm sheltered, or privileged, or naive, but the homebrewers I know (of either gender) are no longer surprised to hear that women can brew beer, too (if they ever were surprised in the first place).  I personally find the parade of, "Hey, look, female brewers!" articles a little insulting to...everyone.  To women because they often come across as patronizing as hell, and to men because they assume that we need to be "learned up" on the idea that brewing is something women have been doing for centuries (and while some may not know it, that doesn't mean that they've been excluding women from brewing and now they'll knock it off).  

Nor do I find that male homebrewers talk down to female homebrewers.  If anything, I find that they're positively twitching with happiness to find female homebrewers, beer judges, and beer enthusiasts in their ranks.

But having said that, I still say we have a gender problem in homebrewing.  Just not this gender problem.  Ours isn't a problem of rampant sexism or discrimination.  We don't as a rule, or as a community norm, exclude women.  But we still have a problem.  

Our problem is one of inclusion.  Or lack thereof, to be more precise.  Before you accuse me of stupidity or contradiction, let me say that there's a difference between "not excluding" and "including."  The absence of formal barriers doesn't make us inclusive.  And it's evident that women are not well-represented among homebrewers on a very basic, quantitative level.

I have three questions.

  1. Whose problem is it, anyway?  Are there not that many female homebrewers because they don't want to and/or don't like beer as much as we do, or is there something that's keeping them out?
  2. Assuming we have a problem, why do we have it?
  3. What might we do about it?

I'm not looking to blame anyone here.  I'm not looking for someone to accuse.  I'm not planning on making any generalizations that aren't supported by at least some data.  I just want to talk about this in a dispassionate way, because this can be a very passionate and emotional issue.  

I hope you'll tell me if you disagree, but I think we have a problem.  

Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

There are two possible answers to this question. Either women aren't common in homebrewing because women don't want to be homebrewers, or there's something that's inhibiting female participation in homebrewing.  

Let's add some context here.  Women represent something like 4-7% of homebrewers (American Homebrewers Association, 2013; 2015).  My own surveys and those of other homebrewing publications, conducted periodically for homebrewing articles or activities, show that between 2-9% of respondents were female, which is consistent with an overall "female participation rate" in the mid-single digits.  So there aren't many female homebrewers out there.

Why not?

When I was president of Stoney Creek Homebrewers, I conducted our initial "meet and greet" interviews for prospective members.  I probably did just over 120 of these in seven years, and literally every one was me speaking to a man who had contacted our club.  The only women I saw were part of couples, and they were rare enough.   One of the first questions I always asked was "what got you interested in homebrewing?"  Our Average Joe brewer profile usually came down to three common denominators.  

First, Joe liked good beer (no-brainer).  Second, Joe almost always either cooks (amateur or professional) and/or works in science.   And third, Joe wanted a social experience - brewing is fun, but brewing and tasting and evaluating with a group is even better.

So, a love of beer and an interest in the culinary/scientific and a social interaction.  Simple enough to define our population of prospective homebrewers.  If they're true for Joe, they should also be true for Jane.

Do women love beer?  Yes.  At least, some of them certainly seem to.  As of a couple of years ago when the BA released a study of "who drinks craft beer" (2014), 15% of all craft beer was consumed by women aged 21-34 alone (as in, just that demographic by itself - not "alone" alone, at least I don't think so).  That right there would suggest that as women constitute a sizable minority of craft beer drinkers, then they should constitute a sizable minority of homebrewers.  But maybe they're not getting into brewing because they don't fit the other profile elements.

Do women engage in science and/or cooking?  Yes, they do.  About a quarter of STEM jobs are held by women (Department of Commerce) - lower than desired, but still more than enough to show robust female interest in the sciences (especially when we consider the percentage that hold science degrees but don't work in the field).  Do women enjoy cooking?  Yes, they do.  35% of enrollees at the Culinary Institute of America in 2012 were women.  Are women social?  Yes, of course they are; like men, they are - to quote Aristotle's Politics - "political animals" who value social interaction as part of the human experience.

So whose problem is it?  I don't see any evidence that homebrewing as a hobby is inaccessible to women, nor that they're hostile to it - indeed, we have good evidence that a substantial proportion of women enjoy craft beer, and thus should make up a comparable proportion of craft brewers.  But they're not.  We under-yield on female homebrewers by comparison to the proportion of female beer lovers.

So why so few female homebrewers?  I think the answer is in that "social" part.  

From here on, I'm going to do some speculating, so bear with me.  I welcome and encourage disagreement and debate, and this is just one perspective (though being a social scientist and the author, I obviously think it's a defensible one).

Why We Have a Gender Problem

As I see it, we have two principle problems.  The first is cultural, and the second is social-psychological - and they're mutually reinforcing.  

The culture of homebrewing can be quite gender-specific simply owing to the overwhelming preponderance of men in the hobby.  We can also state without too much risk that men and women exhibit different behaviors, especially in groups.  As a young homebrew club, we often scheduled events that were barely one step removed from college-era pub crawls by a gaggle of scraggly men, with all of the boisterousness and shenanigans that accompanies such events (that poor stuffed cow will never be the same again, and I think one of our members is still banned from Canal Street Pub).  But even that might not be the biggest problem (since many of the women I know can get pretty rowdy themselves, to the point that I'm looking at my watch and wondering when I can head home for a late dinner and some House Hunters International).  No, I think the real issue is the gender homogeneity itself.  

In other words, because we have such a dearth of gender diversity, we run the risk of not getting gender diversity.  This lack of diversity becomes its own gender repellant.  A female homebrewer walking into a homebrewing event would almost certainly have an immediate visceral reaction to the homogeneity of gender in the room.  To quote an overheard comment at the National Homebrewers Conference in 2013, "There's a whole lot of 'dude' in here."  

