Industry Issues

The State of Gender Bias on the Floor

A look at how female somms, wine directors, and restaurateurs are treated differently from their male counterparts—and how to change the paradigm

From left to right: Mackenzie Parks, Madeline Triffon, and Caitlin Corcoran. Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

They’ll have that third bottle, but only if she’ll shimmy while she pours it, a guest at Bedford & Co. in New York City once told sommelier, Sarah Tracey. The whole table laughed when he said it.

Being a woman in the sommelier business requires physical, mental, and emotional strength—plus a thick skin and grace under pressure. For female sommeliers such as Tracey—who is now the wine director of Rouge Tomate Chelsea—toeing the line has become an art. “It’s hard,” she says. “Part of the job is to provide hospitality and to be polite and gracious and make people feel welcome. Yet when they’re making jokes at your expense—even if it’s lightly playful—you feel that you don’t have a lot of recourse.”

As shown by the recent takedowns of such celebrity restaurateurs as John Besh, Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman, as well as SevenFifty Daily’s reporting on sexual harassment, sexism is rampant in the industry. Even when outright harassment isn’t the issue, gender bias is still pervasive on the floor.

Take Maria Garcia, for example. The former wine director of Republique in Los Angeles and now a retailer at The Wine House, Garcia concedes that as a four-feet-eleven Mexican woman, she doesn’t look the part of the stereotypical head sommelier. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that she’s been confused for a trainee when she was actually the trainer in a number of scenarios on the floor, and she’s had to develop her own techniques for dealing with rude—or handsy guests.

When working collector events, Garcia has often been astounded to find herself shut out and dismissed by the clientele. At the restaurant Spago in Beverly Hills—where she spent nearly four years as the manager and cellar master—a private room once fell silent as she entered to pour, and Garcia knew it wasn’t in reverence. When she asked her manager what she might have done wrong, he confessed that there was an unwritten rule—which he wasn’t going to follow—at many such events: No women allowed.

“That was one of the first lessons,” says Garcia, “that there are going to be a lot of times that men feel uncomfortable with you serving them.”

At another wine dinner Garcia was managing, set up through a collector friend, she was eager to talk about a special vintage, yet the response she got was iciness. Later, she watched from across the room as the table pulled her assistant aside and tasted him on an old Cheval Blanc. When the collector who had arranged the tasting asked the table whether Garcia had had a chance to taste the wine, the response was, “Oh, we already gave it to the other guy.”

Mistaken Identities

It’s not necessarily any easier if you’re the owner of the restaurant, either. Caitlin Corcoran, the co-owner and general manager of Ça Va, a sparkling-wine bar in Kansas City, Missouri, deals with preconceived notions about gender daily. Most commonly that means guests direct all their questions to any man who’s on the floor—even if he’s the barback who’s been on staff for two weeks.

When Ça Va first opened, Corcoran would arrive at a table and the guests would ask to talk to the owner—the wine person. “I’d say, ‘That’s me,’ and they’d be so confused about it,” she says. “[They] couldn’t believe I knew about wine—or could talk to them about wine.” Things have improved in the four years since the bar opened, but it still happens and it can grate on Corcoran’s nerves, especially when a customer becomes angry about talking with a woman instead of one of the men wandering the floor.  

Corcoran keeps her business in mind. “I am in hospitality,” she says. “I do want guests to feel comfortable, even if they’re blown away by my being a woman. It’s not the [focus] of my job—to educate them about gender roles.”

For female somms and industry insiders, wine events can be fertile ground for confusion. At many, these women are assumed to be hosts or organizers rather than buyers and influencers.

Tracey, of Rouge Tomate, has been mistaken for the PR person on several occasions. At one luncheon, when she was the only woman at her table, one of her tablemates turned to her by way of greeting and asked, “Oh, and are you responsible for those beautiful gift bags we see over there?” He didn’t seem terribly embarrassed when she explained that she was in fact a somm.

Cheron Cowan, the general manager and wine director at the new Greenwich Grille in New York City and the wine director at Harold’s Meat + Three, has had similar experiences. For example, she once attended a Champagne dinner at which all the other women were wives or girlfriends of attendees, and no one wanted to engage with her. At many such events, guests assume that she’s the host, sponsor, or organizer—but not a peer.  “Their first [impression] is, ‘She doesn’t belong here,’” says Cowan. “It’s so unconscious.”

Battling Gossip

Madeline Triffon, the first female Master Sommelier in the United States, says she faced little in the way of gender bias during her career; however, she sees gossip as a damning problem. She’s seen rising somms talked about not for their expertise or work but for whom they might be dating. “I found it offensive, and disrespectful, and it annoyed me,” says Triffon. “Perhaps people were doing it unintentionally, but it’s damaging.”

