A better deal for women?

Hattie Hardy – Sales Support at Liberty Wines; Mina Frost – Editor at Liv-ex; and Maddy Evrington – Sogrape Brand Manager at Liberty Wines speak at an event for women in wine.

New data show that attitudes and behaviour in the UK wine business need to change. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Above, Hattie Hardy (l) and Maddy Everington (r) from Liberty Wines and Mina Frost from Liv-ex at a gathering of Women in Wine London. Credit: Krishanthi Puwanarajah.

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, for instance, have female chefs de cave. Women make up nearly half of new Masters of Wine. And the days when I was asked at a tasting whether I was tasting for my boss feel long gone. But all is not rosy, as a survey of women’s experience of working in the UK wine trade recently revealed.

‘What’s shocking is that we’re not shocked’, was the reaction of Ian Harris, recently retired head of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, at a 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 their women employees, which was a bit of a shame since this was mostly about how badly men in the wine trade treat their female colleagues.

Presented, quite coincidentally, on World Menopause Day and the day after a UK parliamentary committee met to hear evidence of sexism in finance 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% of them feel that sexism, gender bias and harassment are serious issues in it, with 44% of respondents saying they had considered leaving the trade as a result. More than a third of respondents said they had experienced harassment (with a gratuitous ‘hand on bum’ cited several times). This proportion rose to a half among younger respondents between 18 and 34.

Those working in hospitality seem especially vulnerable, with tales of senior sommeliers cornering junior female colleagues in cellars prevalent. But female waiting staff can be prey to wandering hands and blatant overtures from customers, too, which can be particularly difficult to rebuff. An ideal employer would presumably offer a helpful code of conduct in these circumstances, just as companies selling wine should be aware of potential difficulties when women sales staff are despatched 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.’

The survey was initiated by fine-wine collector Queena Wong, who has set up an organisation, Curious Vines based in London, designed to support and advance women in wine. She is not in the wine trade herself but sought data to substantiate the complaints she heard from her members. Alice Goody of the specialist drinks researchers Proof designed and implemented the online 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% of respondents feel that wine culture is still male-dominated, and the knock-on effect of this is that, as was found in the examination of sexism in the City, 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’, reported one respondent. Another described the UK wine trade as an ‘alpha-male club’.

Another woman thought that prejudices ran even deeper. ‘As both a woman and person of colour, I have been passed on for promotion twice over 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. 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 beyond words.’

Another reported, ‘I have undergone a lot of bullying from male bosses and clients in the industry, I temporarily left the industry and then 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. I have also had a lot of sexism and unwanted male advances.’

A common complaint is that there is no one to report such instances of bad behaviour to. Or that the likelihood is that senior colleagues are men, who anyway 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 of the survey results virtually (as opposed to in person) 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 of the survey 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’, referring to the much greater resources of a global spirits company compared with most UK wine outfits. But he is also chairman of the Wine Trade Sports Club and admitted that things are very different – worse – in that particular milieu.

Along with gender bias, sexism and harassment, another major complaint that emerged from the survey, familiar in other businesses, was that 54% 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 whilst 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 of the survey virtually was Ross Carter of The Drinks Trust, an organisation devoted to providing support to those in the drinks trade. He confirmed the more precarious state of women, reporting that they constituted 73% of those who had applied to the Trust for financial support. In an email to me afterwards 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.’

One person who actually attended the presentation may be the most effective in initiating change, and he’s a man. 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 to me, I found the data from the survey unsurprising but very clear’ and he plans 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 from members ‘there were some 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 was reported 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.