Why the wine industry is failing women - Comment

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Chris Losh returns this month to look at the gender gap in the wine industry, although his observations could quite easily apply to all drinks sectors, indeed, to industry in general.

A month or so ago, I watched a TV programme called 'No More Boys and Girls: can our Kids go Gender Free?' – a social experiment during which a doctor gradually removed any gender-specific toys or behaviour from a class of seven-year-olds. After just six weeks, the results were startling. The boys had learned that creative play, empathy and emoting were okay, while the girls had discovered a penchant for puzzles and making models and had grown in confidence.

Social conditioning, it seems, starts early and its roots run deep – but it can be reversed.

I was thinking about all this at the end of September when I went along to the Australian Women in Wine Awards in London. The event recognises the outstanding female contributors in eight different categories, with awards including Winemaker of the Year, Viticulturalist of the Year and Marketer of the Year.

Before I attended the post-awards tasting, with over 50 top-notch (female) winemakers in attendance, I had been mildly surprised that such a woman-focused celebration should still be necessary in the latte-drinking 21st Century.

The number of women in the wine industry is thought to be in decline

The figures, however, are sobering. Despite high numbers of women enrolling in oenology and viticulture courses in Australia, only 9% of winemakers and 10% of viticulturalists are female. And, worryingly, the number of women in the wine industry is thought to be in decline.

"For decades, we've been wishing and hoping to see a significant rise in gender diversity in the Australian wine industry,'" says Jane Thomson, founder of the AWIWA. "Unfortunately, wishing alone hasn't worked. The Australian wine community needs positive female role models and leaders. With these awards, we hope to highlight a few more of them."

Having spoken to some of the women at the event, what was surprising, perhaps, is not that AWIWA exists 50 years after the Summer of Love, but that there aren't more events like it.

There were some jaw-dropping stories of prejudice. From the winemaker who was told she was "too small" to succeed (no, me neither) to a board member at a successful UK wine retailer who received a bunch of flowers while her male directors trousered large bonuses (she resigned the next day).

And, how about the talented female taster at a wine competition whose (male) co-judges took advantage of her bathroom break to look at her scores? When she returned, they all feigned dislike of an obviously outstanding wine (which the taster had duly marked as Gold) and, when she moved to compromise, they tore strips off her for failing to stand up for her beliefs.

It made me wonder whether one female winemaker's description of the challenge today as being "not so much sexism as cronyism and complacency" was being immensely over-charitable.

Wine is proving disappointingly resistant to anything approaching female parity

While there are shining lights, from Jancis Robinson MW to Vanya Cullen these female superstars can, paradoxically, blind the wine world to the fact that, like most male-dominated industries, wine is proving disappointingly resistant to anything approaching female parity.

Women, after all, are graduating in record numbers - usually out-performing men in the process - and seem to have few problems in getting a foot on the ladder. Yet, they remain under-represented at managerial level and make up a small minority at board level in most branches of the industry.

The not-for-profit group Women in Wine LDN cites the three biggest challenges as being lack of shared parental leave, discrimination against women of child-bearing age and a gender pay gap. Certainly, talking to women at the event in London provided ample evidence of all of these issues.

Years of social engineering have played their part, too. I've heard different stories from different sectors of the industry, where women have admitted that their talented, experienced peers are often hesitant to put themselves forward for courses, promotions or bursaries, since they don't feel sufficiently qualified. Men, you can be sure, would be unlikely to suffer from such self-doubt.

There's no shortage of research out there looking at the 'confidence gap'; how men over-estimate their skills and women do the opposite. The result: One group tends to push itself forward over-confidently for promotion, and the other (frequently better qualified) hangs back.

The head of wine for an international restaurant group backs this up. The company created a wine team for its sommeliers, with the intention of giving more junior staff members a taste of seniority, so they could see a possible step up a few years down the line.

It looked great in theory, but in practice only worked for one demographic.

"We just weren't getting female sommeliers on them," she said. "They were being offered places and not taking them. They always felt that they needed more time and more knowledge."

Needless to say, a situation in which the over-confident get promoted, while the quieter but more talented feel overlooked and leave, is not good news for any industry, irrespective of the genders involved.

Female career sclerosis is most marked in larger organisations

It does, though, perhaps explain why female career sclerosis is most marked in larger organisations, where male-created company rules and layers of hierarchy often make it hard for women to rise through the ranks.

"The wine industry is incredibly tough for women who want to balance work and family life," says Sam Connew, winemaker & director at Stargazer Wines. "Culture and a lack of initiatives to encourage flexible working arrangements - for women and men - have a large part to do [with declining numbers]."

So, are there grounds for optimism?

Yes, says Jeremy Galbreath from the Curtin Graduate School of Business, in Perth, WA, who carried out an in-depth study in the situation of women in wine. He discovered that the wineries where women have positions of influence tend to be smaller, younger businesses, and that companies with a female CEO are far more likely to have women in other senior positions, such as winemaker, viticulturalist and head of marketing.

This wasn't, interestingly, simply a question of women uplifting other women, but rather, of creating a company structure that, from the top down, is more open, nurturing and, crucially, flexible. Such an environment allowed women to shine where they might not in a more restrictive set-up.

Certainly, the Millennial generation - both male and female - has a very different expectation of both work and work/life balance. To attract - and keep - these people, the industry will need to move quicker and more sincerely to address the kind of issues that women have been battling with for the last five decades – to the benefit of all.

As the leadership team of Women in Wine LDN put it: "We would argue that gender balance is actually the result of having productive and healthy companies, which have a culture of encouraging people regardless of their gender."

On the evidence of the seminar I attended at the AWIWA, there's still a fair way to go in convincing one half of the population of this new reality, however. In a room of 80 people there were just half-a-dozen men.

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