Women’s events are unnecessary and overtly patronising. Women in wine have it fine these days. Events like this merely position women as weaklings who need to hide away from men in their girl-only bubble to console each other and plot the revenge they’ll never take.

This article first appeared on the Wine Australia website and is republished here with permission

The statement above is pretty much a summary of the many, many versions of this conversation I’ve had over the last few years since starting The Fabulous Ladies’ Wine Society and the Australian Women in Wine Awards.

Conversations that usually start with someone telling me (not asking or inviting conversation mind you, but bluntly telling me like I’m a child who needs instructing) that events for women are degrading and patronising.

Whether or not you agree with those sentiments, the fact is that something significant happens when women do get together on their own. The rise and rise of women’s groups and events across industries in recent years is testimony to the empowering and positive nature of ‘women only’ activities. In the world of wine, however, female exclusive events is still a new idea. (Though, interestingly, we’ve never been short on all-male events…)

But the line that divides empowering from patronising – its invisibility, its constantly shifting position, and its subjective interpretation –  is what was on my mind as I headed off to attend the world’s largest gathering of women in wine, the Women of the Vine and Spirits Global Symposium 2017 in Napa, California, 13 – 15 March.

Women of the Vine Global Symposium

I was invited to be the moderator of the International Women of the Vine session of the two-and-a-half-day conference of over 800 attendees, and my mission was to help position Australia as the current world leader in positive action on gender diversity in wine. We are the only country in the world to have a Women in Wine Awards and the first country in the world to survey our women in wine and get actual data on the barriers they face to gender equality. How can you even begin to solve a problem like gender inequality without data? Amazingly, no data existed prior to our Australian Women in Wine Survey. A survey which has since been replicated in several countries.

However, as I was preparing for the symposium I was highly cognisant of the fact that the very people we desperately need to hear and act on these important findings – the men of our global wine community, who are overwhelmingly still in the positions of power and decision making – were going to be absent.

Perhaps for the first time my conviction about women’s events being one of the best vehicles for creating positive change was deeply challenged.

What could really be achieved at this global symposium if the people who are calling the shots for the careers of the vast majority of the attendees present, weren’t even part of the conversation?

Is meeting together like this actually a futile exercise and by extension therefore demeaning?

Contrary to popular opinion about the rise of women in wine, female participation in winemaking and viticulture in Australia is at less than 10% and in decline.

Here’s the real stinger though: we know that Australian graduate numbers for winemaking and viticulture are approximately equal for both genders. We have therefore succeeded in attracting equal numbers of men and women into the wine community. But actually holding onto these women during the course of their careers is where we are having extreme difficulty.

So, what’s going on? If men were dropping out of the industry in those sorts of numbers then it’s likely money and resources would have been thrown at this incredible drain of talent long ago.

The results of our world first survey go some way to explaining why women are leaving the wine community in astonishingly high numbers. (2 out of 3 women experiencing sexist behaviour in the workplace is just a start.) But it’s the only data we have. Because no one has bothered to find out before.

It’s only through a deep understanding of the barriers women face in the wine industry, and having the data at hand, that we can appropriately use and distribute time, energy and resources where they’re needed most. Retention is where efforts now need to be directed – and urgently.

After two and a half days with 800 other women in wine, my experience attending Women of the Vine and Spirits Global Symposium 2017 reassured my belief that women’s events in the wine community are necessary. Especially for the objective of retention. Why? Because of the energizing and empowering effect that this conference had on everyone present.

Thanks to ingrained, everyday sexism in our society and industry, women need to be empowered to ably and confidently muster the energy and strength required for all the endless and ongoing daily battles they face just to do their job. (This recent story about the impact a man experienced when his clients accidentally thought he was his female co-worker are very telling.)

Some women are blessed to be strong, self-empowering and energetic enough to do it all on their own. Is it any coincidence that many women who make it to the top of their wine careers are known for their resilience and mental toughness?

However, for many, many others the energy and fortitude they need is gained or replenished through being with other women – hearing similar stories, sharing experiences, building each other up. Sometimes the relief that comes from feeling like we’re not imagining this, we’re not crazy – that others have experienced it too – is enough to help us keep moving forward. Therefore, providing opportunities for women to meet with and congregate with other women in the industry is an essential part of empowering more and more women to not just ‘step up’ but actually a lesser objective altogether – merely to continue on in their career.

The incredible value gained from holding a women’s event was overwhelmingly apparent at the Women of the Vine and Spirits Global Symposium 2017. High profile women from all over the world, including Dr. Maki Mendela (Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, who now runs House of Mandela Wines), Maggie Henriquez CEO of Champagne Krug, and Susana Balbo of her eponymous Argentinian wine label, all shared their stories and experiences. And the effect was both emboldening and energising.

Of course, women are not all the same. We are as equally diverse as men. (Amazing!) So a one-size-fits all approach will never work. And for some, women-only conferences and events simply aren’t their cup of tea. And that’s to be expected. But for others, a gathering of women who perhaps only share one thing in common – their experience of working in the wine industry as a woman – is a powerful and uniting force that provides the courage and strength they need to fight the battles they will inevitably face.

However, for real and genuine change in gender equality in the wine community to be achieved it is essential for both men and women to work together. So while women’s events like the symposium are needed and valuable, they alone are not enough.

The problem is often that when ‘women’ or ‘equality’ issues are discussed at mixed gender conferences or seminars the attendance is still always very female heavy. Why don’t more men show up? Perhaps seeing us have ‘women only’ events adds to this perception that it’s our issue and we want to solve it alone. I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is that it will never, ever be solved unless we regularly – and as an entire community – discuss it and make it OUR problem.

And guess what? Australia is leading the world. So get on board.

Jane Thomson’s attendance at the 2017 Women of the Vine Global Symposium was supported by Wine Australia. The 2017 Australian Women in Wine Awards opens 20 May, and winners will be announced as part of a Women in Wine grand gala tasting event at Australia House in London on 26 September. 


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