Women of the Vine Global Symposium, 12 – 14 March 2015

During the closing statements of the Women of the Vine Global Symposium, I heard the ominous chime on my phone. Again. Yet another comment was being added to a very robust discussion on social media as to whether the entire premise of such an event was sexist. “Pretty sure if some guys got together and specifically excluded the girls, there would be an uproar. Smacks of hypocrisy and double standards,” typed one disgruntled gent.

This first ever world gathering of women in wine, held in Napa on 12 – 14 March this year, was billed as a ‘first of its kind trade event enabling women across all sectors of the wine industry and across the globe to connect, network, mentor and collaborate’. Yet, the lack of Australian support for the symposium went beyond disgruntled voices and extended to an industry that failed to offer any kind of financial or in-kind support or to send key delegates of it’s own. The four women who did attend from Australia (myself included) were all self-funded, with three of us assisted by some small sponsorship contributions. Repeated calls for more support and industry involvement – both financial or otherwise – were repeatedly turned down.

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Why the lack of enthusiasm? If the discussion on social media was any indicator, it would suggest that many people simply don’t believe that such an event is warranted. That in the year 2015 we are beyond any need to play the gender card.

An economist would say in response to such doubts that we should ‘let the market decide.’ In that respect, decide it did. The organisers originally booked for 250 delegates to attend. In the end, more than 500 women from all roles in the wine industry showed up.

To be among those 500 women was sheer bliss. Finally, women working in wine were together in a safe and supportive space where we could shout out loud about many of those things that until now we have only been able to whisper. Experiences were shared, strategies discussed, issues raised, encouragement offered. The energy was positive, the mood buoyant. There was scarcely a balding head, a brown cardigan or plaid shirt to be seen. “Was this REALLY a wine event?” we chuckled to each other.

Contrary to the remarks of my disgruntled gent, the two-day event was certainly not exclusively the domain of women. A significant number of men were also present (and very welcome) in order to both contribute to the discussion and to listen, recognising that gender diversity and equality is an industry issue – not just a women’s issue.

Mary Retallack, my co-attendee, Australian viticulturist, long-time advocate for women and member of the Women Of the Vine Advisory Board, humorously observed that the number of male attendees was actually about equal to the number of women usually at a wine conference. And yet, in this configuration (more women than men) it is deemed a ‘women’s event’ rather than just an ‘event’.

The experience was not lost on at least one of our male delegates. “So this is how it feels!” said the fellow sitting to my left for the keynote address on Day 2, after we’d swapped cards and done our introductions. “I will never look at a wine gathering quite the same way again!” he grinned.

Founder of Women of the Vine, Deborah Brenner, spoke passionately each day about the importance of gathering women together because, if nothing else, it provides women with visible role models and normalises the place of women in the industry. The importance of positive role models in attracting and keeping female talent should not be underestimated. “The under-representation of female leadership is hurting young women,” expounded an article in Forbes Magazine (January 2012) that reported on the latest research findings on the importance of female role models. Rather controversially the article went onto suggest that “Perhaps gender quotas are needed to speed up change and stoke the ambitions of the next generation, making the unlikely finally seem possible.”

Closer to home, winemaker Kerri Thompson confided in an article published last year in Wine Companion Magazine that; “Female role models give me a sense of encouragement, pride and drive me to be better at what I do.”

This is probably a good place for me to stop for a moment and be candid about the fact that I have not done years of hard slog in this industry, and my right to be an active “voice” for gender diversity could rightly be questioned. There are plenty of women far more qualified and experienced than I who have been pioneers, who have taken their hammers and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) banged them up against the glass ceiling.

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Team Australia! From left to right Sonia Ghiggioli, Mary Retallack and Jane Thomson (absent: Kris Thirlaway)

 

But what I can say is that I have worked in several industries across my nearly 20-year career, and arriving in the wine industry several years ago was somewhat of a shock to the system. Running a business like The Fabulous Ladies’ Wine Society, which among other things actively highlights the role of women in the industry, certainly put me squarely in front of the lions’ den. But the stories I’ve heard and the personal experiences I’ve encountered since arriving here has left me in no doubt that gender diversity and equality is still a big issue, and one that needs more formal and structured systems in place across the entire industry to address it. I have also observed that those who have been in the industry for much, if not all of their career, are the ones who are more likely to fail to fully recognise the need for it.

Of course, the challenges posed by gender are not the exclusive domain of the wine industry. But an event like the Women of the Vine symposium, and the response to it, has highlighted that the wine industry – at least in our country – has arguably been somewhat lax in comparison to other industries when it comes to doing something about it. Other industries where women have traditionally taken a back seat have seemingly made far greater strides, with women’s business groups, and programs for women in law, finance, media, mining, technology, engineering and medicine all flourishing. However, when you cast about the wine industry for active, formal support and mentoring programs that not only help establish but maintain the career of women, the waters are deep and empty.

Back in 2001, Jeni Port, award winning wine writer and current Wine Communicator of the Year (2014), published her ground breaking book “Crushed by Women“. In her introduction, she wrote that the need for a book like hers that deliberately highlights gender was more than justified. “Wine drinkers just don’t expect women to be winemakers, viticulturists, general managers or owners of wineries because we have rarely seen them in those roles….Things are about to change.”

But have they? Fifteen years later, current estimates are that women are better represented in some areas more than others, with winemaking and viticulture still only having a participation rate at somewhere around 10%. Sadly, no formal measurement has been done so no exact figure can be quoted.

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According to Jeni Port the relatively slow pace of change that has occurred since she wrote those words is to be expected. “In the early noughties you saw larger numbers of women entering winemaking and viticultural courses in Australia. That brought a surge of women into the wine game. They are changing the culture. But slowly. It’s generational change. It takes time for change to filter through and largely comes through women taking roles where they are put in charge, like managers, or owners – or just through their sheer numbers.”

However, the number of women in visible leadership roles remains an issue. The fact that we herald events like Sam Connew’s appointment to the Chair of the Royal Sydney Wine Show by mentioning her gender and “first woman” status, demonstrates that seeing women in such roles is still a novelty.

The good news is that there are plenty of women in this industry who report that they have never felt impeded or have faced any difficulty in their career due to gender. That can only be strong evidence of the fact that things are indeed moving in the right direction. But there is still so much more that can and should be done to ensure that women in our industry are not only encouraged to enter in, but are also given the support to stay and flourish.

Skilled (as so many women are) in the fine art of multi-tasking, I responded to the incessant phone chiming during those closing statements of the symposium with a few statements of my own that once again defended the need for such a gathering. I hope that, by the time the next one rolls around, the debate is instead focused on what more Australia can do to support it and programs like it so that the benefits can flow to us all.


 

Thank you to De Bortoli Wines for their sponsorship of my attendance at the inaugural Women of the Vine symposium

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