Slate Magazine published an article today that posed an interesting question: Do coffee shops discriminate against women? – By Tim Harford – Slate Magazine. The crux of the article is economic research [PDF, 364kb] performed on eight Boston area cafés where the researcher compared the customer service times based on sex, age, race, drink type, the male/female gender ratio of the café staff, and how busy the café is.

The research, despite its relatively small sample size (295 purchases), reveals some interesting statistics. For one, even when adjusting for the greater tendency for women to order the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato, female customers waited an average of 20 seconds longer than their male counterparts. For another, this difference in wait times diminished when the the café was staffed with a higher percentage of women, and this difference increased the busier the café became.

On the surface, there are plenty of factors that will make you question the study’s conclusions. Are male café staff too busy flirting with the women? The researchers conclude that the male/female difference in service times is rooted in hostility towards the female customers — quite an assertion. But the limited data does tend to rule out some of the usual suspects for simpler, less politically charged explanations. (I still think they were far too dismissive with the “flirt” explanation — the data doesn’t seem to as clearly support it as they seem to suggest.)

Even without some of these usual suspects, there are inconsistencies — take people over age 40. According to their data, they are served slower than younger customers when it comes to fancy coffee drinks, and yet their service times are faster than younger customers for simple coffee drinks.

Decide for yourself what this all really means. But it seems like a question worth asking in greater detail.