Do coffee shops discriminate against women?

The economic mysteries of daily life.
Nov. 10 2007 6:58 AM

Waiting for Good Joe

Do coffee shops discriminate against women?

Illustration by Robert Weinstock. Click image to expand.

I'm a real cappuccino lover myself, but many of my female colleagues don't seem to go for the stuff. I'd never thought too much about it until recently. I suppose I carelessly assumed that men and women have different tastes, probably as a result of different social influences. Now I know better: My female colleagues don't go to coffee shops because they're shabbily treated when they get there.

That's the conclusion of American economist Caitlin Knowles Myers. She, with her students as research assistants, staked out eight coffee shops (PDF) 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.)

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Perhaps, says the skeptic, this is because women order froufrou drinks? Up to a point. The researchers found that men are more likely to order simpler drinks. Yet comparing fancy-drink-ordering men with fancy-drink-ordering women, the longer wait for women remained.

It is also hard to attribute the following finding to a female preference for wet-skinny-soy-macchiato with low-carb marshmallows: The delays facing women were larger when the coffee shop staff was all-male and almost vanished when the servers were all-female.

It is not clear whether women were held up by male staff because the men viewed them with contempt or because the male staff members were flirting furiously. The "contempt" explanation seems more likely, as the extra time that women have to wait seems to increase when the coffee shop is busy. Who would take extra time out to flirt just when the lines are longer?

This is an intriguing piece of research because coffee shops appear to be a competitive business, and one thing we economists think we know about discrimination is that competition should tend to erode it.

The idea comes from an article published 50 years ago by economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker. The reasoning is simple enough: A business that deliberately offers shoddy service or uncompetitive prices to some customers, or that turns down smart minority applicants in favor of less-qualified white male applicants, is throwing money away. If it is a government bureaucracy or a powerful monopolist, that's a loathsome but sustainable choice. But racist or sexist businesses with many competitors are likely to be shut down by the bankruptcy courts long before the human rights lawyers get to them.

Becker's theory is powerful, and there is evidence to back it up. Economists Sandra Black and Elizabeth Brainerd found that the surge in international trade, which has increased competitive pressures in many markets, has reduced the ability of firms to discriminate against women.

But what Becker cannot say is how reliable the competition mechanism is at crushing discrimination, nor how quick. (In fairness to him, economics in general has a real blind spot when it comes to the question "when?") The research on coffee shops is an interesting curiosity: Coffee retailing seems to be fiercely competitive. How can discrimination continue?

One answer, perhaps, is that a rival coffee shop would have to be very close indeed to justify a trip aimed at avoiding a 20-second wait. Even coffee retailing isn't that competitive.

But an alternative explanation is that the market is still working on the problem. Over time, we've moved from gentlemen's clubs to male-dominated pubs to coffee shops, which are far more female-friendly. Perhaps it is just a matter of time before some entrepreneur decides to set up a big chain of coffee shops with "no men allowed" on the door.

Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His latest book, The Logic of Life, will be published in paperback on Feb. 10.

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