Welcome back to The Shout’s Industry Women Spotlight Series, a profile series which shines a light on the stories and perspectives of women from all across the industry.
Through these regular profiles, we aim to hero the visibility and inspiration that is common on International Women’s Day – it’s important we have these conversations more frequently than just once a year.
This next profile shares the story of Helen Strachan, Legal and Corporate Affairs Director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers. She is a force for positive change in the drinks industry, winning the Champion of Diversity and Equality title at the 2020 Australian Women in Wine Awards as well as serving as a board member for DrinkWise and chairperson for the National Wine Foundation Council (Australian Grape & Wine).
Strachan is a lawyer by trade, but has family ties to the wine industry from her home state of South Australia – her father was a grape grower and three out of four of her siblings already worked in the industry before she came to it herself. This happened when Strachan was working at a law firm outside of the industry and was offered a secondment at what was then known as Orlando Wyndham Group. It was an opportunity she jumped at, and one that set her down the path to her current role.
This current role is an incredibly important one, with Strachan being a key member of the executive management team and managing the legal function of Pernod Ricard Winemakers. Strachan’s unique position is one that solves problems and navigates issues in a number of areas, while having an impact on the culture of the company and being a mentor and representative on external bodies.
It’s been a rewarding journey for Strachan, and one which has taught her what she is capable of.
“Just over six years ago I was appointed a director and became part of the executive team. Before that I had been a part time lawyer and the primary parent to my children as my husband traveled a lot,” Strachan explained.
“When I was interviewing for the role, my list of reasons why I couldn’t do it was very long compared to the list of reasons that I could do it. To me, it was a leap and I didn’t think I was capable to be honest – imposter syndrome was alive and well.
“It was a highlight to achieve that. I wouldn’t say it was clear sailing and I immediately became a director, but that was a significant moment [of development] for me.”
Another key highlight along the way was being named the Champion of Diversity and Equality at the Australian Women in Wine Awards.
“It was just the most extraordinary thing because I didn’t think I would get that either. Someone like me is often more behind the scenes, so it was actually really wonderful to be recognised in that way,” Strachan said.
“It was a career defining moment because I thought my level of influence was reasonably contained within my company and part of the industry, but that showed I have still had an influence. To have that recognised meant a lot to me.”
A voice of responsible consumption
There is a lot that Strachan loves about the Australian liquor industry, and overall, she is glad her long term career led her in this direction, rather than to a law firm.
One of the key things that makes Strachan a proud member of the industry is her passion for responsible drinking. This brings together a few threads of work for Strachan – at Pernod Ricard, DrinkWise and the National Wine Foundation.
The Pernod Ricard thread is based around the company’s sustainability and responsibility roadmap strategy, with responsible hosting being one of the four pillars behind this. Strachan said responsibility is core to the company’s DNA and this is found in many initiatives, from internal and external training and education to strict codes of conduct on marketing, and more. This strategy is built around the World Health Organiation’s goal to reduce harmful drinking by 10 per cent worldwide by 2025.
“Our purpose that we always talk about at Pernod Ricard is that we are creators of conviviality. From the responsible hosting and drinking side of it, we always say that we can’t have conviviality without responsibility,” Strachan said.
Then the DrinkWise thread is around the independent organisation’s purpose of bringing about a safer and healthier drinking culture in Australia through a whole of community approach via campaigns, research and education. This ties in with work of the National Wine Foundation, which was set up by the wine industry to help fund initiatives that reduce harmful alcohol consumption (including those by DrinkWise), with a particular focus on improving the lives of indigenous Australians.
“There is alcohol harm and misuse out there and as an industry, it’s very important that we recognise that and work on reducing that harm and promoting responsible drinking,” Strachan said.
Across the whole industry, Strachan said there are some excellent initiatives that support responsible drinking. She chooses to promote these internally and externally because she believes in their ability to create positive societal change. Such initiatives also help to dismantle misconceptions around the topic of responsible drinking, both from within and outside the industry.
