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“Equiry” has spurred national and international conversations on race, economics, national origin, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender and more. The word itself brings up impassioned feelings about what constitutes equity and how our society can make changes to create a system that strengthens communities around the world.

But what does “equity” really mean? To begin, it does not have the same definition as “equality.” While equality is the state of being equal, equity is about justness and fairness. Equity doesn’t ask us to see everyone as the same or even to treat them the same. It allows us to appreciate people for their differences and account for those differences.

This article focuses on gender equity, specifically within the coffee value chain. To better understand how the world is faring in achieving gender equity in general, let’s look at results from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Introduced in 2006, the annual report allows us to better understand global gender-based disparities and measure the changes in these disparities over time. According to the 2018 report, the world is not surging toward a more economically equitable future for all genders.

Although the report shows that gender gaps in some spheres are closing at promising rates—such as the gender gap in educational attainment—the gap in economic participation and opportunity has widened. The 2017 report stated that “the economic gender gap [had] reverted back to where it stood in 2008, after a peak in 2013,” and the 2018 report found that it remains the second-largest gender gap after political empowerment.

Coffee companies have an important opportunity to take action to close this gap if we better understand where we stand.


The coffee industry’s buying practices can make a direct and significant impact in the economic part of the opportunity gap, while the other gaps are less directly related to industry’s scope. Coffee is an important part of the global economy and, depending on where you sit in the value stream, you will likely have a different perspective on how the industry is performing in terms of economic gender disparities. However, without collecting data from a statistically relevant population in the coffee industry, personal perspectives don’t demonstrate the full picture. While the issue of gender equity has become a more frequent theme of conversation at industry events and in publications, to understand the industry’s performance on the issue of gender equity and disparity, more quantitative data is needed.

In response to this need, in July 2019, in collaboration with The Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE), Roast issued a survey to gauge what companies are currently doing about the issue of gender equity in their supply chains. In particular, the survey targeted companies that purchase coffee from importers, from roasters, and/or directly from producer partners. It was not focused on what companies are doing in their own businesses, such as internal hiring practices, but on whether or not they prioritize the issue of gender equity when making procurement decisions.

A total of 162 respondents answered the survey. While neither Roast nor PGE can claim statistical significance from the survey data, the findings nevertheless paint a picture of the industry from which we can learn and draw some conclusions. (Statistical significance refers to the probability of a study to apply to a whole population and reject the “null hypothesis” that there is no association between variables.)
Coffee is an industry that relies to a large degree on smallholder agriculture and is built on the quality of its raw material. Women in smallholder producer households typically perform a majority of the early stages of production on a family farm: the planting, pruning, harvesting and sorting, according to “The Way Forward,” a report issued by The Partnership for Gender Equity in 2015. Men, who are equally important to the success of a family farm, most often control the later stages of production: transporting coffee and bringing it to market.

This division of labor means that women smallholders typically have an important impact on coffee quality. As a result, for many producer organizations, gender equity is critical to their businesses and ways of working. In order to ensure that female farmers—who are responsible for critical, quality-determining aspects of the coffee production cycle—have access to the training they need to maintain quality, producer organizations often need to think about gender, and how to ensure more equitable access to information, services and more.

One of PGE’s goals is to share this kind of information with coffee companies who are making buying decisions. In doing so, they believe they can spark a greater conversation on how thinking about gender is good for business.


Some companies have already taken the first steps to ask their suppliers about gender equity. Of the 162 company respondents from the Roast survey, 47—or 30 percent of total respondents—are asking their suppliers whether they have gender programs. Of those who reported that they are seeking information, between 5 percent and 75 percent of their coffee is sourced from suppliers who have broadly defined gender programs.

Gender programming includes offering “women’s coffee,” which is often defined as coffee grown or processed by women producers, but it can also include masculinities training, training in family equity, or simply ensuring there is gender parity at coffee quality trainings. In response to whether purchases came from suppliers with gender programs, the vast majority of respondents who were asking about gender only referenced purchasing coffee from women suppliers or having a goal to source from more female farmers. The amount of coffee purchased in those companies from female producers ranged from 3 percent of total purchases to 100 percent.

While there is still a long way to go on the road toward gender equity, we are encouraged by the fact that 21 percent of company respondents from the Roast survey had a gender strategy or gender policies surrounding procurement. (Strategies ranged from attempting to employ more women, aiming to sell to more women-owned businesses, asking suppliers about gender, investing in projects, being involved in various platforms like IWCA, and/or buying from women producers.) Additionally, 31.4 percent had an internal gender strategy or policy for their own company, such as in relation to internal hiring practices—so it is not much of a stretch to expect these companies to extend their hiring strategy to their procurement strategy in terms of gender.

As the industry strives to seek more transparency, it could also be considered a win that 30 percent of companies are even able to report whether their suppliers have gender programs. First, it means they are asking for the information; second, it shows that producers are responding with facts and figures; and third, it leaves room for dialog between buyers and sellers. It also means there is room to grow. Those companies who aren’t currently asking about gender now have the opportunity to learn from the 30 percent who are, and to understand the impact that a focus on gender equity has had for their supply chain.

