Women wine professionals have come a long way since my first visit to Australia in 1981, when I was introduced to Pam Dunsford of Chapel Hill in McLaren Vale as the country’s only woman winemaker. Today, a huge proportion of the leading champagne houses have female chefs de cave. Women make up very nearly half of new Masters of Wine. And the days when I was asked whether I was tasting for my boss feel long gone. But all is not rosy, as a survey initiated by fine-wine collector Queena Wong of women’s experience of working in the UK wine trade recently revealed.
“What’s shocking is that we’re not shocked,” said Ian Harris, the recently retired head of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, at the presentation of the results in October, where he was one of only three men to attend in person. Wine companies had chosen to be represented by women employees, which was a shame, since this was mostly about how badly men in the industry treat their female colleagues.
Presented, quite coincidentally, the day after a UK parliamentary committee met to hear evidence of sexism in the City of London, the survey collated the responses of 726 women who work, or have worked, in the UK wine trade.
The most damning statistic is that 78 per cent feel that sexism, gender bias and harassment are serious issues within the industry, with 44 per cent of respondents saying they had considered leaving the trade as a result. More than one-third said they had experienced harassment (with a “hand on bum” cited several times). This proportion rose to a half among respondents aged 18 to 34.
Those in hospitality seem especially vulnerable, with tales of senior sommeliers cornering junior female colleagues in cellars, and women waiting staff enduring wandering hands and blatant overtures from customers. Ideally, an employer should have a helpful code of conduct in these circumstances, just as companies selling wine should be aware of potential difficulties when female staff are dispatched alone to sell to male customers.
One respondent identified the problem as “female account managers being expected to take older male clients out for dinner in a one-on-one situation. Many feel uncomfortable being out late at night with an older male stranger, especially where there’s alcohol involved and perceptions/ understandings of the nature of the dinner might differ between them.”
The fact that wine contains alcohol presumably compounds the common problem of sexual harassment. A saleswoman for a wine distributor complained that, “More than once, I have had inappropriate sexual comments made to me about my looks at work events such as tastings. They are masked as ‘compliments’, and I think alcohol is often used as an excuse, but I don’t feel comfortable when colleagues or customers try to flirt with me.”
Wong, the survey’s initiator, has set up an organisation, Curious Vines, designed to support and advance women in wine. She is not in the trade herself but sought data to substantiate the complaints she heard from her members.
Alice Goody of the specialist drinks researcher Proof designed and implemented the survey, eliminating responses that seemed careless or mechanical. I was surprised by how many women undertook what was such a time-consuming exercise, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The professional organisation Women in Wine London has 979 members. One of its leaders, Anjali Douglas, described the survey to me as “a much-needed resource for the industry to draw on. It’s incredibly valuable to have numbers to back up what we already knew.”
It probably wasn’t surprising that 92 per cent of respondents feel that wine culture is still male-dominated, and the knock-on effect of this is that business conduct is threaded through with male activities. “By missing out on the golf/football/rugby/shooting events, I have felt excluded and [suffered] a lack of respect and opportunity compared to my male colleagues,” said one. Another described the UK wine trade as an “alpha-male club”.
Yet another thought that prejudices ran even deeper: “As both a woman and person of colour, I have been passed [over] for promotion twice [by] other Caucasian male colleagues of a certain background, despite being more experienced and having done the actual job while the position was being hired for.”
For some women, it’s all too much. “I actually have temporarily withdrawn from the industry based on repeat issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexism and gendered abuse,” wrote one. “It’s so disheartening, and I frankly feel mentally traumatised and [feel] a lack of support from the industry, as well as a lack of actual action by industry leaders.”
Another wrote: “I have undergone a lot of bullying from male bosses and clients. I temporarily left the industry and went self-employed because the effect on my mental health was too much. Sadly, many years later, I have heard several similar stories, so this still happens and needs to stop.”
A common complaint is that there is no one to report bad behaviour to, or that senior colleagues are likely to be men, who tend to be less sympathetic. More than three-quarters of respondents feel that women are under-represented in leadership roles in the UK wine trade.
One of the two men who joined the presentation virtually works for one of the larger companies which, it seems, do have reporting systems in place. Nathan Last of Pernod Ricard listened to the results and professed himself shocked at the level of disquiet. “As a Pernod Ricard employee I don’t recognise all this. As a mainly spirits company, we’re on top of it,” he said, referring to the better resourcing available to a global company. But he is also president of the Wine Trade Sports Club and admitted that things are different (read: worse) in that particular milieu.
Another major complaint that emerged from the survey, familiar in other businesses, was that 54 per cent of respondents feel that they are discriminated against in terms of pay and conditions, with maternity leave a particular gripe. “When I came back to work, the promotion I had been promised was given to a woman who does not have a family and has never taken maternity leave. I was told this was my fault as I had chosen to have time off. I found the senior management hostile and unsupportive,” was the experience of one mother.
Another, in sales, reported there was “no maternity cover while I was absent, so all my customers were unhappy, and I lost a lot of business”. Yet another claimed that the lack of support meant “I was so stressed, I gave birth six weeks prematurely.”
The other man who attended the presentation virtually was Ross Carter of The Drinks Trust, an organisation that supports those in the drinks trade. He confirmed the more precarious state of women, reporting that they constituted 73 per cent of those who had applied for financial support. In a subsequent email he promised that, “In the months ahead, together with industry businesses and organisations, we will be looking to find the specific solutions required to better support the women in our workforce.”
But it’s one of the three men who attended in person who may be the most effective in initiating change. Miles Beale is the thoughtful chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. He had a similar reaction to Harris, confirming in an email that he “found the data from the survey unsurprising but very clear”, and that he planned to work out the next steps alongside the likes of the WSET and The Drinks Trust. At the first WSTA meeting since the survey results were presented, he reported by email that members had also asked “helpful questions about whether the aims should be broader than women and wine (ie wider hospitality, race and disability, as well as gender)”.
The #MeToo era yielded some horror stories about how female sommeliers in the US were treated, but little happened in the UK. Now that this survey has quantified the situation for my fellow British women wine professionals, I hope there will be real improvement in both attitudes and behaviour.
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