Creating Safe Spaces for Women in the Beer Industry

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When the Brewers Association released the results of their Brewery Operations Benchmarking Survey last year, the data confirmed that there’s still work to do when it comes to diversifying the industry. Based on the responses, 77 percent of breweries were owned by men and only 9 percent of breweries owned by people of color. More than 90 percent of production staff were males while front-of-house staff, like bartenders or servers, showed a greater balance of a gender. The responses also reported that less than 24 percent of employees are from the BIPOC community.

It was another set of examples of gender disparity that has traditionally plagued the beer industry in the U.S. and around the world.

Despite being male-dominated, women are finding ways to navigate the industry and share their love for craft beer with others. These women increasingly shape the future of U.S. beer, one that’s guided with themes of diversity and inclusion.

Unfortunately, these same women regularly encounter situations that place their safety at risk. Working in a male-dominated industry puts women at a higher risk of experiencing sexual harassment on the job. The service industry is responsible for 14 percent of all sexual harassment complaints, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. It’s reported that 90 percent of women in the service industry have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Because of this, many women in beer are looking for ways to maneuver uncomfortable and sometimes threatening circumstances. Some women shared how they’ve adopted a heightened awareness of their surroundings. They rely on regular check-ins with friends and co-workers, and some women have sacrificed everyday convenience for safety. While these extra precautions provide a layer of protection, spending extra time and money to avoid unsafe situations puts an undue burden on women working in the craft beer industry.

Amanda Oakes | Regional Sales Director | Montana

Amanda Oakes, a sales representative for Red Lodge Ales Brewing Co. in Red Lodge, Montana, used to spend two-to-five days on the road representing her brewery at beer events, maintaining accounts, and sharing Red Lodge Ales’ beer with drinkers across the region before COVID-19. Oakes loves selling beer because she’s really good at it, but life on the road isn’t always glamorous.

“Your safety is always at risk when you’re a single female, especially selling an alcoholic beverage product,” says Oakes, who has worked in beer for six years.

One night in 2006, Oakes packed up her car and headed back to her hotel after hosting a tap takeover at The Drink in Mandan, North Dakota. What she didn’t realize was a man from the event followed her back to the hotel’s front desk, where he pretended to be her husband to get a key to her room. When he unlocked the door, Oakes had the safety latch on, so he was blocked from gaining access to her room.

“One lesson I learned from that one situation is I never want it to happen again. So now when I check into a hotel room, I either will hand write a note or verbally let someone know that I am traveling alone,” says Oakes.

Since then, Oakes shares her story with other women in the industry and provides advice on ways to stay safe on the road. Unfortunately, Oakes’ story is not an isolated incident for women who travel for work. According to research from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) in partnership with AIG Travel, 83 percent of women experienced one of more safely-related concerns or incidents while traveling for business in the past year.

Danya Bonner | Director of Sales | Montana

Danya Bonner, a director of sales at Lewis & Clark Brewing Co. in Helena, Montana, started working in the beer industry 15 years ago. Bonner understands the hazards of the job because of her friendship with Oakes. She typically feels safe when she’s out on the road for the brewery, but has been followed by men in an easy-to-spot work vehicle, which gets a lot of attention on the road for its beer-label design.

After being followed home one night summer, Bonner decided to leave her vehicle at the brewery instead of driving it home. “Now, I don’t take my work vehicle home. I usually park my work vehicle at my hotel if I’m in a different town or a different state and then Uber. I’ve probably spent a fortune on Uber at this point,” Bonner says.

But it’s not just an undue financial burden placed on her. She also checks in regularly with the brewery on the way home and encourages them to do the same, especially if they haven’t heard from her in a while. These extra precautions have become a way for Bonner to safely do the job she loves.

Sarah Swenson | Sales and Brand Manager | Arizona

Sarah Swenson, a sales and brand manager in Arizona, often volunteered to drive friends and colleagues home after an event. That changed after Swenson was allegedly sexually assaulted by a male colleague after dropping him off at his house.

Since the assault, Swenson has re-evaluated who she can trust. She used to see herself as a caretaker for her male friends. Now, she’s careful about who she drives home—whether a coworker or friend. Women should be able to feel safe with men they know, but statistics show that familiarity isn’t as safe as one would expect. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 80 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

Because they work in the same industry, Swenson would run into him at events. “He would make it a point . . . to sit down right next to me and act like we were best friends. He knew that if he would start a conversation in front of my bosses, that I would be professional and tolerate it,” says Swenson.

