Celebrating the record of the business community on gender equality can be a trying endeavour as women are still massively under-represented in boardrooms. Female chief execs run just 7% of FTSE 100 companies and that percentage drops for the FTSE 250. Women account for a quarter of seats on FTSE 100 boards, but the increase has mainly been among non-executives who do not have their fingers on the buttons that matter. The notion that middle-aged, rich, white men run the show is impossible to ignore, and the issue has tongues wagging again after the BBC published details of its highest earners and revealed that two-thirds of top earners are male. 

The wine trade is sometimes viewed as a little antiquated, staid and traditional, but there are signs that it is a bit more progressive than the wider business community. In our 100 Most Influential People in Wine 2017 list, 20% were women and we had our first ever female number one – Conviviality supremo Diana Hunter. Women head up buying teams at Sainsbury’s and M&S, while the likes of Ruth Yates at Corks Out and Muriel Chatel at Borough Wines have built thriving businesses. Generic body heads are often female, and writers such as Jancis Robinson MW hold arguably more sway than anyone in their field. 

But it is undeniable that men hold most of the top jobs on both sides of the fence, buying and supplying. 

In Australia, the UK’s largest wine supplier, a similar situation prevails and on the production side the picture does not look great for women: they make up less than 10% of the workforce in some areas, particularly in viticulture, and that number is in decline. It can be daunting and even off-putting for young women starting out in the trade, so the Australian Women in Wine Awards was set up two years ago to celebrate their achievements and encourage young women to go forward with belief in their potential. 

After two years Down Under, the awards are relocating to London on September 26, where they will be held at 10am so they can be beamed live to cities around Australia in their evening. Because they are being held in the UK, they will reward an honorary UK woman who has done a lot for the Australian wine trade, and a shortlist is currently being formulated. 

A trade tasting featuring 51 Australian wineries that have either a female winemaker or owner will follow this. Then at 5pm a seminar will take place examining the role of women in the UK wine trade. It will be chaired by Sarah Ahmed MW and will feature Yates, Luciann Flynn from Liberty, Christine Parkinson from Hakkasan and Laura Jewell MW, the UK director at Wine Australia, whose previous roles have seen her work at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Spar, HWCG and Waverley Vintners and chair various industry bodies. Jewell and her team have organised the event, which coincides with her 20th anniversary as a MW. Ian Harris, chief executive at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, will be on hand to provide figures about the number of women applying for courses and trying to break into the trade.

Jewell is a shining example to any young woman who wants to enjoy a successful career in the wine trade. “Things have changed enormously over the past 20 years,” she says. “When I joined the trade I was based in Scotland and it was a very male dominated Scotch whisky trade. Things were going on that you wouldn’t be allowed to do now. 

“There was one of the big dinners in Scotland where women were not allowed. I was president of the Institute of Wines & Spirits in Scotland and I wasn’t allowed to go to this dinner. The following year there was a female chairman of The Benevolent in Scotland and because I’d made such a fuss the year before she was allowed to go. Small things like that.” 

Positions of power

As evidence of a shift in the market, she points to a time five years ago when women, all MWs, filled all the wine development manager roles at the big four grocers – Jewell at Tesco, Clem Yates at Sainsbury’s, Philippa Carr at Asda and Arabella Woodrow at Morrisons, along with Jo Ahearne at M&S. “There are still women in positions of power at supermarkets, but it’s not quite the gathering of MWs that it once was,” she says. “There is still a fairly hefty male dominance among managing directors and sales directors.”  

The awards and the debate aim to shine a light on the role of women in the trade and the careers they can have. “It is going to be encouraging women that it is a good trade to have a career in,” says Jewell. “This isn’t a fist-thumping, bra-burning event, it’s just a celebration, looking at some facts and figures.”

Titans of the Australian wine trade will be in attendance: Prue Henschke, Sue Hodder from Wynns, Lucy Clements from Accolade, Louisa Rose from Yalumba and Stephanie Toole from Mount Horrocks to name a few. 

“The physicality of winemaking means women can be seen to be disadvantaged, but talk to any of them coming over and they will all have their own stories and they are all perfectly capable of emptying tanks and getting their hands dirty,” says Jewell. 

She says women just need to give as good as they get, but also challenged employers not to factor in things such as maternity leave when making employment decisions. “For all that we claim to have equality, there is still a huge amount of that decision-making process of what do you do when a woman wants to go and have children, and she wants to be the one to look after them – can you come back into the trade at the same level?” she says. 

“Having worked at Tesco, you are guaranteed a job at the same level but not necessarily the same job, so if you were a wine buyer for Tesco and you went off and had children and then came back you might not be buying wine any more. You would have the same grade job, but it might not necessarily be doing what you loved. 

“Those are the sort of challenges. A lot of the women coming over will have stories to tell about dealing with those. It’s definitely a challenge that needs to be talked about, faced up to and not swept under the carpet. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Almost half of the wineries visiting for the trade tasting are seeking representation, showing that Brexit has not deterred the Australians from targeting the UK. Contact Wine Australia UK for more details about the tasting, the awards and the seminar.