In this agenda setting thought piece Amelia Singer, wine educator and co-presenter of The Wine Show, examines some of the flaws lying at the heart of the drinks industry that have led to increasing calls for decisive action to be taken to improve both diversity and inclusion in the sector. When it comes to solutions, she highlights the need for organisations to work together, promote greater diversity in leadership roles within the industry, and for best practice ideas to be shared between drinks sectors around the world.
If you would like to join Amelia Singer and share what you think the drinks and hospitality sectors can do more to help drive better diversity and inclusion then please contact Richard Siddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve put off writing this article for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, I – like everyone else in the trade – am thoroughly exhausted by this year. Secondly, also like a lot of people, I’m scared to put myself out there, but the time has come for us all to talk openly about flaws in our industry. Sadly, I myself have suffered psychological bullying in the sector for many years. But this is also a time – a catalyst – to focus on why bullying, sexism, and lack of diversity are rife in our industry, and how we begin dealing with these issues.
All that being said; the main reason for me writing this article is because I genuinely love and truly believe in this sector. I intend to work, believe in and adore it for many years to come. For that to happen though, certain shadows need to be exorcised.
Warning – there are no instant solutions and this takes time. It’s also going to take a collective effort to properly modify behaviour. It’s also clear this is simply not a gender thing or an age thing or a race thing or even solely a wine industry thing. I’ve spoken to many people before writing this article, and the sad truth is there are cultural and fundamental flaws in our industry. I can propose a potential solution; but before doing so, in order to solve the problem, one needs to understand the problem. So let me start there.
Flaws at the industry’s heart
One of the main reasons why so much bullying and unethical behaviour occurs internationally in the booze trade is our industry’s lack of boundaries – we work together, and we drink together. That Achilles’ heel is a factor everyone must navigate from day one. Untoward behaviour and harassment are just two of the threats; the lack of boundaries can also hold people back. Some of my female friends in sales have really struggled as they want to develop their careers and yet “the need” to go out and drink with clients in the evening has made them question if it’s possible to build a career and have a family life.
In the UK, another flaw is how the industry resembles an “old boys’ club”. Women are now reaching senior positions but – when I think of the most powerful importers, distributors and trade associations – most of the leaders are men. It’s sadly no surprise that women often don’t feel heard or supported, or that sexism can occur.
If people think they must look or sound like they come from a certain background then they won’t enter the industry. Those brave few who do will have a lack of role models to emulate. I’ve heard stories of sommeliers of colour and individuals with broad regional or cockney accents feeling judged and unprotected.They all felt they would always be at a disadvantage compared to peers who looked or sounded a specific way. Lack of diversity ultimately leads to a narrowness of thought. How can we progress as a trade if we narrow the point of entry and then don’t provide an empowering space for the person who challenges yet enhances the woefully linear status quo?
This lack of diversity is compounded because the wine industry, like the arts, pays new staff so poorly. In order to survive – let alone educate yourself and really make a proper go of the industry – you will need to come from money or just be especially confident and tenacious. Again, the point of entry is corseted. If you are lucky enough to have an employer that pays you and supports your education, that is amazing. However, the industry is operated mainly by small to medium sized businesses that can barely have any internal HR resources, let alone offer education and career furthering opportunities to their employees.
Also, like in the arts and media, there are relatively few well compensated positions at the “top”, whether in buying, marketing, sales or as an MD. This can only encourage toxic competitiveness in the workplace and possible abuse of power by those at the top who don’t want to make it any easier for those bright eyed, junior professionals really wanting to make their mark in the industry. Everything in this business model is conspiring to push people in the wrong direction.
Freelancers are, arguably, in an even tougher position, with no employer or trade body for protection. Competition will become even more intense as more and more people choose or are forced to embrace freelance life during these turbulent times.
Sharing ideas to get results
So, what are we going to do about it? It’s encouraging to see so many positive initiatives. Being based in Los Angeles, I have seen how much the Black Lives Matter movement has made an impact and created real positive change already in the US wine industry. Julia Coney, the founder of the Black Wine Professionals online database, told me the change in the past four months has been incredible – from companies now reassessing policies to organisations completely shaking up their teams.
Similarly, in the UK, Mags Jango and Jancis Robinson’s BAME Wine Professionals platform has already secured financial aid and education bursaries from top donors, which should encourage more people of colour to enter the trade and provide them with an empowering resource to navigate the wine world.
Established institutions are also reassessing their systems and engaging with the industry’s grassroots. The Drinks Trust’s current industry survey will help it shape The Drinks Trust Community, a project that will be unveiled soon, offering mentoring, networking opportunities, and vocational courses. It’s early days, but this initiative is exciting.
There have been murmurings of a start of an effort by The Drinks Trust, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, WSET and Institute of Masters of Wine to gather data to shine a stronger light on diversity and inclusion and to create a baseline to track D&I profess across the industry and offer more advice, scholarships and support.
This would be awesome as these organisations have the resources, the data and therefore the means to bring our fractured industry together. They could help professionalise this sector so people can make a living at every juncture in their career. Other organisations could then feed into this and add further services and gravitas.
In an ideal world, there would be a resource where people could go for mentoring, counselling, financial aid, legal advice, vocational courses, and networking opportunities. This resource would ideally be represented by a diverse board – in regards to gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity and trade background. However, it would be impossible for one body to address all these issues. Instead, such a platform must be a joint responsibility, covering the industry from cradle to grave – without sounding too Lloyd George about it.
For change to happen, people must join forces and be open minded about different ways of doing things. We have so much to fight for and really nothing to lose. I, myself have been spending time with others to create such partnerships to make sure we win that fight. I am happy to hear from any other readers who feel that they can help us to create actual positive change. To those brave people who have already come forward with their stories and thoughts, and to those organisations that are already tackling this head on, I respect and salute you.
Let us use this troubled and difficult year to have uncomfortable conversations so that, when we can all see each other again, we really will have solutions to say “cheers” to.
- If you would like to share your thoughts on how the drinks and hospitality sectors can do more to tackle diversity and inclusion, or share the steps you are taking in your business then please contact Richard Siddle on email@example.com.
- You can see a range of new diversity initiatives that have been set up across the drinks industry collated by BAME Wine Professionals here.
- You can take part in The Drinks Trust new industry survey to help it shape its diversity and inclusion strategy here.
- Vinclusive on Instagram has been set up by Susan O’Neil to share BAME events and initiatives. Follow at @vinclusive_.
- Wine Unify has been set up to “fostering wine education for underrepresented minority groups, and amplifying the voices of the people of colour who are already thriving within the wine industry”. You can read more about the organisation on its website here.
- If you would like to follow wine writer Julia Coney and what she is doing with her platform you can do so on @blackwineprofessionals on Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow Julia at @JuliaConey.
- Tahiirah Habibi has set up the The Hue Society as a new lifestyle hub for all things related to black wine culture.
- Majestic and the WSET are offering 50 places to BAME students to go through Level 2 WSET training.