Meanwhile, of the 162 respondents, 25 indicated they are asking for more precise information on gender equity through the use of indicators, while 13 already have gender indicators incorporated into their measurement systems. Eight more companies indicated that taking the survey inspired them to think about how they could adopt gender measures, with one respondent saying, “This is a great idea. I will be looking into asking these questions. This will impact how I do the buying. Thanks for the idea.”


For those who would expect to see greater participation in initiatives that reduce the gender gap, the fact that only a minority of companies are asking about gender equity or use gender indicators in their procurement practices is disappointing. While there are some bright spots in the data, the survey indicated that there is still a lack of awareness about how gender inequity is impacting the coffee supply chain. A few respondents took issue with the foundational premise that gender disparities are a concern for the coffee industry, claiming that the survey itself demonstrated sexism by asking these questions. One such respondent said, “The gender of those involved in [coffee] production is simply not an issue. It is a false construct.”

One of the important questions that emerged from the survey for many people was whether thinking about gender equity as part of a procurement strategy or in measurement might be somehow discriminatory in nature, with one respondent saying, “We view our people as individuals who have unique expressions and needs independent of their gender. We seek to meet their needs regardless of how they identify.”

While everyone will react to the question of what constitutes sexism for themselves, PGE answers it by returning to the definition of equity. In the context of gender, thinking about gender equity does not mean we have to stop viewing individuals for their own capacities, needs or unique characteristics as people, no matter their gender identity. Asking or thinking about gender equity allows us to understand that the needs of some people may be more difficult to meet than others, and that we may need to account for those differences. In the case of smallholder agriculture, thinking about gender means asking suppliers if there are additional considerations that they make for women so they can attend training sessions, like offering childcare service or allowing women to bring their children to meetings.

Access to information about gender such as this was expressed as a goal for several company respondents in the survey. However, one respondent expressed concern that asking producer organizations in particular to share information about gender equity, through indicators or otherwise, might cause undue burden. This concern was raised in facilitated discussions among coffee buyers and producer organization representatives in PGE’s recent Co-Design Lab conversation series. The goal of the Co-Design Lab was to assess the feasibility of piloting gender criteria for producer organizations to help connect buyers and sellers interested in gender equity. The discussions helped to inform a rough set of criteria that were of interest to end market buyers and feasible for producer organizations to report against. Of 15 producer organizations from around the world, 12 were able to provide subcategories of data on gender equity as related to leadership, membership and/or land access, and participation in training.

Many producer organization representatives in the same Co-Design Lab conversation, or 67 percent of the total, already boasted a gender strategy or gender policies. They also expressed the sentiment that focusing on gender was important to their work, to maintaining coffee production, and to their capacity to afford their producers a livelihood. Most of them viewed data collection and reporting not as an undue burden but as a responsibility to their members and customers.

Several company respondents from the survey confirmed that the producer organizations they purchased from do have a gender focus, and shared the myriad ways they ask about gender, such as during origin visits or by directly questioning importers. While many respondents shared this as a positive, there seemed to be a hesitancy to include any gender stipulations in contracts. In total, only 10 of 162 survey respondents stated that they were including gender stipulations within their contracts with producers and suppliers. However, when asked if having access to information within contracts or otherwise would have an influence on their buying practices, 75 companies said no, while 59 said yes. In addition, a total of 35 companies said having access to more precise information—via gender indicators, for example—would influence their decision to buy. One respondent claimed that having access to data would inspire confidence that their suppliers weren’t just “providing lip service” to the issue. Others said it could be useful in marketing and would allow them to share the information with their customers.

Quality was top of mind for most respondents, who, in their business, need to put the product first. However, a majority of respondents said that all other things being equal, they would choose to buy from a supplier that was working on gender over one that wasn’t.


One of PGE’s biggest takeaways from the Co-Design Lab conversations was that access to information was empowering for both producer organization representatives and end market companies. Producer organizations requested a greater dialog or guidance about how they could share their own approach to gender equity, understanding it as something that does lead to greater market access—as it would seem the survey has confirmed. Meanwhile, companies wanted to know what categories of information were the most meaningful and how they could easily access information across a wide range of origins.

To date, the Hub has focused on how companies can measure the impact of their programs linked to a “common measurement framework for gender in the coffee sector,” which was developed by PGE with support from the Global Coffee Platform (GCP). This #GenderMetrics group has brought together leading companies such as Kyagalanyi (Uganda), Sustainable Harvest, S&D Coffee and Tea, Falcon, Matthew Algie, Nestlé and Starbucks to share their current practices in a webinar, slide deck and facilitated discussions to foster collaboration and shared understanding.

“As more companies and organizations collaborate and learn from each other, the more resources they will be able to share with others who are looking to grow their approaches to gender equity,” says Olga Cuellar, sustainability strategy leader for S&D Coffee and Tea. “More knowledge also means a stronger starting point for creating a broader call to action for those who have not yet begun to think about the issue.”
Through these efforts and others, PGE is working to support buyers and sellers alike to share information, data and lessons learned in order to highlight the potential impact for the supply chain as a whole when we talk about gender equity. In a sector whose future depends on the economic well-being of everyone in the supply chain, it is critical that the coffee industry does what it can to address the gender gaps that are closing less quickly than others. With an increased focus on gender equity in buying relationships, the coffee industry has a direct opportunity to bring the economic participation and opportunity gap back up to its previous levels, and contribute to a positive trend toward greater gender equity for all.

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