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The Road Toward Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Alcohol Industry


Marbet Lewis

Spiritus Law

Rebecca Stamey-White

Hinman & Carmichael LLP

Just as American society at large has been confronted by recent gender, sexual orientation, and racial justice social movements, so too has the alcohol beverage industry. Like most industries, the alcohol business has been historically predominantly white and male at all levels of the three-tier industry—producers, distributors, and retailers—and largely remains that way especially at high-ranking executive levels where decision making matters most. But in recent years we have seen a wave of press about these disparities and institutional barriers to entry that still exist, in addition to attention to many reports of discrimination and harassment. While calls for greater employment and leadership opportunities for historically underrepresented groups are not new to the alcohol industry, the recent #MeToo and racial justice movements have shone a brighter light on the alcohol industry’s inequities and the general lack of awareness and understanding of systemic obstacles to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

While the industry is still coming to terms with ongoing social justice movements, there have been a slew of industry groups that have sprung up to raise awareness, educate, and create opportunities for diverse industry members. Even more remarkable is the unwavering attention and focus on holding violators accountable. Gender disparity within the alcohol industry has led to the creation of many non-profit organizations focused on networking for women working in these trades. Les Dames d’Escoffier International is perhaps the oldest of such organizations, forming originally in New York in 1976 and focusing on women in food, beverage, and hospitality. Women for WineSense followed as a California-based organization focused on the wine industry and was founded in 1990 by a small group of wine industry icons, including trailblazer Lynne Carmichael of Hinman & Carmichael LLP. Many others have followed, focusing on different product categories within the industry, including the largest for beer, Pink Boots Society (founded in 2007), and the largest for wine and spirits, Women of the Vine & Spirits (founded in 2015). Newer organizations strive to address diversity and inclusion beyond gender, including Diversity in Wine and Spirits, Hue Society, the Lift Collective Organization, Wine Unify Foundation, Black Wine Professionals, Be the Change Virtual Job Fair, and many others that have been founded by emerging industry leaders demanding greater inclusion in the industry for women as well as historically underrepresented communities of color and LGBTQIA+.

As attorneys working with all segments of the alcohol industry, we can learn from and engage respectfully with these movements and industry shifts to provide better support for our team members and improve overall client representation. A broader range of perspectives at client strategy sessions leads to a more extensive range of options and solutions for our clients and businesses. However, creating physical diversity alone is not sufficient for true progress. Diversity must be matched equally with equitable and inclusive workplace policies that promote fair treatment and access to opportunity for all and the elimination of barriers to active participation in decision-making and client management.

Over the past few years, whistleblowers and changemakers in the alcohol industry have turned a spotlight on the industry, forcing major industry players and organizations, like the Court of Master Sommeliers, to respond to claims that racism and gender discrimination and harassment plague their organizations. The news has been alarming but has exposed symptoms of systemic bias that can now be recognized and addressed. For example, a starting point for many organizations that are embracing the goals of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements involves self-auditing and having difficult conversations in the workplace with those who are most impacted by and those who have the most control over systemic barriers to advancement and equality. Areas of internal inquiry should include a comprehensive review of any lack of diversity in decision making and positions of authority, unequal opportunities for leadership skills training, disparities in pay, and any recent declines in diverse applicants and team members, all of which could be signs of internal bias and a collapse in diversity and inclusion efforts.

Identifying systemic bias can be difficult because it depends on management’s ability to acknowledge internal inequity and inclusion deficiencies. However, self-reflection, accountability, and learning are all part of the process of eliminating bias and working toward developing inclusive and equitable workplace policies. More often than not, the most evident obstacle to workplace diversity can be addressed by improving hiring policies and recruitment practices such as broadening the target audience for job fairs, on-campus recruiting at community colleges and night school programs, and even reaching out to local community organizations focused on empowering underrepresented groups. Recruiting diverse individuals is just an initial step. Investing in diverse talent by establishing workplace policies that define inappropriate conduct, hold violators accountable, and force inclusion in leadership roles fosters a more equitable work environment and collegiate atmosphere.

