Sexism in Coffee Shops

One of the things that makes discrimination really insidious is that it can be subtle, going unnoticed even by people who do it and people who are subjected to it. This poses problems for well-intentioned businesses that want to make sure their customers are treated fairly. So what’s a business to do in light of evidence that women are getting slower service?

Here’s the story as reported by Tim Hartford at Slate: Waiting for Good Joe: Do coffee shops discriminate against women?

That’s the conclusion of American economist Caitlin Knowles Myers. She, with her students as research assistants, staked out eight coffee shops … in the Boston area and watched how long it took men and women to be served. Her conclusion: Men get their coffee 20 seconds earlier than do women. (There is also evidence that blacks wait longer than whites, the young wait longer than the old, and the ugly wait longer than the beautiful. But these effects are statistically not as persuasive.)

So, what could a coffee shop owner do in response to this sort of evidence? Some will be tempted to scoff at the idea that anything should be done. After all, it’s only 20 seconds we’re talking about here. No one’s being refused service. But 20 seconds multiplied by a gazillion coffees served across (even just) North America in a day adds up to a lot of time. Also, the difference in speed of service might be the tip of the iceberg: in what other less-readily-quantified ways are women being given worse service in these establishments? And in the end, even if it’s just a few seconds, non-discrimination isn’t just about effects: it’s the principle of the thing. This study represents some evidence — not conclusive, but suggestive evidence — that women are being treated less well at coffee shops. That’s a bad thing.

So, what to do? Sensitivity training for barristos? Probably not. Allow women to jump the queue? Excessive! In fact, it’s hard to imagine what kind of intervention one would use to counteract a small effect like the one indicated by this study. Almost any change in procedure is likely to backfire, or to generate resentment, or to result in the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I fear that this is a situation where even though we know something bad is going on, it is literally impossible to remedy in the short run.

Here’s the direct link to the research paper: Ladies First? A Field Study of Discrimination in Coffee Shops

Thanks to Feministing for the pointer.

3 comments so far

  1. Anca Gheaus on

    What’s wrong with sensitivity training for barristos?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Does it work? I’m genuinely curious about whether there’s evidence that it does. (It seems highly likely to me that the effect here is subconscious; does sensitivity training work in such circumstances?)

  2. Anca Gheaus on

    I am afraid I cannot point to any particular study, but I don’t think that what we know about implicit bias suggests that it is impossible to make individuals more conscious of their biases. To the contrary, experts say that ‘Simply being aware that implicit bias exists and that it is a normal and widespread consequence of “being human” is a good first step to help us reduce its influence on our decisions.’ (Shawn Marsh, in a paper I found via gogle here:

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