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How the whisky industry is tackling harassment

Startling findings from a global survey of women in the whisky industry have exposed a pervasive culture of sexual harassment. The Spirits Business explored how companies and organisations are seeking to prevent abusive behaviour and provide support.

Women make up 36% of US and UK whisky drinkers, a study has found (credit: Jo Hanley, OurWhisky Foundation)

*This feature was originally published in the October 2023 edition of The Spirits Business magazine. 

Horrifying, but perhaps unsurprising, statistics last month revealed that more than 70% of women in the whisky industry have experienced sexual harassment while at work. The survey – Do You Even Like Whisky? The Barriers Holding Back Women in the Industry – is the world’s first global survey of women in whisky, conducted in July 2023 by the OurWhisky Foundation. The survey received 602 responses from women in multiple countries who represent a variety of job roles in the whisky industry.

Becky Paskin, founder of OurWhisky, says women have reached out to her to express their feelings following the release of the survey in August. “They feel strangely comforted to know, finally and definitively, that they’re not alone in their experiences, that there are lots of other women in the industry that are also facing exactly the same challenges that they are,” she says.

Paskin also notes that some people in the industry maintain that there’s no real issue for women in the whisky sector. “There’s not really been any data or anything up until now to show that there is actually an issue,” she says. “We didn’t set out to prove that there is actually, in fact, an issue. We inadvertently found enough data to show it.”

Within the survey, a third of women said they have been inappropriately touched. This figure rose to 44% among those working in consumer‐facing roles, such as brand ambassadors, retail and hospitality. There are numerous whisky events held across the world, from trade shows to tastings. While the industry has traditionally been male‐dominated, which has been reinforced by advertising, there are more women than ever showing an interest in whisky.

According to a Distill Ventures study cited by OurWhisky earlier this year, women make up 36% of US and UK whisky drinkers. But how are companies ensuring that whisky consumers and workers are protected from sexual harassment?

Dawn Davies, head buyer for The Whisky Exchange, says the company’s annual Whisky Show in London has a system in place to help prevent harassment of any kind. “The venue has information all over that says we will not tolerate any bad behaviour for men or women. We have over 28 security guards; we also have more than 50 of our own staff walking around the venue, interacting with customers all the time. ”

She says the problem is that when people are drinking, they are liable to act inappropriately. “I think the root of the problem is that often in venues and in shows, there’s not enough water provided, there’s not enough security when someone’s getting a little drunk. “We provide more water than anyone else, we provide food – we do everything we can to not only protect the staff, but the suppliers and customers.

“We also have a safeguarding policy. So if someone is uncomfortable, they just say a code name to any of our staff.”

Noting an incident last year, Davies says the company removed someone “within three minutes” of them being reported. “If there’s anyone that’s inappropriate, that person is taken away. We also take their name, and we ban them,” she adds. When it comes to the wider industry, Davies says that communication and strong leadership are important factors in ensuring that incidents are reported.

“What we have to do as an industry is ensure that the doors are open for anyone to complain,” says Davies. “Deal with that complaint very swiftly and with zero tolerance. It’s about having strong people that are open to having people come to them. The fundamental issue is that people need to be taught how to manage and lead – and there’s not enough of that.”

women in whisky
A third of women have been inappropriately touched while working in the whisky industry (credit: Jo Hanley, OurWhisky Foundation)

Key areas of focus

To tackle sexism in the industry, the OurWhisky Foundation has identified several key areas that businesses must focus on. These include: improving representation of women in advertising and marketing, while avoiding stereotyping; implementing unconscious bias and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for all staff, including senior leadership teams; implementing bystander training and clear anti‐harassment policies; conducting a company pay audit and encouraging pay transparency to ensure fair and equal pay; and allowing flexible working hours and locations for all parents, not just women.

OurWhisky is also putting together workshops based on the survey. “I think everybody needs to understand the issues that exist, the challenges that women face and what everybody can be doing to work to change things,” Paskin explains.

“Whether that’s in the sense of changing policies and practices in the workplace, or even as individuals understanding our own unconscious biases, how to react in situations where we see somebody else being harassed or somebody says something inappropriate. How do we handle that? This isn’t a women’s problem – it’s everybody’s problem.”

She highlights the importance of bystander training to provide confidence in handling difficult situations. “I think most of the time, we don’t know how to react. What’s the right thing to say, the right thing to do? Should we intervene with everybody standing around us? Or should we take that person to one side quietly? Do we deal with it in the moment? Or do we deal with it later? There are lots of different ways of approaching it.” She says that one of the biggest challenges is with advertising and marketing.

“You want to be able to see adequate representation of women and not in an objectified and sexualised way,” she explains. “I think that’s what whisky has been missing for so long, and it’s starting to get better. One of our workshops delves into some of the statistics and some of the reasons why better representation is better for the industry.”

Similarly, Women of the Vines & Spirits (WOTVS) works in partnership with Rainn, the largest anti‐sexual violence organisation in the US, to offer Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Training. The free training, customised specifically for the alcohol sector, is backed by trade bodies the Distilled Spirits Council of the US and Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.

Founder and CEO of WOTVS Deborah Brenner is planning to expand the programme to make it more of a resource hub and accessible to more people. The 90‐minute training is conducted over Zoom and split into levels. It provides practical tools for setting and protecting boundaries, intervening in potentially unsafe or uncomfortable situations, and supporting survivors, as well as understanding how our own biases influence our response. The programme has had 1,788 attendees register for the level one and two training since 2021.

“Change starts at the top,” says Brenner, who has seen senior executives take on the training. “The way that we’re going to be able to make a difference is for more leaders to come and take it and learn. Learn how they can be better at intervention and prevention, and then also learn about the tools and resources and encourage their employees to come and do it as well. Level two training is really an interactive way to promote community‐wide change. “If we can do this on a global scale, that’s where we can really make a difference.”

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