Should Female-Only Bartender Competitions Exist?

It’s with more than my usual amount of trepidation that I commence this article…

For if there is one subject known to rile up people in this industry (aside from sugar syrup ratios) it’s gender, and the perceived equality or lack-there-of in the way we are all treated. However, having seen a few Facebook posts explode into gender-war pandemonium we here at BarlifeUK decided it was time to ask the question: should female-only bartender competitions exist?

Just the phrase female-only, or male-only, is enough to get my hackles up. And probably yours too. It smacks of putting people in a category based on their sex rather than any other of the many defining features, abilities and personality quirks which make us, well, us.

And when it comes to a bartending competition it seems even more counterintuitive than ever, after all what part of being male or female gives you an advantage when making two drinks?

Chelsie Bailey winning her Mount Gay heat.
Chelsie Bailey winning her Mount Gay heat.

But of course cocktail competitions don’t exist outside of the context of our heavily male-dominated industry. And yes, even if you haven’t experienced it, the attitude of ‘beaten by a girl’ and any other number of chauvinistic thoughts still exist.

More than anything, you should never have to argue for your intelligence and ability despite your gender and women in our industry unfortunately still have to.

With those thoughts in mind, and a few heated Facebook comments to dwell on, I started asking people – off the record so they could speak freely – what they thought about female-only comps in an attempt to gauge an overall industry attitude.

The overwhelming response was that it depends on why the competition was created. Is a brand, an association, a charity or a bar group, trying to promote female talent – which can often get lost amidst all the males? Are they trying to encourage female bartenders to start entering competitions? Are they trying to allow female bartenders to meet and work with each other? Outside of those genuine reasons, using female-only comps as a way to market your brand received a big, fat thumbs down.

When will this stop being a thing? Is it our fault as women, do we ask to be treated differently?” questioned one of my interviewees.

If, as an industry, we’re looking for equality then no, you can’t have female-only comps. And my reasoning is simple – imagine if there was a male-only competition. It simply wouldn’t and couldn’t ever happen. It would be the most patronising, chauvinistic and sexist idea ever. So why is ok for female-only ones to exist? Answer – it isn’t.” said another.

Can’t argue with that.

Kirsty Taylor winning her Sauvelle Vodka heat.
Kirsty Taylor winning her Sauvelle Vodka heat.

So can we forget the whole gender thing entirely? No such luck, simply because we have an industry that attracts many more males than females into working behind a bar and shaking drinks five nights a week. And no one really seems to understand why.

In the past four years of working in some of London’s best bars on the weekends to improve my cocktail knowledge I can only claim to have worked with one full-time female bartender. Any other women I’ve worked with have always been in a waitressing role.

Equally I’ve seen three close friends move from waitressing to bartending and that has been an entirely painful process with their male colleagues bemoaning their progress at each stage. So yes, gender is still an issue and women working alongside each other, behind the bar, is a rare thing. Which is why I got in touch with Camille Vidal to ask about Les Femmes du Bar club she founded in London.

I started Les Femmes du Bar in London almost 5 years ago. At the time I had just moved to London, I didn’t know many people and I was bartending at ECC as well as working as the ambassador for St~Germain. I realised that there were other ladies tending bars like me but there was just not that many of them and I didn’t know them, so I wanted all of us to connect. The idea behind Les Femmes du Bar was create a community, where the ladies of London – because that’s where it started – could get to know each other, share the same passion, inspire and support each other.  My role as an ambassador for St~Germain gave me the opportunity to create this, to help and support women in the industry, to help them grow their career, connect with other people, get more exposure, travel and experience.” says Camille.

Yet even this champion of female talent has her reservations about female-only competitions.

I’m not especially a big fan of ladies-only competitions apart from when it’s very much to create a platform for them. I mean what Speed Rack has done is not only to raise a lot of money for charity – and not just any charity but a breast cancer charity – but also to create a platform for the ladies to shine and say ‘hey look at me, I’m pretty badass and not only do I make super tasty drinks but also I make them super fast.’ And if the outcome is positive like for Les Femmes du Bar or Speed Rack them I think it’s a good thing.” says Camille.

Speed Rack has certainly proved the exception to the rule when it comes to the discussion around female-only competitions. The charity element for a cancer that typically affects women certainly raises it above the equality conversation for many, but not so for its founders.

Speed Rack was created to make a platform for women to stand on in a male dominated industry,” says Ivy Mix.

I was living and trying to work in NYC and it seemed at the time that no one had heard of any women ever.  And yet, they seemed to be everywhere (if you looked at LUPEC – Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails) and somehow not working in most of the best bars in America. Speed Rack was started so people could be like ‘OH! THERE are all the talented women in the bar biz!’”

Ivy and Lynette’s competition, crucially founded by women for women, has created a community of its own in the UK for the entrants and winners, as Lynette says; “It has helped create a network and companionship that does not often happen in other comps…It has helped confidence in many of our competitors who then go on to do very well in mixed gender comps as well.”

Tatjana Titimova winning her Bitter Truth heat.
Tatjana Titimova winning her Bitter Truth heat.

Even Camille’s Les Femmes du Bar has its own internal female competition, although that’s for women-only as a result of the club being so, and it’s been a fantastic way for the members to get exposure during global events such as Cocktails Spirits in Paris and London Cocktail Week in London.

Ultimately there seems to be a big difference, both in the way we perceive them and in the way they come into being, between a spirit brand announcing a competition and making it female-only and Speed Rack or Les Femmes du Bar creating a competition. One is directly linked to sales and promoting a product while the other has been born out of the idea of connections and empowerment. This crucial difference seems to stem from the focus of the event – the product or the women.

What needs to be addressed, for all you keyboard warriors, beyond female-only comps is ensuring women feel equal in the industry from their first day. That the bar doesn’t feel like a male-only space. That no one ever says ‘beaten by a girl’ as if that somehow makes losing even worse. That no girl feels like they need to start entering competitions in a female-only one because it’s a safer space.

How wonderful it is that many female bartenders say they’ve never experienced a problem, and many of them do say this, but we are certainly still working towards that sentiment being felt by everyone.

Are we nearly there?

I think it depends on where you live. I think in the US we have made tremendous strides, the UK and Canada as well. There are many places where Speed Rack is being asked to come nurture the female community. They are incredibly talented but maybe need a spotlight or a proper vehicle to give them this opportunity.” says Lynette.

I think it depends on what you think of equality… I did a whole seminar on the facts (taking out the kumbaiya of Can’t We All Just Get Along?!) of gender equality and I can tell you that on a whole as a service industry, NO, we are not there. Not there at all. But we are getting awareness and that’s huge. People are asking themselves questions they weren’t before and that’s a win. There is a big difference between sexism and misogyny too, I think it’s important to point out. But all and all in our own small cocktail industry, I think big waves have been made and everyone is asking themselves the right questions about equality, which is the best, since in the end there are indeed so many opinions and answers.” says Ivy.

She’s not wrong there; so many opinions and so many answers. This article has been some of them, both male and female but certainly not all. At the end of the day we need a balance in our bars to host, to create and to play.

Competitions need this too, to drive one another to our creativity’s limit and then further again. Should female-only competitions exist? We’re going to pin our colours to the mast and say no, in the long term. But… yes we need just a little wiggle room here… for the mean time, we still need the likes of Les Femmes du Bar and Speed Rack to remind us there are kick arse women all around us, who make tasty cocktails and make them pretty quickly too. And if we cure cancer in the process, well that’s even better.

The photographs used in this article were taken from BarLifeUK’s competition archive, for illustration purposes only. The bartenders appearing in them were not consulted during the writing of this piece.