Jumping the gender barrier in the alcohol bastion

The Indian beverage alcohol industry is among the most complex and challenging industries to work in – for men and women.


I am proud to be working for Diageo, the world’s leading drinks company, for nearly 8 years.  Yet, I am still asked: “How hard is it to be a woman in the ’alcohol industry?’” And I give an answer that must be disappointing to many in its blandness: “Not difficult at all, actually I haven’t ever been consciously aware of my gender.”

The numbers – whichever way you cut the data – are stark. Women punch below their (legitimate) weight in India’s alcohol industry.

To set the record straight, I must say that to call the alcohol industry a male bastion, is a bit unfair. The fact is, most industries are male-dominated, not only in India, but worldwide. Women are under-represented in middle and senior management even in developed economies. In the new age glamourous world of Technology, Private Equity, Hedge Funds, Investment Banks, Consultancy – the low representation of women is starting to become a much-talked-about cause of concern for many.  

So, what has helped me to get there in the beverage alcohol industry?

Well, I can say straightway – NOT my gender.

Like most professional women – and men – I have made it to where I am because I have worked hard, delivered performance, learnt from leaders I have had the good fortune to work with, made some smart choices of roles and companies (Diageo being one of them!) and – been lucky at some points in time.  So, everything that is required for a man to succeed in the corporate world, is true also for a woman.

The Indian beverage alcohol industry is among the most complex and challenging industries to work in – for men and women. I have many highly talented men colleagues in Diageo India, all of whom admit to the challenge (and therefore, excitement!) of working in our highly regulated, “dark” industry that operates within a state-by-state taxation and distribution model. Until recently, we also had the challenge of finding it hard to attract good talent from other industries because of the way people perceive the alcohol industry. So working in this industry is as challenging -- for men as well as women.

Beverage Alcohol industry is metamorphosing

It is true that there are many facets of this industry that are more skewed towards men – more male consumers than female, many stores and drinking holes are not places where you see women. A certain masochism is associated with alcohol trade….

But that’s a historical view of this industry, which, like many aspects of our country, is undergoing a quiet but certain shift. Drinking a McDowell’s #1 to treat your friends when you get your first job, celebrating a pre-wedding Ladies Sangeet with Ciroc (fine French grapes!), marking your company’s milestone with a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, exploring beautiful parts of Scotland on a wall of a large alcohol store to choose a new Single Malt for your home bar, raising a toast to your father on his 60th with a Johnnie Walker Blue Label – these are all occasions that include – and are meaningful – as much to women as to men!

Diageo is a premium drinks and lifestyle company – and so I have never felt out of place as a woman.

Choose your organization with care!

But there is more to it than just its business. Diageo has a highly inclusive culture, with genuine commitment at the Board and Executive levels towards diversity. The many senior women leaders in the organization help build and sustain an eco-system that is as encouraging of women as for men. Half of the directors on the Global Board are women. Forty percent of the Diageo Executive Committee are women. Diageo plc was ranked as the fifth most diverse and inclusive workplace in 2017 by Thomson Reuters Global Diversity and Inclusion Index.

A highly performance-oriented company like Diageo makes it easier for women to be at their best – because you know it’s your contribution to the company that propel you in your career in Diageo, not who you know or what after-work networking you do.

And so, one of the most important enablers to where I have got to, has been to work in an incredibly inclusive, fair and performance-driven culture. It is my first “mantra” to female colleagues – choose your organization wisely!

Be authentic

One of the things that has helped me, is to be authentic and true to myself. I don’t leave myself behind when I get to work. I don’t work at being “like a man.” Succeeding in a male industry does not require you to be some kind of an alpha-male. You don’t have to shout or thump the table if that doesn’t come naturally to you. The content and authenticity of leadership matters, not style stereotypes.

Focus on being great – not just good - at what you do

Every day I come to work, I try to be very good at what I do. There is no better guarantee of making it, than if you make yourself so valuable to the company that it nurtures, develops and enables you.

And stay the course

We know it is harder for a woman. There have been times – when my child was unwell and I had an important meeting to prepare for, or I have bumped into women friends who were lunching while I was on a dull “business lunch,” when I wake up at 4.30am to catch a flight – when you want to be “like the other women who have it easy.” But that’s a feeling of the moment that I am able to brush past, because the fulfillment and sense of contribution that I get from staying on-course, is a reward worth having. So, my enduring advice to younger female colleagues, is not to chuck it. Be smart about it – take temporary breaks, make some adjustments – anyway these don’t matter in a 30 or 35-year career - but don’t give it up.  

When you are not in the game, you can hardly point fingers at the selection committee or the other players who are practicing hard at the net.    

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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