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Beatriz Echeverría: "The bakery world, particularly the conventional one, is very much a man’s world"

The award-winning baker, owner of El Horno de Babette and founding member of La Pepa, believes that customers don't care if there is a man or a woman behind the business. They are more interested in the product.

04 Aug 2020

Beatriz Echeverría has a degree in Journalism and History, a Master's in History from Boston University and a PhD in History from the London School of Economics. She worked as a journalist for short periods, and translated books and taught at the University of London before returning to Spain in 2007. Then she changed tack and opened La cocina de Babette, a school specialised in home baking. In 2011, during a two-month stay in New York, she did work placements at Amy's Bread and Sullivan Street Bakery, before opening El horno de Babette, with Carla Medrano and Susana Gaona in 2013, which now has four stores in Madrid. Since then, she has done training at Richemont Lucerne, École International de Boulangerie, The Chocolate Academy, Andreu Llargués, CETECE. 

Winner of the first edition in Madrid of the La Miga de Oro, founding member of La Pepa (Pequeños Panaderos Afines, a collective of small artisan bakeries) and editor-in-chief of Pan magazine, Echeverría says that, as in all areas, men find it easy to take the leading role in the baking world, while women often hold back. She wants to remind future bakers that it is important to acquire knowledge, not only of baking, but also about logistics, raw materials, and  product profitability. 

1.- How has the role of women in baking evolved in the last eight years?

In my experience –which is not as broad as that of someone who has been working in the sector their entire working life– women are starting to be more visible in the bakery business from the outside, even though we have always been present. That said, male bakers still receive more recognition than female bakers. Sometimes, when I am searching for teachers for my courses, I talk to professionals who have never taught a course but in whom I see potential because they are good communicators and have extensive knowledge. Men agree to do it more quickly than women do. It’s a cultural thing. We do not realise how easily men take centre stage or how frequently women avoid it. When I started doing this I was surprised at the number of bakeries run by a couple where the man was the public face of the business. The media are much more interested in men than in women, so women have fewer role models, and although gender should not be relevant when searching for role models, I think it still is.

2.- What challenges do women face in the sector?

I suppose that the first thing is to draw a distinction between artisanal and industrial baking; and then, within artisanal baking (my area of expertise), some of us have our own businesses and some work for others. The challenges are different. As a business owner, being a woman can have an impact when it comes to interacting with suppliers, the media, perhaps your workers, and especially with fellow professionals and colleagues. In my view, the baking industry, especially the conventional one, is a very sexist world, although I have also come across many male bakers who have always treated me as an equal. As for customers, in my experience they are more interested in the product, they do not care if there is a woman or a man behind the business. However, I do think they like a business to have a visible face. 

When you're looking for a job, then the situation is different. Female bakers have the same problems common to other sectors, employers look at whether they have young children, might they have more, or are they «too old» ... And then there’s the physical aspect of the job, because some employers place great emphasis on physical strength. It's strange, but there is something I've heard on more than one occasion: a male baker claims that women can be good bakers, and then mentions such and such, who he describes as a kind of superwoman who could lift two sacks of flour at a time, or some similar story. In their version, that is what makes a woman as good as a man. As far as I am concerned, it is an advantage to have different physiques in the bakery, because it makes us think about the extent to we should mistreat our bodies, even in the case of strong women (or men). It’s not a question of lifting sacks of flour two at a time like circus performers. We are not like Rafael Nadal with a 15-year career span, with no other option but to sacrifice ourselves. We will be working here through to retirement age. In my view, a basic objective in the bakery is to minimise physical effort and the risk of injury to the greatest possible degree. Being a good baker is not a question of strength. I think I’m probably the weakest person in the Babette and I use myself as a benchmark. If I can’t do something then it hasn't been designed correctly and anyone else who does it is risking long-term injury. I’m not bothered by the fact that the men - or the women - in the bakery are stronger than me! I think it’s brilliant that stronger people do tasks that require more strength, provided they are protected like everyone else. But I don't think things should be anything that the weakest member of the tean cannot do. And when it comes to height, well, that’s what stools are for. 

3.- Do you think that women are thin on the ground at bakery congresses and events? What do you think could be done to end female invisibility?

All you need to do is call upon the many relevant women who work in this profession. The organisers need to take an interest in male and female professionals alike. We live in a very chauvinistic society, and if they don’t invite you to these events, there’s not much you can do about it. The important thing is that we need to be capable of asserting ourselves and accepting these invitations when they do happen, provided we want to, that is.

4.- Do you think women have the same opportunities (salaries, positions of responsibility, recognition, etc.) as men in this sector? Is there a solution?

I don't know, but I can't imagine that is the case. I’m sure it's more difficult to find a job as a baker if you are a woman, perhaps easier as a pastry chef, and obviously as a shop assistant. But this is a problem that affects all sectors of society. When there are more female role models in the baking world it will encourage more girls to be bakers. If there are none, then it’s unlikely to happen. Anna Bellsolà was a great role model for me when I started and she still is! 

If this is a family profession, a lot depends on the parents. I went to a meeting of female bakers organised by Marta Reyes of Pan de Calidad, and I heard the same story over and over again. The father had died, the brother did not want to take care of the business or was doing a very poor job, and then the daughter took over, and suddenly she discovered a trade se loved. Why were they not made heirs to the business from the start, not only in the store, but also in the workshop? 

5.- Is it difficult for a woman to achieve a satisfactory work-life balance in a bakery?

I don't have any children and my partner is a university professor, so we have a lot of flexibility and this makes things easier; this is not the case for most women, naturally. I think that if the company is willing to cooperate, they can make it work. It is clear that store hours are what they are, but half-days are feasible; in the workshop the bread has to be baked at a specific time, but other things are flexible. If the bakery is your own business, although it ties you down, it also gives you freedom. So I would say that it should be very feasible, particularly if the man (or the partner) shares the housework, something that even bakers are starting to do.

6.- What percentage of women are there in the El horno de Babette workforce? Are there specific positions for women or men among your bakers?

Including me, there are three women and four men in the workshop right now and seven in the shops. There are no specific male or female jobs. And there won't be. How could you justify something like that?

7.- What tips do you have for female students who want to be bakers?

What you don't learn in school you can learn in the outside world by getting practical experience, or by studying, reading. We have a lot of information at our fingertips, and I believe that the better educated you are, the better for you and your future career. Baking is a universe that goes beyond making bread, and you have to try to learn about everything, get involved in everything, understand which products are profitable, how to organise a workshop, production systems, raw materials, communication and the business side if you end up setting up your own business. In short, it is hard to get bored. If you have opportunities to travel, then travel. If you know people who can help you find opportunities inside and outside Spain, ask them for help. If you can get more training, do it.

8.- Have you experienced any discriminatory situations in your profession because you are a woman?

At the last InterSICOP I remember stopping at a stand to ask about a product I was interested in for Babette, and the person who was there explaining only spoke to and looked at Jesús Machí, who was with me. I asked the questions, but he only addressed Jesús, as though I were invisible. This is commonplace. Bakers come to my bakery, and when they talk about bread processes they address the men in my team. Or if you get angry with a supplier because they have messed up, they often say “Calm down!”, which they would not dare say to a man. They wouldn’t dream of it! Being a woman and coming from outside the sector doesn’t help. It's a challenge, but hopefully in the future it won’t be, and we will be judged on what we do. This is already happening with many colleagues, and most importantly, with customers who want good products and a good deal. Being a man or a woman has no impact on bread.