When Rina Bussell, Advanced CMS, who is now an assistant wine director at Spago Beverly Hills, was first breaking into the industry in Seattle, it was gossip she had to overcome. “The restaurant industry is a small community,” says Bussell. “You have to separate personal and professional life and overcome stigma.” Specifically, she’s referring to the stigma that attaches to a young female sommelier perceived as fawning over male Master Sommeliers and others prominent in the community. Murmurings about just what means Bussell might be using to advance her career required quashing.

Taking Charge

Being a woman in a leadership role, such as a wine director or a head somm, has distinct challenges. On the one hand, there’s the wheeling and dealing to contend with. In difficult situations, guests and staff often see room for negotiation when bad news comes from a woman. In contrast, when it comes from a man, no typically means no. Any woman who has ever had to fend off unwanted sexual advances can attest to the feeling.

“When you’re doing your job, and holding people accountable, and doing the things a boss has to do, there’s often a gendered reaction that’s difficult,” says Jenn Knowles, Advanced CMS, the general manager of D.C.’s Requin on the Wharf. Sometimes that reaction comes in the form of a classic insult: Being called a bitch.

“‘Bitch’ never has a positive connotation,” says Knowles. “It always carries some type of negative weight to it that is meant to be condescending in a way that takes away power.” “Bitch” implies that a woman who is exercising authority or simply doing her job is being emotional. It’s a way of taking her down a notch. Even when the label is slapped on a man, it’s designed to denigrate: Call a man a bitch, and you’re saying he’s a wimp. And yet, says Knowles, the insult is hurled easily by employees who don’t like being asked to do their jobs and by customers who are being cut off, for example. “When I’m upfront and serious, and trying to be professional and get things done, I’m often considered to be a bitch,” says Knowles. “If I was a guy, I’d just be a badass.”

Selling While Female

Since she began her career as a sommelier, mostly working in Seattle steakhouses, Mackenzie Parks, Advanced CMS, has seen a shift in perception. The surprise of being greeted by a female sommelier has increasingly given way to excitement about being helped by a female sommelier. “I still have a few guests who refuse to speak to a woman sommelier,” says Parks, “but it’s being balanced out by a lot more enthusiasm about someone being a woman somm.”

When she switched her primary focus from her work as a somm and began repping wines for The Wine Trust, a Seattle company that specializes in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and library selections from iconic locations around the world, Parks was surprised to discover that being a woman was still something that made it hard for her to get her job done. Seeing clients buy the exact same wines from a male colleague that they won’t buy from her has her flummoxed.

“I can tell you,” says Parks, “that I have witnessed people who are new to this community, who haven’t been around as long as I have, who have come into this city [and] become reps … go in and sell exactly the same style of wine that I’m selling and successfully make a sale where I haven’t been able to, for whatever reason. It’s hard for me to say that’s directly a sexist thing, but it seems to be. I look at the common denominators—what did I bring to the table; why did this guy purchase from this other guy and not me—and in a lot of the situations, the only deduction I can make is that it was a male talking to another male, and making the sale.”

Parks admits she’d been forewarned by friends who work for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits and Young’s Market Company and says she tries not to let it get under her skin. If there’s one thing she wishes her male counterparts knew, it would be “how frustrating it is that I can do the exact same job that you do—or a better job—and I’m going to be making less money than you.”

Bottom lines are simply not changing. According to GuildSomm’s 2016 salary survey, women in the industry earn roughly $7,000 a year less than men. In 2015 the pay gap was $7,150, as compared with 2014, when the average salary for women was $55,000, compared with men’s $60,000.

The industry may be making some headway, but it has a long way to go. Here, leading somms share some of the tactics that have helped them run interference when faced with challenging circumstances and sexism at work.

1. Nix the gossip. It doesn’t matter whether it’s abusive or admiring, Triffon cautions. “Be very careful. You’re speaking about a colleague, and you may not intend [for your remarks to] influence the way that others will look at [her], but they might.”

2. Don’t put up with touching. “You very respectfully tell them that’s not allowed,” says Garcia. “Or you call a manager and we tell them that’s not allowed.” She also suggests mastering her double-shake-and-hand-back technique: When a guy grabs at her, or puts his hand on her lower back, Garcia grabs his hand, gives it a double handshake, and hands it back.

3. Consider attire. Early in Bussell’s career a mentor pulled her aside and told her that if she wanted to be taken seriously—if she wanted to prevail over gender and perceived youth—she should wear a suit. She resented having to suppress her femininity in the beginning, but she says the approach has worked for her.

4. Be mindful when drinking. “Don’t ever allow yourself to be put into that precarious position of being intoxicated when you’re supposed to be tasting and being objective,” says Bussell. “Even in situations where it’s more social, [such as] an after hours. Know your limits. You don’t want to be sloppy. It takes away your credibility—no matter what.”

5. Talk numbers. Men: If you want to support women in the industry and help create more parity, be frank with those women about your own salaries. If you know a woman is headed for an interview, share your salary in advance. And women: Don’t hesitate to ask around. The only way you can level the playing field is to know the pitch—and then to advocate for your own equality.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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