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International Women's Day: Life as a senior woman in the spirits industry

As the world marks International Women's Day on Sunday 8 March, Miranda Dickson, global brand director for Absolut Elyx and a long-time vodka enthusiast, shares her story of climbing the spirits industry ladder and how gender balance is changing in the sector.

How did you get involved in the spirits industry?

I've always had a keen interest in drinks and hospitality, which came primarily from my father's love of throwing big parties at home. I started out running events and DJing at a club night in Manchester in the mid-1990s and from there I became events manager at Cyberia, the first internet café bar in the UK. Cocktails had always been something I was into and vodka was my spirit of choice. In the mid-90s everything cool was Absolut, and during this time I was introduced to Paul Newman, the Absolut guy. He bought us the coolest martini glasses (or so I thought at the time) to use in the bar and we started serving lots of crazy, fruity, lurid martinis, as was the craze.

In 1997 I moved to manage a vodka bar in Manchester and from there my interest and love of everything about vodka grew. We had more than 100 different vodkas behind the bar and I took it upon myself to find out the back story of all of these brands - a journey that took me to Poland, Finland, Russia, Iceland, the US and of course Sweden. Before I knew it, I'd been crowned 'Vodka Princess' by my boss and my role expanded. I curated all the cocktail programming, menu designs and vodka purchasing and educated staff for 38 busy cocktail bars in the UK. I also penned three books on vodka and our cocktails.

How has being a woman affected your professional journey?

My first entry into the industry was through bars - I came as an events manager and then general manager. It wasn't until I worked for a larger company with more seniority that I realised the ease with which men could simply pigeonhole a strong woman, with an opinion that differed from theirs, as a b****, while an opinionated man was automatically seen as tough. So working in a male-dominated organisation was eye-opening for me. If I was friendly to a male colleague or the owner of the business, it could be perceived as flirting to get my way, especially when you add alcohol to the mix. That combined with watching married male colleagues frequently end their nights in strip clubs and behaving really inappropriately with other women paints a pretty solid picture of my experience 20 years ago.

I guess at some stage I figured out that if I wanted to continue a career in hospitality, I needed to make a conscious choice to take no s*** from my male colleagues, to work out the best way to navigate the road ahead and how to take opportunities as they come. Another retrospective observation would be to watch out for the "mean girls" - it always surprises me how easily other women can turn against you in favour of aligning with "the guys" and how quick women can be to stab you in the back.  

Moving from the hospitality world into a large corporate organisation was again a different experience and the landscape is way more female-forward. Maybe things were a little different when I joined 15 years ago, but today I'd say by and large that the playing field is pretty equal. I think in spirits marketing there are many women - by no means is that territory male-dominated. 

How has gender balance changed across the spirits industry?

I think we are starting to see a real emergence of female empowerment in our industry now. The industry itself is increasingly more observant and open-minded too, and more supportive around female challenges in the workplace generally. What women in general could improve upon is being more supportive of each other and helping each other navigate through the challenges.

The first time I travelled to Poland - where I went to live for five years - what struck me was that nearly all of the master distillers were women! In all the distilleries I visited I was so happy to meet some of the most incredible women in charge of making the most incredible vodkas. Elzbieta Goldynka, the master distiller at Zielona Gora at that time, was not only an accomplished vodka master but also a visionary in producing small-batch flavours, celebrating the old-fashioned flavoured vodkas of Poland and the traditions that are so intrinsic to Polish vodka.

Today, the head of operations at Absolut Vodka is another extremely talented lady, Anna Schriel, and our CEO is also a woman, Anna Malmhake. So in the world of vodka production, woman have always had a role. In the drinks business as a whole women are way more featured in the marketing teams, while I see more male domination in the commercial arm of the business, but this is just a general observation. In the hospitality side, the question is more about seniority and how many senior positions are held by women. Housekeeping, for example, is very female domianted, while hotel management seems to be very male dominated. Hotel F&B (food and beverage), especially in the large organisations, appears very male dominated, while smaller independent hotels definitely demonstrate improved gender opportunities. It's got to be a positive thing when we see industry recognition for bartender Monica Berg as well as the sustained popularity and growth of Speed Rack - both are great inspiration for women behind the bar today.

What advice would you give to woman starting a career in spirits now?

Keep the passion. I think especially if you are a woman in this industry, it is tough, but isn't it tough in many professions? For me, it's the passion that gets me up in the morning and gives me energy. It's a cliché, but if you don't enjoy what you do then what's the point? Stay true to what you think, rise above the noise and, most of all, have fun and enjoy it.

6 March 2020 - Bethany Whymark