Sexism in the Wine Industry
I used to have a litmus test for the women I dated. They needed to know who Che Guevera was. I relaxed that over time but am thinking about instating a new test for anyone I plan on associating with, personally or professionally. You have to know who Gloria Steinem is.
She’s been making the rounds on NPR, etc.., promoting her latest book, My Life on the Road. As I’ve been listening to this brilliant, 81-year-old feminist icon, I am reminded of conversations I’ve been having with younger men and some women who seem pretty clueless about sexism.
Women have made strides, no question about that. More than half of university students in the United States are female and there are other stats you can pull up to show that we are not as unequal as years past yet we still earn less pay and stare at glass ceilings. This is quantifiable. What bothers me just much though are the ways in which women are spoken TO, spoken OF, treated IN conversation and professionally EXCLUDED.
I know that women in many fields have had similar experiences but it is always easier to write what you know. Here are a few situations I’ve seen happen in the wine industry time and time again.
Let’s start with simple conversations. A woman comes across a group of men at a tasting. She walks over but is not acknowledged. She might try to add to the discussion but still, no one even turns his head in her direction so she raises her voice to be heard. She is ignored or glared at, letting her know that her utterance is most unwelcome. Beyond ignoring or talking over women, men are much more likely to interrupt and take over a professional conversation a woman is having with a customer or colleague than they would with a man, basically saying, “I know better.” It often starts with physical gestures, literally entering the woman’s physical space and talking in a louder and more authoritative voice. This happens all the time and while it may not be as obvious as saying something offensive, it is just as disrespectful.
OK, let’s move on to how female wine sales people (reps) are often treated. Granted, being a wine rep is not an easy job, for anyone. However, it is tougher for women than men. If I only had could get miles on Virgin for every time I’ve seen a male buyer be dismissive towards a female sales rep – sometimes women who are older than them, have been in the business way longer and know more – I’d fly around the world several times. You might be thinking that this is just part of the power trip and admittedly, both male and female buyers can be on them (I should know, I was one for 20 years). However, since the beginning of my career until recently I’ve heard male buyers make justifications for treating women differently, starting with this one, “she comes in here dressed like that so what do you expect.”
On the flip side, male sales reps can be just as rude toward female buyers. I’ve had first-hand experience here. If Virgin would give me miles for all the guys who have TRIED talking down to me over the years I’d fly first class.
Then there are the men who think women’s mouths are located on their breasts. Of course, we are going to come across people in our professional lives that we find attractive but that is not what I’m talking about. How would men feel if women stared at their crotches while they tasted wine or answered a question? Does anyone really think that a woman would be sexually interested in someone who is that creepy, let alone give him professional respect?
Along these lines, a couple of years ago, a salesman who works for a big distributor told me, at his company’s wine tasting, he thinks about me in the shower. I mean, really? Hitting on lesbians is not just a form of sexism, it is homophobic and stupid. Unless of course you are convinced that “lesbians love you,” as one male buyer I know has told me, on more than one occasion. Yes, that’s how you get into my good graces.
And this leads to the one issue people actually do talk about and admit exist: sexual harassment. I know a number of women in the wine industry who have been harassed in one form or another. And, let’s not forget about the elephant in the room, rape. It happens. When a night of drinking is involved it can become dicey but no means “NO” and men should not take advantage of women who are inebriated. Some women have spoken out and good for them. Yet for all who have raised their voices I fear more haven’t.
You might be thinking that younger men are not as sexist. Wrong. It troubles me that Millennials seem to have even less of a consciousness about it than their older male peers. Perhaps the baby boomers and Gen Xers were better schooled in equality because women’s lib and ERA were in the news more during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Believing that someone is your equal starts with the eyes and ears. Listening to and acknowledging their existence is a prerequisite. This is true of human interaction in general. In my own life, I’ve learned that communication is as much about hearing what others say as it is about voicing your own thoughts and feelings. And I wish that now, in 2016, more of us would just shut up sometimes and let others speak.
I’m not ready to give up. One bad character trait does not define a person and I don’t put condescension in the same category as rape. What I do wish is that there is greater self-awareness. Some men might be lost causes but I’d like to think that most who exhibit sexist behavior just need to be called out. I do see women of all ages who speak up. Yet still, we don’t as much as we should and I think this is especially true, again of Millennials. Maybe this generation doesn’t feel the need to take their male colleagues to task as much because they’ve had more opportunities. To this I say, don’t forget about the people who fought so you could have these chances and rights, and honor what they’ve done by continuing to fight for equality and respect.
So, getting back to Ms. Steinem, if you don’t know who she is, what she’s done and what she stands for, you need to do some reading. This goes for both sexes. Her lifetime of dedication and the tireless work of other women – and many men – to equality have made a huge impact on our society. However, in spite of the gains we’ve made there is still a very long way to go.