That kind of immediate and obvious identity homogeneity may well be strong enough to discourage female participation in the hobby.  We all like to find our "niche" in a community, usually by identifying with a sub-group within it (see Blackwell's Handbook of Social Psychology or the literature on voter decision-making for more details).  You've all been to school - you know how that goes.  You want to find your "people."  And when attempts at "clustering" fail that first and easiest test using common superficial heuristics like gender, that failing can be more than sufficient to cause prospective group members to "roll off" and simply withdraw from that community.  

That's my theory.  Our "Gender Problem" begins simply enough: we need more female homebrewers in order to attract more female homebrewers.  How many more?  Hard to say.  When the first female cadets were enrolled in 1976 at West Point, a theretofore all-male institution, consultants that had overseen the integration of other institutions recommended at least 10% female enrollment to allow for a sufficient "support network."  If it's good enough for the US Army, it's good enough for me.

But if we accept that only about 5% of homebrewers are female, that means we need to double the number of female homebrewers to alleviate what might be the problem.

That's a significant challenge.  So how do we do it?

Fixing Our Gender Mismatch

There are more women who fit the profile of a "typical" homebrewer than actually homebrew.  In other words, we have a mismatch between how many women we would expect to see in homebrewing and how many are evident within the hobby.  That mismatch is what I would call our "Gender Problem."  Beyond even that terminology, though, it can't be a bad thing to increase the number of homebrewers, and since we're over-representing men, then maybe we should focus on some gender diversity.

Note that I'm not talking about "parity."  I don't know if you'll ever see a 50/50 gender split in beer and brewing.  That's not what we've been discussing, though.  We've been discussing how to alleviate a potential demographic barrier that's potentially causing would-be brewers to bail out - where it goes from there is beside the point.  Logic would dictate that some kind of equilibrium would be reached, and it doesn't have to mean perfect gender balance.  

If we accept that it would be a good thing to expand the number of women in homebrewing, then the only question is how we do it.  There are two options that I want to address - and somewhat discourage - right out of the gate.

First, I don't think the answer is for every male homebrewer to bring his significant other into homebrewing.  For one thing, it could be construed as being paternalistic as hell.  The idea that women need a man's helping hand to get into brewing has a strong whiff of benevolent sexism to it.  Nothing in the theory I've been discussing says that women are incapable of getting into homebrewing, just that they may not actually want to given the community profile.  So they don't need our help. Also, there's already ample evidence that we've been trying to address this problem in this way, and it hasn't worked: the AHA survey cited earlier found that about 4% of homebrewers were women, but that as many as 30% of male homebrewers brewed at least some of the time with their female partner.  Despite that, there are precious few female brewers about.  And let's not forget that for some people, brewing is escapism, like golf of gardening or yoga.  There are some things you do to get away from everyone, including your significant other. For many men, that's homebrewing.  Consequently, I don't think a male-led effort is the answer.

Second, I'm also not sold on the "all-female" homebrewing clubs and organizations as a way to address this problem.  While I don't object to them on principle (brew with whomever you want, however you want!), I don't think that they're ever going to be numerous enough to grow female homebrewing participation rates more broadly within the homebrewing community.  They also, as noted earlier, can inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women brewing is somehow a novel or radical idea, when it's anything but.

I think the answer is this: if you're a female homebrewer, recruit one other female you know who likes to cook or grooves on science (and who isn't already related to a brewer) into the hobby, and then encourage her to join a homebrew club (especially if it's also yours).  This solution has a number of virtues going for it.

First, it's a female-led effort to encourage female participation in homebrewing.  It short-circuits the lack-of-fit problems that the male-dominated demographic environment might create, since our prospective homebrewing female beer geek is being encouraged to jump in by another woman, which demonstrates not only that women do this, but also that she wouldn't be doing it alone.

Second, it solves our numbers problem in one fell swoop: this would double the number of female homebrewers immediately.  

Third, the inclusion in homebrew club life both provides an immediate community of homebrewers to engage with and also diversifies that homebrew club a bit more by gender, which should yield more "walk-in" female members, especially if your website and social media feature lots of photos of a diverse club.

And last, it creates and/or preserves a sense of mission and gender identity without making it all about gender.  Yes, the mission is greater diversity.  But it's also about expanding the hobby.  Win, win.

Odd Man Out

What made me think of this?  My wife's book club.  I read like mad - it's the insomnia plus the academia.  I read all the time. I take baths so I have an excuse to read.  My Kindle is hot to the touch (fittingly).  I love books.  I love bookstores (when you can find them anymore - my favorite, a place in Wayne, PA, just had PILES of books in no discernible order.  I'm going to miss that place).  

And yet I was never invited to join her book club.  I wasn't excluded, but neither was I included.

Now that wouldn't have stopped me from forming my own, or just reading on my own and commenting on books in forums and message boards.  But that's not the point.

I might even have asked about joining her club...but it was all women.  When they have their rotating meetings at our house, I stay out of sight, for the most part.  No one ever said I wasn't allowed in, or that it wasn't meant for me or men.  But I didn't feel like it was for me.  And let's not forget that that's without an entire commercial book industry blasting advertising showing ripped men in underwear reading books in sexy locations, being objectified by female librarians.  I think there's an object lesson there.

Yes, we have a gender problem.  No, it isn't the same as the commercial beer gender problem.  Yes, we should still address it.  No, this might not be the whole answer, and certainly not the whole solution.

But it can't hurt.

Keep it simple.


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[For those who literally scrolled to the end, here's the short version: more women dig beer than brew beer, a reason might be because homebrewers are more than 90% men, this might give an impression that it's FOR men, and as a result we need female brewers to invite another woman to learn to brew if they like beer.  Thank you for your attention.]