On International Women’s Day every year, the voices and stories of women across the world are celebrated, as we address the issues that cause gender inequality and diversity. But despite these issues remaining, such voices and stories take a backseat once the day is done.

We think it’s worth doing the opposite and actively challenging the issues that create these gaps in our industry. So, we’ve launched this weekly series, Wednesday Women, where we’ll profile the stories of the inspiring women in this great and wide industry.

Today we speak with Suzanne Blake, Marketing and Office Manager at Retail Drinks Australia, who sees success as being less about career defining moments, and more about turning up each day as a woman, and being the best version of herself.

TS: Could you tell us how you got into the industry, and what kind of places your career has taken you?

SB: My career in FMCG marketing across many years and sectors eventually led me to the wine industry; an industry rich in complexity, elegance, and personal challenge.  Managing diverse portfolios across different regions in Australia, I was able to completely immerse myself in the grape to glass journey – all-encompassing of operations/production, commercial realities, customer demands, and the shopper and retail experience, all with the end consumer consumption occasion in mind.  Completing my WSET Level 3 provided a much deeper insight into the intricacies of wine and spirits and a profound appreciation for those masterful growers and makers.  I was also privileged to enjoy some of Australia’s and the world’s most prestigious wines, not something readily available to many.

My career in the wine industry over many years opened my world to new experiences beyond traditional marketing while introducing me to a network of great leaders, mentors, and peers who have since helped to shape my own style and direction.  Entering the wine industry was an unexpected turn for me in the world of FMCG marketing and has since led me to Retail Drinks Australia in the latter part of my career where I’m continuing to extend my network and celebrate all the industry good through our flagship annual event, the Retail Drinks Industry Summit and Awards.

TS: Have there been any highlights or really defining moments of your career so far?

SB: For me, it’s less about career defining pivotal moments, rather a focus on turning up each day and being the best version of yourself – which can honestly be hard at times for anyone.  It’s about being true to yourself, constantly curious, and having the courage to speak up.  This approach has been the cornerstone of shaping who I am today personally and professionally and ultimately sets the trajectory for success however this is defined, which isn’t always about reaching the top of the ladder.

TS: Hospitality and liquor are known to be fairly male-dominated – what are some of the common challenges that you think women face in these industries?

SB: I would tend to agree the industry is male dominated yet in my experience, marketing teams tend to be dominated by women.  In saying that, gender disparity is less of a concern for me rather I enjoy working and collaborating with strong cross functional teams built of diverse people who all support, contribute and unite for a common goal.  I believe having the courage to speak up without feeling intimidated by any person, team, business, or cultural dynamic is key.  Those with a tendency to be more introverted often make an invaluable contribution and finding a way to cut through and be heard can be liberating.  I am currently the only female in a diverse team of great men at Retail Drinks Australia – a team founded on hard work, respect, understanding, and having a good laugh.

TS: Do you think there are issues with gender gaps in hospitality and liquor, whether that be pay gaps, ratio gaps, gaps in opportunity, etc? Have you personally experienced these?

SB: Without over thinking this there is an obvious gap for women in leadership mostly driven by the hiatus of raising a family. For me personally, the biggest challenge was to find the right balance and support enabling career growth while maintaining a presence at home, and not an easy task by any means.  I’ve been extremely well supported professionally throughout my career by some great male and female leaders in the industry who have helped me to create a balance in managing work and life complexities; something I am eternally grateful for and has enabled me to manage and maintain my own pathway within the liquor industry.

TS: What are some positive ways that you think women can overcome these challenges, and ways that we as an industry can tackle these types of challenges?

SB: I will be forever appreciative of an approach introduced by a respected industry leader during my time in the wine industry. An approach introduced to develop organisational effectiveness by enabling the time to think; individually, in meetings, and across every organisational interaction with courage, and rigor. This helped eliminate hierarchy by creating a culture of ease, appreciation, empowerment, understanding, equality and respect. Not gender specific, it’s an approach which can help overcome many organisational challenges and bring with it diversity and inclusivity.

TS: If we take a step back and think about women in general who are entering the industry and want to further their careers – from your point of view, what advice would you have for them about doing that and getting into the kind of space you’re in now?

SB: Be true to yourself, have the courage to speak up, be curious, build strong and diverse networks, and ask for what you need; you may be surprised with the level of support available, and if it’s not readily available, create it.  Don’t be afraid to lean into the tough conversations with empathy, humility and compassion, bring your support networks in when required, be proud of your achievements and celebrate the success of those around you. Having these qualities builds great leaders.

TS: The theme for this year’s IWD is Inspire Inclusion – what does this mean to you?

SB: Inclusion is critical to diversity and shaping meaningful experiences both personally and professionally.  I would like to see more people, more women of all backgrounds, experiences, and ages having the courage to believe in themselves and to have their voices heard; be brave enough to ask for what they need. 

TS: What do you think we can do as an industry to value and encourage women’s inclusion?

SB: Continue to harness and embrace the value women can add while also recognising for some – transitioning through life stages can bring conflicting priorities and dreams between life and work, while also introducing tricky health challenges, such as brain fog from menopause – now that’s next level, but bear with us, we are still valuable contributors and it’s short term. We can all learn from better understanding, supporting and acknowledging the impact of menopause on half of our population, particularly in a male dominated industry, just saying.

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