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Meet Sharleen Antonio: Breaking the Mould in the Philippines

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Sharleen Antonio

Sharleen Penninah Antonio is not new to the perils of being a female behind the bar. With just two years of work experience, Sharleen has had to pass through the eye of a needle just to get into bartending and to be respected in her chosen career.

“It was tough,” she says. “Aside from being physically challenging, the social prejudice that comes from being a woman serving alcohol to a mixed crowd of both men and women was far more difficult to address than the duties that come with it.”

“A lot of people, including some of my relatives, discouraged me from working behind a bar and I was even told to get a ‘real job’” she adds. “On top of that was the constant bickering amongst male and female bartenders regarding gender equality issues and other so-called physical limitations of being a woman. Oh, did I mention the hundreds of times I was catcalled?”, she laughs.

This is not a new issue for the local bartending scene in the Philippines. During the last two decades or so, the bartending industry was mostly composed of men. Five-star hotels, island resorts, and even social clubs were dominated by males and it was very rare to hear about, let alone see a female bartender. There were some local bartender organisations but there was never really a support group, nor an outlet for female bartenders to voice their concerns and other gender-related issues.

Mixology and even flair bartending competitions were male-dominated events unless, of course, you were a female bartender at TGIFriday’s where the yearly World Bartender Championships encourage girl bartenders to step up their game up, just like the men, behind the bar.

“Only recently you see women getting hired to be behind the stick as mixologists and respected craftspeople,” notes Sharleen. “When I worked for Sheraton Red Deer Hotel in Alberta, Canada, I noticed that female bartenders were considered an asset rather than a liability. To be able to serve alcoholic drinks and work behind the bar, I had to take the ProServe (Training for Responsible Liquor Sales and Service) certification and undergo rigid training. This was not the case when I started out as a bartender in the Philippines two years ago. Truth be told, the opportunity to get behind the bar here is much easier but, sadly, is still substandard as compared to other countries” she adds.

“Personally, I love to cook and mixology comes naturally since my fiancé is also a bartender (he was actually the one who inspired me to get into the industry.) Whenever he was developing a drink for a client I would be his guinea pig and that was how I pretty much got more involved with mixology. Back in college, passing the bar management class was really more about getting high marks and about learning how to flair. I never imagined that someday I would take bartending as my career choice. In fact, I consider myself lucky to be part of the present local bartending industry because the opportunity for female bartenders to shine is already there and ready for the taking,” she comments.

Women behind the bar are fast becoming the norm nowadays. In fact, international bartending competitions like Diageo World Class have produced top notch female champions (Jennifer Le Nechet of France and recently, Kaitlyn Stewart of Canada) and have proven what women can really do behind the bar and on the competition stage. “My first experience competing at the MONIN Mixology Cup in 2015 is what opened my eyes to the bigger opportunities that await every female bartender. That experience drove me to strive harder and to keep pushing the envelope,” she adds.

“I have seen bartenders compete on Speed Rack and, mind you, I was blown away not only by their quickness but more so on their presence of mind and their ability to make accurate drinks in the shortest possible amount of time.”

“The best thing about working behind the bar (at least for me, personally) is not about the drinking part but the type of education that I get from listening to my guests. I can honestly say that during the last two years that I have been working behind the bar, I have learned more about life than the four years I spent in college.”

“Being a bartender or a mixologist is a not only a job but a true craft. It is a profession that deserves attention and respect just like any other occupation in life. Regardless of social pressures and prejudices,” Charleen concludes. “Female bartenders are here to stay and we will keep working hard to keep ourselves indispensable in the local bartending industry.”

Sharleen currently works as a bartender at Manille Beach Bar in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines where she manages it together with her partner, Larry Guevara.