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Opinion: The taste of inequality – women's challenges in the food and drink industry
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

15 February 2024

Opinion: The taste of inequality – women's challenges in the food and drink industry

From unequal pay to representation at higher levels of the industry, it is harder for women to succeed in industries that are dominated by men. Diversity, equity and inclusion are essential for innovation and progress. Although positive shifts have occurred in recent years, as an industry, we must pave the way for the future generation and address all the challenges facing women. Rachel Lyne, partner in Browne Jacobson’s regulatory team, and Suzanne James, people director at Fairfax Meadow, explain more. In today's world, women are breaking barriers in male-dominated industries. However, despite the progress made towards gender equality, women still face significant challenges. The challenges Women across all industries are speaking out about their challenges, which is having a great impact as diversity and inclusion programmes are being implemented directly to address these issues. However, there are still numerous challenges that women still face, these are just a few:

  1. The lack of career advancement and opportunities available. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions, and only 13.3% of women hold executive director roles across FTSE 350. More specifically, within the food and drink industry, only 33.5% of the total workforce are women. This lack of representation makes it harder for women to find like-minded female mentors and sponsors who can assist them with advancing their careers and providing development support.

  2. Despite several changes to paternity rules in the UK that provide more rights to fathers, a discrepancy in leave entitlement still exists, resulting in women carrying most childcare responsibilities. This means that women often take longer periods of leave to care for their children, which creates barriers and unique challenges male colleagues do not experience.

  3. A lack of support for part-time or hybrid work, which can be the preferred approach for women seeking flexibility. In male-dominated industries, there is often a trend towards working antisocial and longer hours, which can both be challenging and unachievable for women with childcare responsibilities. The Covid-19 pandemic forced industries to support flexible working arrangements on an unprecedented scale. Although many industries have embraced this approach during the widespread return to office-based work post-Covid, not all sectors, such as the food and drink industry, have supported it (or can currently accommodate it).

  4. The gender pay gap reported in 2022 was 8.3%, which confirms that the issue of unequal pay persists. What are companies doing to encourage women into male-dominated industries? In recent years, companies have taken steps to encourage women to enter male-dominated industries. These steps include:

  5. Promoting DE&I by implementing policies and creating women-focused support groups;

  6. Providing mentorship and networking opportunities with female stakeholders and women empowerment groups;

  7. Offering training and development at all levels to enhance leadership;

  8. Flexible working arrangements; and

  9. Training addressing unconscious bias and DE&I. Driving change in any industry can only be done through a diverse and equitable workforce that is prepared to support initiatives and provide a well-rounded and supportive workplace that champions the growth of women and offers them an opportunity to thrive. While some employers are making these changes (Nestlé UK & Ireland, Suntory Beverage & Food and Fairfax Meadow), a call for action across the entire sector is needed. Empowerment To ensure women feel empowered and have senior figures who understand them, we need further female representation in senior managerial positions. Women need to see leaders they can relate to so they recognise that they do not have to compromise their careers once they become mothers and understand that they can challenge the status quo of a male-dominated workforce. If women cannot see female leaders, this will have a direct negative impact on their motivation and career aspirations, and we will be sending out a message to the younger generation that women cannot succeed in senior roles - when they can.

Suzanne James, people director at Fairfax Meadow and member of Meat Business Women (MBW), highlights that professional communities are empowering women to grow and develop through various initiatives, focusing on encouraging women to have role models and mentors across the sector. In particular, Suzanne notes that MBW is tacking the broken career ladder and ensuring the focus is throughout the entire duration of a woman’s career and not solely at the lower or higher ends. There is more the industry can do, and we need to challenge the data to encourage more than the targeted number of women to gain senior leadership roles. The industry needs to extend its reach to all women – those with disabilities and women from ethnic minorities – it needs to work with women from the very beginning of their careers right to the top. The industry needs to create a working environment that is truly inclusive for all women.

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