The Ratmagnet Effect
What We Learned and What Was Left Unsaid
by Kerri Brown
The moment that many of us have been waiting for has finally arrived. Instead of hearing about isolated instances of sexual harassment and assault in the craft beer industry, and knowing that they were just the tip of the iceberg, the floodgates have been opened to show just how prevalent gender-based violence and sexism are in the industry.
We have Brienne Allan, head brewer and production manager at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, to thank for opening those floodgates. On May 11th, Allan posted on her personal Instagram (@ratmagnet) about a sexist encounter that she was experiencing at work. She posed the following question to the public: “What sexist comments have you experienced?”
Her question led to an avalanche of stories that she has since organized into ten parts as highlights on her Instagram, which now has over 62,000 followers. The overall project is nothing short of heart-wrenching and puts on full display the urgency of the problem of gender-based violence and sexism in the industry.
The problem is varied in that sexism seems to be at the center of how the craft beer industry operates economically, culturally, and structurally. Some accounts exposed wage gaps, others told of blatantly discriminatory company cultures gone unchecked, and the most damning told of sexual assault at the hands of brewery leadership.
But nearly all of the stories are devastatingly familiar, and there are clear patterns revealed that we as a community should pay attention to. We learned that when there is one form of violence, there are usually other forms involved. Breweries often did not just have one case of discrimination or violence, but rather a series of cases and several actors involved in both committing and excusing offenses. One submission recounted physical violence, LGBTQ employees being unfairly demoted, and salary inequality all within the same brewery. Another told of an HR director telling her production employee partner about confidential harassment claims, who then passed on the information to other employees. This multifaceted nature of workplace violence proves that we cannot hyperfocus on addressing specific instances of violence as they occur. Instead, we must look at where there are possible holes in supposed systems of accountability, because excusing one type of violence opens up the possibility for many others to be committed.
We often like to think of craft beer as local. When we consume it we are supporting local economies, local cultures, and local people. But we learned that the issues highlighted on Allan’s page are global issues. The stories that Allan shared quickly resonated with the industry internationally. Submissions came from the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and other countries in addition to several U.S. states. Ecuadorian brewer and founder of Cerveza MUt Lager Dora Durán started the hashtag #trabajoseguroysinviolencia (safe and violence-free work) in solidarity with those telling their stories.
For other industries, that these issues are global is not news. But the craft beer industry, as well as the wealthy countries that the industry thrives in, have tried to promote themselves as the exception to this global sexism, and instead as progressive champions of equality and inclusion. We know this is not true.
What @ratmagnet has taught us is that there is power in breadth, and that we should leverage the international networks that already exist (such as the Women’s International Beer Summit and the Pink Boots Society) to create a standard in the global industry. Importantly, we also learned that there are a growing number of resources that approach the issue at a systemic level. A relatively late but welcomed effort has been the Brewers Association’s three-part “Preventing Sexual Harassment” webinar, which could help to solidify the industry-wide conversation. #NotMe, which Allan mentioned on her Instagram, is a recently-launched mobile app and website that allows employees to anonymously report harassment. Safe Bars is a certification program that trains bar staff to respond to sexual violence. Bar goers can search over 40 certified establishments on the project’s website. In other words, breweries no longer have an excuse to let incidents of discrimination and violence occur.
As much as there was exposed on @ratmagnet, there was perhaps just as much left unsaid. An open secrecy is at the heart of the problem, and this secrecy ends up obscuring how complex and deep-rooted it actually is. Many of the stories featured on @ratmagnet were told on behalf of others and/or anonymously, meaning that there are still many voices that did not feel safe enough to fully come forward.
We often don’t talk about the dark, not-quite -bright-and-sunny aftermath of highly publicized exposures. The relived and prolonged trauma of recounting violences is one of the reasons why the burden should never, ever be placed on the victims of violence to fix or even expose the broader, systemic problem. As the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence across their lifetime, it is likely that most women reading the stories on @ratmagnet will recognize moments in their own lives within the texts.
Workplace violence often too easily gets reduced to legal and financial arguments, but the real effects are human and long-term. They show up in medical and legal fees, intimate relationships, and future employability within the industry. Allan herself is an example of this, having been threatened with a defamation lawsuit. (Shortly after she started to publish the stories, follower Mikaelaa Crist started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for any legal fees accrued in relation to future possible lawsuits.) We should not be willing to sacrifice the well-being of victims and whistleblowers in order to make changes that we all know are needed.
We also need to have a broader discussion about how gender-based violence is happening at epidemiological rates in the craft beer industry. I use the term “epidemiological” not just to describe how rampant and widespread the issue is, but because the issue is also one of the health of individuals, families, and communities. And like any epidemic, we as a public deserve to have data about the issue, and we deserve to have standardized practices of prevention and monitoring. Allan’s project is important, but it should not be our only proof that workplace violence in the industry is widespread.
With these data, we would also be able to understand just how intersectional the stories submitted are. We cannot discuss sexism without discussing the racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination and violence that are inevitably committed with sexism. Victims are targeted based on the intersection of all of their identities and perceived identities, and we should frame the conversation as such. Which groups are made to be most vulnerable? Which groups are most silenced?
For example, although workplace discrimination based on race and sex have long been illegal, the United States Supreme Court ruled definitively just last year that workplace discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal. We know from Allan’s posts that members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been particularly targeted throughout the industry, but until 2020 victims had very little legal recourse to fight back. We also know, based on the Brewers Association’s 2019 report on diversity in the industry, that certain ethnic groups are particularly underrepresented in managerial roles in breweries, making them more vulnerable to various types of discrimination and violence. At least now we’re beginning to hear more of these stories.
The Ratmagnet Effect is, and will continue to be, far-reaching. Although Allan’s and others’ efforts have started what is arguably the most impactful and concrete wave of anti-sexism in the history of the industry, we have a long way to go. Instead of merely thanking victims and whistleblowers for their bravery, let’s show up for them as well by making real structural changes.
Read Addressing Gender-Based Violence in the Craft Beer World for more on this topic.