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Friday Read: Overturning discrimination against women in wine

Published:  26 June, 2020

Last week I made grown women cry, or so they told me. I published a blogpost on my website and on Tim Atkin MW’s about Women in Wine, and more specifically about my experience of sexual discrimination in the wine industry. It was an answer to a (much older) post by Christy Canterbury MW on Tim’s site.

I have been deluged since, on social media and by email, with testimonies from women who’ve had similar or worse experiences than me, with the one exception of a young woman who found a job while eight months pregnant a few years ago. That one example is hopefully a sign that mentalities and attitudes are improving.

Men also wrote to me and I am delighted to say that those messages were supportive and reflective.

The anecdotes and personal stories that poured in, like mine, went back years but some were more recent, making it clear a lot more needs to be done.

As I wrote in that earlier piece, my intention was neither to start a sex war nor to present myself as a victim. Because the issues I described happen in the workplace and are bound in secrecy, often for legal reasons, they are seldom discussed openly and at the time they happen. Women are left to flounder, lick their wounds and pick themselves up somehow with the help of friends and families.

This doesn’t do any good. Some suffer in silence, some simply drop out, while others toughen up and, like twisted veterans of an unnecessary war, become the worst enemies of their own kind. They had a hard time so why should the next generation get an easy ride?

So what more can we do to support women in wine in a positive and progressive way?

Women represent 51% of the population. In 2018, almost 98,000 more women than men applied to start degree courses in the autumn. Women outperform men in terms of degree classification, with 73% of women getting a 2:1 or above, compared with 69% of men. Most women now work for some or most of their adult lives. Wine companies can’t afford not to tap into that potential.

The Drinks Trust has done a great job on mental health. Could it help women too?

The issues at stake can be grouped in three categories: patronising attitudes towards young and pretty women in a position of authority, often buyers but also sommeliers and saleswomen; sexual discrimination towards pregnant women or new mothers; and inappropriate behaviour from older male members of the industry. In all three cases, I feel that being able to call a dedicated number and talk to a supportive, informed and neutral party would help.

This would prove particularly helpful for women thinking about or embarking on pregnancy and motherhood. The NHS and the NCT tell you most of what you need to know about giving birth and caring for your baby but there is precious little support for dealing with the inevitable changes that motherhood entails at work.

A Drinks Trust scheme could help future mothers plan ahead and have some pragmatic conversations about topics such as the best way to manage your maternity leave and return to work. If a woman works for a tiny structure which needs all hands to the pumps at all times, it will be more difficult to accommodate you being away. This needs to be addressed honestly.

Childcare is another thorny issue. Employers aren’t supposed to meddle with what is a personal decision. Yet, poor unreliable childcare is both a source of stress and a guaranteed way to lessen a woman’s performance at work. Neutral guidance as to how best to make it work for both parties would help enormously and provide much needed support at a time which can be very emotional.

And yes, emotions. Being pregnant and caring for a small baby is often emotional. Your life is changing forever. You may not sleep well. You may sometimes feel you’ve become a shadow of your former self, reduced to a swollen belly and just another source of worries for your employer. To talk to someone who’s been there helps enormously, as I have been told this week and the last. It is also crucial at this point in your life to keep faith in your abilities: if you do, it will show and others will too. That may be hard - perhaps impossible - if you are constantly demeaned and made to feel worthless, but it is essential.

It also helps to be encouraged to look at the situation in the long term, something which is hard for someone who’s bogged down in a fog of short term issues. There is life on the other side. To be told that you may be exhausted now, broke and not in a good place professionally, but that if you stick it out then better things will happen when your children are older and you regain some flexibility, is helpful.

This emotional support could be offered by the Drinks Trust but could also be dealt with by dedicated and properly trained female mentors within wine companies.

During the course of our careers, we are taught about product knowledge and various other skills. Why not dedicate some of that training time to ensuring the workplace remains safe and supportive for women? A happy employee is more productive than a worried or distressed one.

Senior older women can, and already do, help younger women informally, for example when it comes to sexual predators. A friend told me how she was rescued from an awkward situation by [wine writer] Christine Austin on a press trip. We need an army of Christines.

Such mentors could also offer gentle guidance on one very delicate topic - the dress code for women at work. I know women should be free to wear what they want when they want but the reality is that the way we dress has an impact on how we are perceived professionally. Think about it in marketing terms: a wine brand uses specific packaging cues to establish the desired positioning. Your attire is your packaging.

Sexual discrimination is everybody’s issue, not just women. Senior employees, be they men or women, should make it their duty to call out sexist comments, even those made in jest. Semantics matters. A former male colleague of mine used to refer to one of our male clients by his first name, and to one of our female clients as ‘that pretty young buyer of yours’ even though the latter had more buying power. I protested but was ultimately powerless. A quiet word from another director would have done the trick.

This isn’t a call to arms but merely suggestions as to what could be done to make things better for women at work. It matters.

Anne Burchett is a wine marketing and communications specialist, having worked in the wine trade for over 30 years in general management, sales and marketing positions. She took a sabbatical in 2009 to study Creative Writing and wrote a novel, Tasting Notes, which she is serialising on her Anne Burchett Writes website.