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Womandla: A War of Serves

African women share their battles behind the bar.

13 December 2022 · 11 min read
Leah van Deventer

Being a female bartender comes with challenges anywhere in the world; in Africa, however, there are additional cultural and economic obstacles that make this a tall order indeed. To find out what these women need – not only to stay in the industry long term, but to thrive – we chatted to four drink slingers from four different countries across the continent. Here they share their struggles, their aspirations and their thoughts on how to create a better workplace.

Misha Cheri Chinnah

Creative Brand Manager in Joburg, South Africa

Since joining the industry as a bartender in 2015, Chinnah’s worked the vanguard of roles, including advocacy, consulting and management. However, even in the continent’s most developed cocktail market, she says that misogyny’s far from over.

“The constant double standards surrounding making your voice heard, especially at a management level, make it difficult to stay motivated and hopeful that you’ll be respected for your knowledge,” she asserts.

Furthermore, Chinnah notes that when it comes to errors, men are cut more slack, whereas women are immediately damned as incompetent. “One thing we don’t talk about enough is the fragility of your reputation as a womxn, opposed to our male counterparts. The mistakes we’re all bound to make seem to have a ‘make or break’ outcome,” she states.

“Being a womxn, more so a womxn of colour, comes with an enormous amount of pressure to not fail,” she adds.

Chinnah has found that solidarity among female colleagues is key, where they cheer each other on instead of competing unhealthily. Thankfully, Chinnah is seeing more of this, citing instances where women shut down comments that try to remove merit from work, or irrelevant remarks on personal matters.

“This is a safe feeling … We can’t be creating room for men to tear us down and weaponize our reputations against us.”

Chinnah notes, though, that calling out the imbalance between the sexes is even more vital than these defensive tactics. Here, the value of male allies cannot be overstated, particularly when it’s followed by intervention. “My resilience to the uncontrolled hardships was built upon actions from men and not empty words. Yes, they comforted me when I felt helpless and unappreciated as a womxn, but more so they listened and took action… [They demanded that] myself and my [female] colleagues were treated as professionals and not pretty faces,” she recalls. Chinnah recollects that when these empathisers were offered an opportunity, they’d be adamant it be extended to her instead.

“They would give up their seat and insist it was made available to a new voice. They didn't gate keep exposure of new talent. These were opportunities that had a monumental impact on my career and trajectory,” she accounts.

The trouble is that even when women get the proverbial seat at the table – with or without assistance – they’re often the only gender representative there. “There are so many of us who really can work well and excel, but when the opportunities make room for one of us, we then have to compete for that spot. I’d like to feel like there isn’t going to be a choice between myself and another womxn, I’d like to be excited to be chosen alongside them for opportunities. We need programmes to actively include womxn (plural).” She finishes by saying that whether or not you take a leading role in a situation, exposure is key.

“Being in the room for the photos and handshaking is important.”

Ester “Kauna” Samuel

Bartender and Supervisor in Windhoek, Namibia

Samuel’s been bartending in South Africa’s neighbouring country of Namibia since 2016.

“I started out as a shy 21 year old girl waiter, and after few months became a bar lady,” she says, her gendered industry language already quite telling.

Like Chinnah, she battles to be taken seriously as woman, although her frontline is more client facing.

“There have been many instances where I’ve been touched inappropriately,” she shares.

She goes on to say that guests often underestimate her skills too, going as far as to outright insult her, simply on account of her gender. Paradoxically, this is particularly common in situations with regulars, whose patronage is seen to be more important to the business than staff wellbeing.

“Security of the female staff is disregarded in many places, which is one of the reasons behind the drop in the number of female bar staff across the globe,” she notes.

Samuel says the solution lies in getting management to invest in their teams, both in terms of training and by building trust.

“Creating a diverse team will protect your staff, but it can also drastically improve your business. There are many ways you can offer support to your female bartenders and help them grow professionally, which will lead to good experiences for your guests. It begins with providing assistance and support in difficult moments, investing in your employees, educating yourself and your team,” she outlines.

“Once you’ve created a safe working space, encourage your female bartenders to speak up about harassment. Take it upon yourself to create a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. Female bartenders are more likely to put up with bad behaviour if they’re afraid of the consequences for reporting harassment,” she ends.

Seraphine Afladey

Mixologist in Accra, Ghana

Although newer to the game, having started out as a barback in 2021 – and in another region of the continent, being in West Africa – Afladey shares the sentiments of both Chinnah and Samuel.

“Sometimes, no matter how talented one becomes, to gain respect as a woman can be very difficult … and for a woman to gain equal respect in the industry is not as golden as it may sound,” she reveals.

It’s a bit of catch-22, you see, as the better you get at your job, the more attention you draw to yourself – which isn’t necessarily a good thing for women. “If you communicate well with customers, there can be unwanted approaches. One always has to be careful in how to respond, to remain professional and respectful, and yet ensure the customer does not feel offended at a negative response and still comes back to the bar,” Afladey explains. Another challenge is a simple lack of good bar positions in general, which curtails potential growth.

“There are limited opportunities where I come from,” she states.

To overcome these obstacles, Afladey has looked both inwards and outwards.

“I would say the first thing I needed was my self-confidence. [What] has been specifically helpful to me as a woman in the bar industry is the fact that I can be myself."

“In this short period of joining the industry as a bar back, mentorship [from men] has [also] been a great guide to me towards a bright future. Because of their experience, they give me the career guidelines, advice and motivation I need. They helped me make connections to build a professional network and to make my career grow by connecting me to potential opportunities,” she finishes.

Josephine “Jojo” Adongo Nguono

Brand Ambassador in Nairobi, Kenya

Over in East Africa, Nguono started bartending in 2018, before moving into bartender training and brand advocacy. For her too, the biggest challenge has been gaining equal respect, and having her skills acknowledged.

“I would say the hardest thing was being accepted as one with the same capabilities and knowledge as a male bartender. And had to push myself hard to prove it,” she confirms.

Nguono earned her place not just by honing her physical skills, but by educating herself too, emerging as an industry leader.

“Mastering my craft all round on bartending skills and spirits has helped me be a trendsetter and not just a follower,” she notes.

She adds that, most importantly, she stood her ground, and refused to be subjugated. Through the perseverance of women like Nguono, the attitude toward female bartenders in Kenya is shifting.

“The bar has been known to be a male dominated, but luckily the industry is more accepting of female bartenders than before, unlike when female bartenders were seen as a decoration behind the bar,” she observes.

Going forward, Nguono says that the best things to advance gender equality behind the bar is more interaction with the global bar community. “[We need] exposure; to get to learn what is happening in the other markets outside Kenya,” she summarises.  Womandla! More power to these strong women. May they continue to find grit in the tougher moments, and may more men support them in their struggle. ———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.