Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Nick Gillett: The sexist spirits sector – why we need to do better

Published:  18 September, 2023

Those of you who saw the recent Our Whisky Foundation survey results highlighting inequality in the whisky industry, will understand me when I say: I was not only shocked, but also ashamed. I suddenly felt very naïve, having previously believed that the spirits industry had made progress in terms of equality and equity, but the findings delivered by the research suggest otherwise.

For those of you who haven’t read the piece in question, here are the headline findings that I found most disturbing (albeit the whole thing was a pretty sobering read):

 ● A third of women in the whisky industry have been touched inappropriately.

 ● Seven out of ten surveyed women said they had experienced inappropriate or sexual comments at work.

 ● 25% of women working in customer facing roles had been asked to change their appearance for their job.

 ● 87% of those surveyed said they believe they face more challenges than their male counterparts.

 ● 62% of those questioned said they were concerned about the impact having a child would have on their career.

Now, whilst these findings are just applicable to the category of whisky, I think we can safely say the wider spirits industry is still unequal. In fact, research carried out by Deloitte and Women of the Vine and Spirits (WOTVS) earlier this year, found that only one in ten women in the industry believe there has been meaningful change for female employees in the last five years.

So, how do we change the status quo – and fast?

I don’t think anyone’s perfect, and I don’t think one person or company has all the answers, but I do think there are people and companies out there who are always trying to do better when it comes to equality. And as well as the vitally important moral imperative, there are an abundance of business reasons behind creating a diverse and equitable industry for all. And I’ll mention just a few.

    • Read more: LWC and Hills Prospect aim for ‘best-in-class’ partnership

First of all, it’s a question of talent. Why would we want to drive talented professionals away from our industry, into those that are more fair and equitable? I’ve spoken before about the British boozy brain drain; recruiting talented individuals across spirits and hospitality is difficult right now. And we’re driving women away with terrifying statistics, like those published above. Would you want to work in an industry with those sort of credentials? I’d guess not.

Secondly, diversity drives creativity and innovation. With a diverse workforce, you have a greater understanding of your customers, a greater skillset, and more perspectives that you can use within your business. By failing to create a fair and equal playing field for all, we’re already losing that diversity which is crucial to business success.

And finally, it’s about the happiness and wellbeing of our teams. How can you expect women in your team to be happy and productive when there’s widespread inequality in the very industry they operate in? I very much believe that happy, healthy teams deliver great business results, so beyond doing the right thing – it’s sensible to look after the wellbeing of your employees.

So far, the industry has launched a number of campaigns raising awareness of inequality in the industry, but as BrewDog learned – if you don’t back up your campaign with authentically fair business practices, then it won’t be long before you’re called out. Tangible change is what’s required here, I think the awareness exercise has done its job.

If you’re a business, I believe change begins when you speak to your team. That’s how we inform our business practices and ongoing improvement – by asking questions and learning from the people who make up our business. And we’ll be doing that again off the back of this research. There’s always room for improvement, and I’ll be going back to my own business, speaking to my own team, and changing what I can to make a difference.

If you want honest answers, you need to make sure your environment is open, transparent, and supportive. And I’ll be revisiting that too. You also need to have appropriate safeguarding procedures in place, especially when you have teams that are attending events. Alcohol-infused, late night events are more common in our industry than most, so making sure you have processes where team members work together and look out for each other can go some way to safeguarding people in our industry.

It's time for us all to be introspective. We need to ask women in our businesses what they need, what the state of play really looks like to them, and then change accordingly. We can take a lead from women-founded businesses in the industry, of which there are a good number. How are they doing things? I’ll be looking to learn from them.

Becky Paskin, talented whisky professional and Founder of OurWhisky has been trying to tell us about inequality in the industry for a long time now. And this piece of research, and the sobering realization it’s brought about, will hopefully – finally – get people to listen up. Honing in on whisky as a category, there’s clearly lots that needs to be done. One final conclusion the study drew was that 81% of women in whisky were asked “if they actually like whisky” while at work or making a purchase. Proof that the old-fashioned attitudes around whisky drinker demographics still very much exist.

What does the future look like? Well, if we all get our finger out, we eradicate sexism within our businesses and safeguard our employees with appropriate practices to stamp out harassment in the workplace. From a wider perspective, we become an industry of choice for women, because they know that this is a sector where they have equal opportunity, equal support, and equal respect. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s shameful that we’ve still not managed to get this right. It’s time to ensure we all take a look inward and make the change.

Nick Gillett is MD at spirits specialist Mangrove Global