Alcohol industry business leaders can support and develop a diverse workforce in a variety of ways. The “years-in-grade” metric for judging qualification and competence is a significant barrier to advancement for the simple fact that many underrepresented groups, including women, were only allowed to enter the workforce in basic skill or subservient roles. Rather than focusing on years-in-grade as a benchmark for leadership training, organizations can create more equity in opportunity by opening doors for skills development by rotating leadership roles and account management opportunities, offering more flexibility in work schedules, creating transparency in advancement criteria and pay scales, modernizing benefits packages to include paid time off benefits and mental wellness support, and offering training programs for advancement and development of leadership skills.

Building a strong foundation for the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion also relies on a commitment to allyship. Allyship is the ongoing process of supporting and prioritizing social justice, inclusion, and uncompromised equality by a privileged or majority group for the sole purpose of advancing the interests of an oppressed or marginalized group. An ally is someone that is not identified with a marginalized group but actively supports and pursues equality and justice for that group. Anyone can be an ally as long as they use their voice and position of power or privilege to raise and support others. Lack of access is often the biggest complaint and problem experienced by diverse and marginalized groups. Despite equal or even superior competence, diverse colleagues are limited in their ability to break into positions of authority and power. If you are in a position of authority in the workplace, open doors and invite diverse and marginalized colleagues to meetings and conferences that may promote their learning, experience, and advancement. Invite these individuals to engage and actively participate in policy decisions and managerial roles. Emphasize the importance of including diverse experiences and viewpoints in decision-making processes and reward leaders who make inclusion efforts.

Eradicating workplace injustice requires collaborative effort and communal commitment to immediately address offenses and exclusive behavior. For example, workplace meetings are often a hot spot of microaggression toward, and exclusion of, diverse individuals. Too often, members of underrepresented and marginalized groups experience their judgment being questioned, interruptions while speaking, and having their ideas dismissed or disregarded. Language that degrades, misrepresents, or generalizes any marginalized group should be interrupted, questioned, and corrected without compromise or reservation. Being an effective ally is an ongoing process and commitment to benefitting and promoting diverse and underrepresented individuals. There is no checklist for being an ally, but a necessary component is a true understanding and acknowledgement that allyship is centered on the support and advancement of others and the equal and inclusive distribution of authority and opportunity.

One of the most effective, yet most overlooked, tools in eradicating bias is encouraging open dialogue and setting boundaries and expectations for productive conversation. Everyone can make an effective step toward realizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Furthermore, businesses and leaders within the alcohol industry need to work together to establish industry-wide guidelines that incorporate effective strategies for eliminating bias and promoting the advancement of marginalized groups, especially in low-wage jobs. The industry has frequently come together to promote initiatives that benefit trade across all tiers. The greatest benefit can come from collective industry efforts to develop long-term and sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusion goals that expand our workforce and attract new experience and talent.

For more information about bias in the alcohol industry and businesses that are pushing for change, check out the authors’ Elimination of Bias/Diversity and Inclusion in the Alcohol Industry program segment, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Marbet Lewis is a Shareholder at Spiritus Law where she represents clients in all aspects of alcohol and business licensing, alcohol licensee mergers and acquisitions, negotiation of asset purchase agreements and required alcohol use provisions, license transfers and licensing due diligence, trade practices, alcohol product advertising and review of marketing agreements, importation agreements, label approvals, and regulatory compliance guidance.

Rebecca Stamey-White is a Partner at Hinman & Carmichael LLP. Rebecca helps her clients secure and maintain their required alcohol and/or cannabis licenses by providing licensing, production, distribution, sales, and marketing compliance counsel, advising on license transactions, negotiating industry agreements, and defending clients before regulatory bodies when their licenses are at risk. She is the practice leader for the firm’s marketing, e-commerce, and cannabis practices.


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