Recently, a woman was “retrenched” from her longstanding role as a winemaker for a highly reputable business shortly after she announced she was pregnant. To her face, they said they would look for fresh talent. Behind closed doors they panicked at the thought of a second maternity leave. Similarly, a talented and well-known winemaker became pregnant and was immediately dropped from her position as contract winemaker for a large wine corporation. They offered her a role in sales. They couldn’t see how she could make wine and have children at the same time. If you add to this the dozens of women in their late 20s who get asked point blank in interviews whether they plan on having children and are consequently rejected if they say ‘yes’ then it’s clear there is a very real issue of sexism in the wine industry and it’s time for that to change. Emilie Reynolds reports.
JANE THOMPSON, founder of the Fabulous’ Ladies Wine Society, initially thought up the idea of having an event dedicated to women in wine because numbers were dwindling and support was lacking in the Australian wine industry.
The latest figures from Wine Australia show that the number of people employed in the wine sector is roughly 53,500. Women represent between eight and 10 per cent, which means there are barely more than 5000 women employed in the Australian wine industry – a number which is generally acknowledged to be in decline.
Thompson launched the Australian Women in Wine awards to acknowledge the work of women in the industry and recognise industry leaders who champion equality and fairness in the workplace.
“For decades we’ve been hoping to see a significant rise in gender diversity in the Australian wine industry,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, wishing alone hasn’t worked. Current estimates put female participation at around eight to 10 per cent, and some areas, like viticulture, are actually in decline. The Australian wine industry needs positive female role models and leaders. With these awards we hope to highlight a few more of them.”
When the awards were announced in mid-2015, grumbles emerged from some wine writers who disagreed with having gender-based awards.
“My first thought was: What a lot of sexist nonsense,” cried Windsor Dobbin on his blog. He softened his approach after speaking to Thompson and conceded the awards “may not be as silly as they seem”.
Wine writer Ed Merrison questioned if more people shared Dobbin’s initial reaction.
“How many others questioned whether these were a ‘necessary’ addition to the wine calendar, or deemed this women-only competition self-defeating, serving to undermine the very people it purported to champion?”
Thompson said she, together with her team, was fully prepared to deal with a backlash from the wine community.
“We expected it,” Thompson said. “I would even say we were over prepared but it was far and away below what we had anticipated.
“A few punches were thrown, but it didn’t go anywhere and died off quickly with some leading opinion makers even changing their minds after speaking with us.”
Thompson said all the people who had accused the award show of being sexist against men were actually right.
“It is a sexist award show and it has to be because for too long we’ve wished and we’ve hoped that there will be a change in terms of support and encouragement for women but sadly it hasn’t been successful,” Thompson said. “The statistics show it’s on the decline, and in certain areas the drop off rate is huge. A lot of that is because of the culture of the industry.”
Dianne Laurance, owner and founder of Laurance Wines, won the Women in Wine ‘champion of change’ award this year and said “men have had it their way for far too long in this world”.
“To have any change in life the pendulum must swing further in the opposite direction before it swings back and settles in the middle where it should be,” Laurance said. “The only way women can get equality is by pushing that pendulum together and united.”
Laurance was hopeful the awards would encourage more women to enter an “extremely male dominated” industry.
“Women are different,” she said. “We bring new ideas to the table and make change where change is needed.”
Laurance said she has encountered fierce opposition from men throughout her career, particularly when she went against the grain and introduced a bottle shape typically reserved for Champagne and spirits.
“The men and old stalwarts of the industry gave me all the criticism they could muster up and spew forth,” she said. “I actually had two serious male wine critics refuse to taste my wine because they said they would never drink wine from bottles like that.
“One has since come close to apologising.”
Laurance said the only way to combat sexism in any industry was to stand up and be heard.
“Stand your ground and fight for what you believe in. I do.”
Irina Santiago-Brown, who runs Inkwell Wines in McLaren Vale with her husband Dudley Brown, was named as the Women in Wine ‘viticulturist of the year’. She said that, together with Dudley, she promotes the idea of gender neutrality in their business.
“We joke at Inkwell that we are a gender equity benchmark: 50% men and 50% women, meaning it’s just my husband Dudley and me most of the time,” Santiago-Brown said. “We both believe that women and men are equal and we have never chosen anyone to work here because of their gender. Great attitudes are gender neutral!
“Interestingly, in the past couple of years our cellar hands have been women but they were chosen because they were willing to learn, work and make great wine.”
Santiago-Brown said she has rarely experienced sexism throughout her career in the wine industry, and counts herself as “very fortunate”.
“The only situation I can think of was when I started working in the vineyards at Waite Campus, University of Adelaide, replacing an American male student who was twice as big as me. At the time, people would challenge me on how I would be able to move heavy things by myself. I always said ‘if you are not strong, you must be smart!’ and figured out how to do it. I believe in show not tell.”
Santiago-Brown said it felt amazing to be the first Women in Wine ‘viticulturist of the year’ because it validated her journey at Inkwell Wines and her research on sustainability.
“I feel honoured to be the one carrying the sustainability flag for the Australian wine industry with this award,” she said. “The award contributes enormously to the gender equality conversation and challenges all of us to find ways to include more women in the industry. It is a great feeling to be part of this history.”
Thompson said she could name many instances where women have experienced sexism in the wine industry, but most who share their stories want to remain anonymous and not jeopardise their career. The majority of these situations involve a woman who had been replaced after becoming pregnant, which Thompson criticises as narrow-mindedness from the employer.
“This is the conversation the wine industry needs to be having,” she said. “From a business point of view, it’s usually men who are managers and they have to make hard number-crunch decisions.
“In their mind, here’s a women who needs time off and might return in a part time capacity. Other than thinking creatively, fostering the talent and working out a solution together, think linearly and say goodbye.”
Thompson said this was the result of having the wrong mindset and consequently being blind to every other value the employee had to offer.
“Looking after them and seeing them through will come back to repay the business in spades,” she said. “But most men, and sometimes even women, fail to think in that way.”
Samantha Connew, Stargazer Wines winemaker and director, said the awards put a focus on the most important issues for women in the wine industry.
“We haven’t made it look attractive,” Connew said. “We need a cultural change to make the industry more family friendly. At the moment women aren’t encouraged to have families if they want to remain in the industry.”
Connew said sexism was still rife within the wine industry.
“In the past, I’ve had growers refuse to work with me because I’m a woman,” she said. “Men will bypass me because they think they don’t have to deal with a female.
“I once got told to smile at an award ceremony. No one would ever tell a man to smile, but the idea is that women are just there to look pretty.”
Connew said the most important aspect of the Women in Wine awards was to shine a light on these issues and work together with influential men to promote change.
“Until now it’s just been swept under the carpet,” she said. “Hopefully now, together with the support of some industry men, we can put it on the agenda and start the conversation.”
Thompson was a fan of solution-based thinking and said the wide-spread coverage of the Women in Wine awards has leveraged a platform for her business to generate important discussions within the industry.
“At the moment, because of the success of the Women in Wine awards, we are in the process of creating a bigger support network for women,” she explained. “We are looking and how it could work in the industry and how it would be funded.”
Thompson said the support she has received from strong women in the industry represented a united determination for change.
“It will be hard to ignore us.”
This article was first published in the January 2016 edition of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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