“I think there are people that believe we’re just paying lip service, or that we want to sell as much volume of alcohol as we possibly can so we can be profitable. That’s certainly a misconception, because if we honestly didn’t care about responsibility, we’d just see more and more restrictions placed on every part of the industry. We actually can’t afford to disregard responsibility,” Strachan said.
Some of the specific positive examples that Strachan called out includes the work of Retail Drinks to embed responsibility at store level for the off-premise industry, while producers (such as Pernod Ricard) choose to implement responsible drinking logos and links to further information on their labels, and adhere to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC).
While Strachan describes the industry in a positive light from many angles, she also said there is always room to take this further, particularly when it comes to easing the challenges women still face. Strachan noted things like sexual harassment and sexist comments continue to be an issue, not just in the liquor industry, but everywhere.
“I think in any industry where you are a minority there are going to be challenges, and it will stay that way unless we get to that stage where people are more educated about the good things about diversity,” Strachan said.
“Some people don’t seem to want to or be able to recognise women’s capabilities. I’ve been at events where we have amazing women winemakers who are so knowledgeable about their craft and there are still men who will speak over them because they think they know more.
“I also think some parts of the industry are lagging in terms of embracing flexibility. Companies like ours are doing a pretty good job but that’s not across the board [of the wine industry]. Some people don’t seem to understand that flexibility means we don’t lose some really talented people, both women and men.”
A key way that Strachan believes we can dismantle the challenges women face is by encouraging a more balanced ratio of genders in every area of the industry.
“Our industry is doing well but we’re not done yet,” Strachan said.
“If you’ve only got males making decisions and not challenging their own ways of thinking, then we’re not going to have much change… but we can’t just look at the obvious senior levels to close gaps – we have to look at every single level and every single function to ensure that we have a fair balanced pipeline for the future.”
Larger companies may have the ability to apply resources to assist with this in their own companies, and while Strachan said that is certainly positive, smaller companies are not in the same position. Creating meaningful, whole of industry change is only possible if we all come together, like we have already started to do for responsible drinking.
“It’s great to have strong ambitions but we also need to be able to actually fulfill those ambitions. Whenever you join together with more people, the impact that you can have is far greater,” Strachan said.
“Me sitting here in one company doing good things is not going to fundamentally change the whole industry. But if we come together, we can understand all the baseline data in terms of where women are dropping out and where diversity and inclusion can make an important impact.
“Until we prioritise this action more across the industry, we’ll just continue to be a bit same-same and not really achieve the step change that we need to.”
Advice to the next generation
As the next generation of the industry continues to come through, Strachan believes it will be vital for people to be brave enough to stand up and challenge things. Not only is this meaningful for those already in the industry, but it also makes it an attractive field for young people setting out on their careers.
For the next generation of women who are attracted to that, Strachan’s main advice to build your confidence is to get involved and learn as much as you can.
“Don’t hold yourself back… I think I learned that way too late in my life – sometimes you just have to involve yourself and not second guess your own capabilities,” Strachan said.
“Dive into things and learn. You might not always get it right but that’s okay, that’s just part of the experience… Be open minded and collaborative – I see a lot of people that come in with the opposite mindset and it’s not helpful.”
Strachan also encouraged women to not be afraid to get involved in different parts of the industry. It needs strong and capable people to lead it forward through progressive change on a global scale, and you can always have an influence, no matter who you are.
“There are all sorts of roles in this industry, there are so many other things you can do other than being a viticulturist or a winemaker or a sales person. You can get involved in so many ways,” Strachan said.
As for Strachan herself, her plans to get involved in the industry continue to grow as she focuses on her passion points where she can contribute to creating cultural change. This includes not only within Pernod Ricard, where she is part of the gender peer network as well as a mentor, and also through DrinkWise, the National Wine Foundation and the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in Wine Committee (part of Australian Grape and Wine).