Like many, Swenson has taken on the burden of maintaining her professionalism in the face of a man who assaulted her. Research shows that 60 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment and assault, but it’s rarely reported. Another study shows that Black women experience sexual harassment at work at three times the rate of white women—approximately 23 percent of Black women. While 20 percent of Latinx workers have reported experiencing sexual harassment.

The affects of experiencing sexual assault in the workplace are damaging and puts unwarranted stress on the women who have to work in proximity to their assaulter.

Nikki Johnson | Beertender-Certified Cicerone | Maryland

Life in the taproom comes with its own challenges. One summer evening in 2018, Nikki Johnson was closing up the taproom at a Georgia brewery. Initially, Johnson was having a friendly conversation with a lingeringmale patron. But as she started to close, she expected the patron to pay his tab and head home.

“He just was like hanging on. He asked for one more beer . . . and I was like ‘No, dude, I’m closing up. Sorry. I’m trying to be polite,’” Johnson says. After 20 minutes of waiting for him to leave, Johnson told him to leave. The patron told Johnson he was waiting on his Uber, but she got him to step outside and she locked the doors.

“There’s no one around,” Johnson recalled. “I could scream as loud as I wanted, and no one would hear it.”

While Johnson wasn’t to blame for the situation, she’s taken on the burden of being the solution. Now when she closes, Johnson is firm from the start with patrons. “I was afraid that being blunt with that guy would make him mad and [want to] retaliate,” says Johnson. “I wish I would have more vocally requested to not close alone anymore.”

Making the Beer Industry Safer for Women

It’s hard to estimate the toll unwanted encounters have on women, especially women of color who often have to navigate these situations along with the mental and emotional stress due to working in majority white spaces.

Eugenia Brown works full time in mental health and part-time as a beertender at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Free Range Brewing. While people have made provocative, sexual comments toward her, the most upsetting situations she has experienced are those where she’s ignored or dismissed by customers when trying to serve them.

“Trauma is trauma no matter what,” Brown said. “So when talking about the emotional trauma that happens when you feel invalidated as a person, when you feel like your existence isn’t being recognized and celebrated. You internalize that, and then you start to question if you do belong in that space.”

Instead of shifting the blame towards the perpetrators, often women reexamine and second-guess their actions, believing they have some part to play in the incident. Studies have shown that self-blame is highest in cases of sexual assault, which leads to higher cases of PTSD. For Black women, the combination of racism and sexism can heighten depression and PTSD symptoms.

Brewery owners and managers can help create a safe environment by empowering their employees to advocate for themselves if their safety is ever compromised. To do this, HR Professionals Kristen Ireland and Erin Mies of People Spark Consulting recommend breweries start by identifying their culture and values and keep them front of mind for leadership and employees.

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask for help if you don’t feel comfortable,” says Tracey Bardugon, a taproom manager at Atlanta’s Fire Maker Brewing Company. She keeps an Atlanta Police Department’s non-emergency number on speed dial. And while this is great advice, women of color are less likely to seek out law enforcement than their white counterparts due to the systemic discrimination and oppression experienced by the police.

One common challenge for women, Nikki Johnson, a Beertender-Certified Cicerone from Maryland, says, is where breweries are located. With so many breweries in industrial zones, working late nights in a warehouse far from other businesses or people is daunting. “I would’ve had to run a block to reach a building with another human being in it,” Johnson says.

Swenson also encourages women to speak up about their experiences. Many women who survive sexual abuse feel guilty or ashamed after the experience. Instead of coming forward, they maintain their silence, which can be isolating.

However, reporting incidents of sexual harassment comes with the fear of retaliation from the employer or abuser. Retaliation could include low performance reviews, undesirable shifts, spreading of false rumors, threats, or firing. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, retaliation is the most frequently filed issue constituting 51.6 percent of charges in FY 2018. The numbers are sobering and reflect an issue that extends beyond the beer industry.

”Don’t ever be afraid to tell someone what happened and what your situation was. And don’t be afraid to ask questions about how you [can avoid] being put in that situation again,” says Oakes.

This story was made possible by the Diversity in Beer Writing Grant, established by the North American Guild of Beer Writers in partnership with Additional support for the grant comes from Allagash Brewing Company.

Stephanie Grant has had many loves in her life, but craft beer continues to capture her heart; she’s an Atlanta native who loves experiencing a new city's culinary and craft beer scene. When she doesn't have her fingers on a keyboard, Stephanie's in the kitchen passionately experimenting with pairing food with delicious ales and lagers. is fully dedicated to small and independent U.S. breweries. We are published by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers. Stories and opinions shared on do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.