Sexist? Moi?

At Slate, coffee-loving economist Tim Harford writes about a paper [.pdf] by Caitlin Knowles Myers finding that baristas can be sexist, forcing female customers to wait an average of 20 seconds longer for their drinks than men do. Does this mean women are suffering at the hands of chauvinist baristi? Aside from the meagerness of the time in question, I think the study misses an obvious point: faster service isn’t necessarily better service.

The difference might actually arise from reverse discrimination: perhaps women’s drinks take longer because male baristi are eager to impress them. Having worked in several coffee shops over the years, I will cop to sometimes putting excessive care into the beverages of female customers, doing my best to get the espresso and the latte art just right. Unless the customer doesn’t care about the presentation and quality of the drink — a minority in most of the shops I’ve worked in — that’s better service, not worse.

The author’s thoughts on tipping are also problematic. Myers believes that baristi may give lesser service to women to curry favor with supposedly higher-tipping males. This assumes that speed of service is the primary determinant of tipping. My experience suggests that this is not the case. Rather, one reason people frequent coffee shops is that they enjoy the feeling of community and recognition these places offer. As Michael Lynn’s research has revealed, intangibles in the customer-server interaction often have more to do with tip amounts than do objective measures of service. Spending more time with customers may be a way making customers happy and increasing tips, the exact opposite of what Myers’ paper assumes. A friendlier, mutually enjoyed greeting might be all that accounts for that 20 second difference.

Myers’ paper does present an interesting finding, but 20 seconds isn’t enough to convince me of nefarious forces at work.

[Via Radley Balko.]

Update 11/14/07: Myers has a very nice response to commenters at Tim’s FT blog, going into a bit more detail about the study and what it may imply.


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