By Becky Paskin

Time for action

A moment to change perceptions
One of the most heart-breaking DMs I received in the past few weeks was from a young woman working in a whisky shop in Canada. She told me how she’s regularly dismissed by customers who would rather speak to her older male colleagues, how she politely smiles as inappropriate comments are made about her appearance, how she’s become so upset by the subtle sexism experienced in her work that she’s on the edge of leaving the industry altogether.

Perhaps even more distressing is that her story was repeated to me over and over again by other women across the world. They all felt the same: exhausted. These women – ambassadors, bartenders, blenders, distillers, historians, marketers, writers and whisky drinkers – told me about instances of sexual remarks, casual sexist comments, and on occasion, severely inappropriate behaviour. These are stories that we in the industry discuss regularly, though always behind closed doors.

And yet there are still many who would rather we kept quiet.

It’s been encouraging to see so many producers make a stand in the past few weeks against any form of sexism or objectification in whisky. No doubt the recent launch of the Scotch Whisky Association’s Diversity and Inclusivity Charter, and the Kentucky Distillers Association’s equality commitment, have been major influences in making those decisions.

Both associations’ steps toward building a workforce that’s more equal, inclusive and diverse is commendable and much needed, however they fall short of addressing the way whisky is marketed to consumers.

One of the first columns I penned for Whisky Magazine [Issue 166] explored the dangers of gendered drinks marketing, and its powerful ability to influence the general public’s perception of the kind of person who drinks or makes whisky.

It’s one thing for the global whisky industry to voice its condemnation for sexism or prejudice, but another to actively do something about it.

Since that social media post, the continued silence from some producers has been deafening. In a world where unconscious bias, casual sexism and stereotyping has become such an everyday occurrence that we barely even notice it anymore, to remain silent, in some cases even defend out-dated attitudes, is to be complicit.

For some companies to say they already ‘do enough’ for women in whisky is no defence. Nor are claims their focus is solely on producing quality liquid while continuing to disregard the effect gendered language and marketing has on the industry as a whole.

If it’s not whisky brands’ responsibility to support and positively represent the women within their organisations, not to mention their consumers, then whose is it?

In fact it’s the brands that set the tone for the way the world perceives whisky. The bigger their influence, the further their reach until their messaging infiltrates, even on a subconscious level, the creative output of writers, artists and filmmakers. From there, any form of stereotyping is perpetuated with the might of a viral Netflix documentary streamed during a national lockdown.

Some whisky brands have proudly accepted the powerful position they’re in to change perceptions and ultimately attitudes toward female whisky drinkers and makers. The Glenlivet, Jack Daniel’s, Johnnie Walker, Haig Club – these brands already consciously feature an equal representation of genders and races in their marketing – the true face of the modern whisky drinker.

The events of the past month have not only shone a light on the issues surrounding sexism and representation in the global whisky industry, they’ve encouraged more producers to revaluate their policies, partners and brand messaging. Conversations are the starting point, but it’s time for real action.

Eventually, and we may not see it in our lifetimes, the proactive steps they take now will usher in a new world where female whisky makers and drinkers will no longer be asked if they even like whisky, or have their knowledge questioned. Women will feel comfortable going to work, and confident they will be listened to.

While brands have the power to reach more consumers through advertising, the reality is it’s everyone’s responsibility to call out sexism, racism and stereotyping. Whether that’s during an official whisky tasting, at a festival, in the bar, in brand advertising or in books and magazines, as a global whisky family we can work together to change the narrative. The time for keeping quiet is over.