Culture

A Sisterhood Aims to Empower Women Behind the Bar

A new forum where women discuss everything from sexual harassment to work-life balance and financial planning

Women talking behind the bar
Illustration by Michael Hirshon.

In Chicago last November, on the eve of the sixth local Speed Rack competition, the fierce women’s bartending contest that raises money for breast cancer charities, a group of participants got together for drinks. No one was there to size up the competition—there would be plenty of time for that the next day. Instead, the afternoon was focused on seminars and discussions on the topics of financial planning and work-life balance. This was the first installment of The Sisterhood Project, a grassroots community-building initiative that offers mentorship and career coaching to women working in bars and restaurants.

“We’ve had speakers from all walks of life: restaurant owners, financial advisers, a Pilates instructor,” says Misty Kalkofen, one of the driving forces behind the initiative, whose official title is Madrina (godmother) at Del Maguey, a mezcal brand that has sponsored Speed Rack since its inception. The competition now takes place in eight cities around the country (and is expanding globally) and has become an unstoppable phenomenon, raising not only money but the visibility of its competitors. Kalkofen and Sharon Bronstein of Fords Gin, another sponsor, realized the event could provide an opportunity for participants to network, build their skills, and find meaningful support. Together with Speed Rack cofounders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix, they hatched The Sisterhood Project.

“I’ve been trying to talk about [the issues we face as women behind the bar] for a long time. Finally, it’s a conversation people are ready to have,” says Mix, adding that the current political climate has pushed women to empower themselves. “Just in the last year, you had Trump with his ‘locker-room talk,’ then what happened in L.A., and all of a sudden mainstream media was paying attention to how women are treated. That leaked into our little industry.”

The Los Angeles episode Mix refers to was the outing of a prominent Los Angeles bar owner accused of sexual assault by several of his colleagues who published their accounts online. News of the attacks spread, especially on Facebook, where bartenders are particularly active. The story sparked a heated nationwide conversation about the prevalence of sexual aggression in the food-and-drink sector. The incident came on the heels of another public outcry on social media: An acclaimed New York bar posted a job ad for “badass cocktail waitresses,” which critics denounced for perpetuating sexist stereotypes. In one post, a bartender posed the question: “Do you have a separate ad for hiring badass female bartenders in the works?”

“All these issues—gender equality, sexual assault—they’ve been around for years. It’s not anything that’s new,” says Kalkofen. “But when events happen that bring it to the forefront, it can no longer be swept under the rug. Everything gets memorialized now through social media.”

The issue of gender equality in the bar industry quickly became a hot-button topic. Last July, Tales of the Cocktail featured a seminar on gender and inclusiveness. Soon organizations like Safe Bars and OutSmartNYC, which train bar staff to recognize and de-escalate sexual aggression among patrons, began addressing the violence that can occur between coworkers. Then came The Sisterhood Project, which launched last fall. Taking a holistic approach to equality and fair treatment in the workplace, the initiative aims to address an array of issues that can impede opportunities for women in the industry. Its founders began by creating a survey for Speed Rack participants, past and present, asking the women to rank the concerns and the challenges they faced. Kalkofen says that the three issues that came up over and over again were work-life balance, health and well-being, and financial planning. Sisterhood events, which take place in conjunction with Speed Rack in each of the cities it tours, are focused on these themes.

At a Sisterhood Project event in Boston, James Beard Foundation Awardwinning chef Jody Adams spoke about work-life balance and sought to dispel the myth that women need to “have it all.” Instead she encouraged those in attendance to define “balance” for themselves. In another session, a physical therapist prescribed exercises for staying limber during long shifts on your feet. At a Chicago event, financial adviser Jessica Merino led a seminar on financial planning. Her firm, Merino Wealth Management, has clients from all walks of life but caters especially to women in Generations X and Y.

“Equality is a hot topic right now in my industry too,” says Merino. “The financial world is very male dominated—especially financial advisers, 85 percent of whom are men. Recent studies show that there’s a gender gap when it comes to investing—women invest less than men—and one of the theories is that because it’s such a male-dominated field, women have less access to financial planning services or feel less comfortable seeking them out.”

Luckily, says Merino, bartenders can have diversified income streams. If the craft cocktail movement has brought about anything—other than much improved drinking options—it’s been a shift in mind-set about what was once considered a transitory job but is now seen as a viable career option. Bartenders can find success as consultants, brand ambassadors, even business owners. But mapping out one’s future solely as a bartender is a challenge, as bar employees are still often unsalaried and rarely receive benefits.

“Bartenders, like all entrepreneurs, have the issue of a fluctuating income,” says Merino. “Plus, your physical presence at work is tied to your compensation. Being sick can derail things. For women, one issue that comes up is having children. You can’t show up to work the day after giving birth.”

“It hit me: This is a struggle,” says Kayoko Akabori of Umami Mart, in Oakland, California, recalling the sight of colleagues nursing babies at a San Francisco Sisterhood event. “Being in a room all together was empowering, but it was also sobering to hear so many women speaking candidly about their situations.”

While a handful of progressive establishments offer 401(k) plans and paid parental leave, they are firmly in the minority. At least for now, financial planning is something hospitality workers have to manage themselves. Sisterhood Project attendees like Jacyara de Oliveira of Rob Roy, in Seattle, especially appreciate the financial advice offered at the events because, as she says, “sometimes we make a lot of money and sometimes we don’t. In a gig economy, it’s hard to get a visual of how much money you make or how much you can save.”

Kalkofen and Bronstein are committed to continue bringing The Sisterhood Project events to bartenders around the country. “It’s about awareness,” says Kalkofen. “Bars are marginalized places. But these days, even marginalized places are becoming less marginalized.”

If you’d like to contact The Sisterhood Project or attend one of their events, get in touch through Speed Rack’s Contact Page or email them via info[at]speed-rack[dot]com.

A Montreal native now based in New York, Chantal Martineau writes about wine, spirits, food, travel, and culture. Her writing (sometimes accompanied by her own photography) has been published in Vogue, Food & Wine, Departures, Saveur, and The Atlantic. She is the author of the 2015 book How the Gringos Stole Tequila, about the rise of Mexico’s most famous liquid export, and is at work on a new book about mezcal.