It's Time We Talk About Sexism in the Alcohol Industry | Wine Enthusiast
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It’s Time We Talk About Sexism in the Alcohol Industry

I’ve written and rewritten this column numerous times in the last weeks, trying to find the right message, tone, approach for sounding off on recent events in our industry and beyond. I wondered what someone might want or expect from a wine lifestyle brand, or more directly, from a woman who has been in the industry for more than a decade, and seen the best and worst of gender dynamics in our sphere. I realized it was less important to wait and find the right thing to say than to just start the conversation.

As I write this, notable men in positions of power in all industries are being outed every day for destructive and disturbing behavior. There will no doubt be many more exposed in the days, weeks and months to come. I commend the women who have spoken out for their incredible bravery and persistence in changing this dialogue. Many were shamed into silence, their personal lives and career dreams dashed for no damned good reason other than that a sick or ego-driven superior decided them to be worthless but for objectification.

There’s still a long road ahead to equality, and it’s the job of all of us to get there.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that for women working in the alcohol beverage space, sexism and harassment have been an intrinsic part of our education in and experience of the world in which we have built our careers. The alcohol beverage world has been largely lorded by men, but populated and fueled significantly by women, many of whom have suffered in an oppressive atmosphere that has no place in the 21st century. There’s no question it’s time for a paradigm shift.

Varying levels of oppression for women exist in the wine, spirits and beer world, from simple denigrating comments to extreme cases of assault. I could talk about my own experiences over the years as a wine journalist, and I’m confident they’d be mirrored by many other women: being dismissed, objectified, ignored, harassed or ridiculed, despite title or experience or influence. The stories get much worse than that. I’d be lying if I said I’d never thought of turning my back on the wine world altogether, especially in my earlier years. There were times that I thought it might be beyond me to tackle the old boy’s network that seemed firmly in place.

But backing down wasn’t an option for me or many of my female colleagues. Besides being attracted to the best of the profession, with its endless discovery, global travel and cultural exchange, we recognized the fading era of a traditionalism no longer in step with public demand, and growing numbers of men and women in the industry eager for new talent, perspectives and collaboration. We took to the task, like our male colleagues, of building a career, but with the added drag of being slipped phone numbers at business meetings, called “sweetheart” while sitting at the head of a table and being physically body-blocked by walls of men from wines at tastings, among the mildest examples.

Women in the beverage world and in the beverage consumption sphere are increasingly a force, occupying all levels of C-suites at companies around the world. The majority of all wine purchases for the home are made by women. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust told us that in the 1970s, women made up 10.6% of their Diploma graduates; today, 42.8% of WSET Diploma graduates are women. In the University of California, Davis, Department of Viticulture and Enology, 20 out of 35 people in the program are women. That’s all good news.

But there’s still a long road ahead to equality, and it’s the job of all of us to get there. The future is not just female. It’s a group effort. Is it too much to hope for a time when we can work together, play together and raise a glass together as equals? The world’s going to be a much better place for all of us when we can start judging people based on their performance and talent and not on their body parts. There’s no room in our wide world for sexism and certainly no place for predators.

For my part, I’ve worked earnestly over the last 10-plus years with my own Wine Enthusiast team in leading, as a woman in an executive position, by positive example and driving a more inclusive editorial vision, one that more faithfully reflects the increasingly diverse culture of the wine, spirits and beer world, and pushes the change sorely needed in more traditional corners of the industry. Personally and professionally, I’ve encouraged gender conversation in places where the discussions were not happening.

I still know I could do more. I’ve been called out on it from time to time (from my own team as well as others outside of the company). My challenge has been figuring out how to make a real difference and move beyond rhetoric. But I know it’s time to act or get out of the way.

The first obvious solution is giving talented women in our industry exposure and a voice. For Wine Enthusiast, it’s to tell the stories of accomplished women in the industry in the same seamless way that we would the (more represented) men in the field. It’s to turn over more stones to find the female stars without resorting to tokenism. As a media company, we must cast a wider net for talent, topics and subjects and more actively tap into the female talent in the wine industry. Too many stories are never told, and so many of those omitted are of women, though women have been an intrinsic part of the wine world since records were kept. That goes, too, for people of color in the wine world, another category often overlooked in our space—it’s another conversation, but part of the larger dialogue of inclusive reporting, and there too, I know we can do more.

Building community for women in this space is also key. It’s important to exact change in real-life scenarios, to participate in women’s forums and organizations (and we’ve partnered with Women of the Vine and Spirits organization, a great forum for women in the business), to mentor women in the field and to put smart women in senior roles so both genders are acting as gatekeepers to the stories that both men and women read, and are given an equal chance to flourish in careers in the industry. The Wine Enthusiast is a brand and company with women in top positions throughout (including our CEO, myself, a managing editor and digital managing editor among many others), and we stand in support every day of women in our industry, against sexism and bias, and for the kind of change that has begun to take place. Once again though, I know we can do more.

We need to acknowledge men’s role in this evolution. Women speaking up are just part of the solution. There’s still a culture of complicity among men in our industry that needs to be combated. If women have a whisper network, then the male network is often even more hush-hush or, worse, silent. That’s a problem when it comes to gender dynamics and harassing behaviors in the workplace, which for us is not only the office, but restaurants, bars and wineries, among other places, let alone more serious infractions of assault. The New York MTA was on to something when they coined the slogan, “if you see something, say something.” God knows our industry is populated with men who have an opinion. Make it known here, too.

In our industry, with late nights of business being done over many glasses of wine and borderline (and not so subtle) comments, gestures and actions potentially taking place, the line can be blurred. Usually it’s obvious when someone steps over that line and is in the wrong, and crushingly disappointing when other men follow the lead or simply shut up, shifting uncomfortably in their seats. It’s hard not to ask, “Where were you?” to the many male friends and colleagues of both exposed and still-stealth offenders that continue to populate our industry.

Thankfully, I have seen improvements and greater opportunity for advancement in the wine, spirits and beer industries for women. In addition to benefitting from a growing and active community of engaged women in my field sharing insights and solution, I’ve been supported and mentored by amazing men all along my career trajectory, and I know none of them thought twice about it, because those are the kind of evolved people they are. We just need more of them to take a stance with us, to speak up and to lead by example.

How can we all continue this conversation in the right direction? By speaking up, by supporting women-owned, women-helmed or women-supportive businesses, by not actively promoting or enabling individuals of known bad behavior or practice. By standing up instead of being silent.

This is a conversation that will continue and evolve, and I hope to not only facilitate the discussion, but to be a force of positive change within it. I remain optimistic despite the challenges, because of the incredible women I see increasingly occupying my industry, and the evolved men standing beside us as our world changes.

Additional reportage by Leslie Gevirtz