Long read

How can we embrace gender equity in the workplace?

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

The theme for this year's International Women's Day is #embraceequity
The theme for this year's International Women's Day is #embraceequity

Related tags Women Equity equality empowerment Gender female women empowerment female founders

For International Women's Day, Bethan Grylls speaks with a range of female voices in the food, drink and coaching sector to find out more about this year's theme of equity and how we can best support women in the workplace.

This year’s International Women’s Day looks to shed a light on why equal opportunities are not enough. As the IWD website describes, “people start from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action”​.

But what exactly does this mean and where do the key issues lie in gender equity in the food and drink workplace?

What is equity?

Highlighting the distinction between equality and equity, Cheryl Allen, Head of Confectionery Sustainability & Health for Nestlé UK & Ireland, said: “Equality is essentially where you create a level playing field, so there’s no barrier for people to participate in something. Whereas equity, for us, is understanding that there are groups who may need some extra support to help them achieve that equality or best perform/thrive in a certain environment.”

Adding to the dialogue, food industry coach and co-host of the popular Oh For Food’s Sake podcast, Amy Wilkinson, told Food Manufacture: “I have witnessed (and experienced first-hand) assumptions being made about what I needed as a woman working in food. The key thing about equity is that not one size fits all, so we need to start asking the right questions.”

“Since the rise of a new global civil rights movement in 2020, awareness of the inequities faced by many marginalised communities has moved to the forefront,” ​commented Sapna McCarthy, senior manager – equity, diversity & inclusion at Tate & Lyle. “Businesses must examine how they may be perpetuating these outcomes. In the past, the conversation was about equality for all. But more is needed – and that is equity. While equality focuses on creating the same starting line for everyone, equity is the state or quality of being fair, impartial and just, with the goal of providing everyone with the full range of opportunities and benefits – to enable them to reach the same finish line. 

“The goal of equality in treating everyone the same way is noble and something we applaud, but it ignores the fact that people tend to differ in their abilities, resources and experiences. People need different things to enjoy healthy, fulfilling careers and lives. Those differences tend to become barriers; when we ignore the barriers, we end up promoting privilege instead of trying to understand and give people what they need.” 

Of course, equity can impact anyone regardless of their sex or gender and as Allen stated, as a sector we’ll have to consider various ways of building in equity. But looking specifically at women, both Wilkinson and Allen suggested one of the key areas of concern is fear.

How can we embrace gender equity?

“Perhaps the concern that a flexible working pattern or a part time working pattern may inhibit their ability to progress in their career,”​ Allen said, offering an example. “It’s important to decouple those two things, that progression is not contingent on a full-time role.

“I’m proud of the steps Nestlé has taken in this regard, in terms of more flexible working practices, more roles made available for people who want to work flexibility or part-time that includes senior and entry levels.”

She also noted the importance of those policies being gender neutral, so providing all genders with the opportunity to work flexibly to help with, for example, childcare.

Adding to this, Wilkinson said: “Creating a safe environment where women can talk about what they need, without fear of discrimination is key (e.g., being able to ask about maternity policy without fearing that means you won’t get a job or promotion).

“A lot of the biases we have are unintended and unconscious, so raising awareness through training and discussions about unconscious gender (and other) biases is super important. It is then everyone’s responsibility to call out inequalities and inappropriate comments and behaviour.”

“The key thing is clarity and honesty,”​ commented Ramona Hazan, owner of Ramona’s Kitchen. “We, as a business need to be very clear on what we’re asking for and choosing for the right person to be in the right position, instead of basing it on numbers, stats, etc. Then its understanding what tools does that person need to do the best job that they can.”

Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality
Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality

Speaking with multi-award-winning social entrepreneur, hospitality consultant and life coach, Lorraine Copes explained that supporting equity means recognising we all – as individuals – have a role to play in driving change.

“The first step I would encourage is self-education on the disparities that exist and effect women today, also recognising that intersectionality plays a huge role in the experiences of women,” ​Copes noted.

“With knowledge then comes the opportunity to support change by using our voices, action, and privilege to intentionally drive change. The how will differ by personal circumstance, and it’s important to tap into your power, and then use if for good.”

For Estelle Keeber, founder of Immortal Monkey and responsible for helping thousands of women not only understand Instagram but also themselves and the power they harness, we need to move away from box ticking.

“For me the issue I see with equity within the food and drink industries as with many others is the ‘ticking of boxes’ strategy which may seem outwardly to be well intended and addressing the issue of inequity and diversity, when really the real focus should less be on the sex, ethnicity or other box to be ticked and more on the skills and attributes the individual brings to the table,” ​she contended.

The biggest issues we need to address to achieve gender equity 


The lockdowns we endured during the pandemic notably led to more flexibility in the workplace, which many organisations are still honouring three years on. However, Wilkinson says she’s fearful, post-pandemic, that we may see rigid shift patterns return. 

“The lack of flexibility in the food industry can be particularly challenging for women, who are more likely to be the caregivers for both children and ageing parents. This can lead to a ‘drain’ of really strong, experienced female talent from the industry,” ​she argued.

“This also leads to a lack of women in leadership roles,” ​she continued. In fact, according to data from Linked In’s Gender Equality in the Workplace report​, just 25% of C-suite roles are held by women. Looking specifically at consumer goods and grocery, IDG and the MBS Group’s 2021 report​ identified that although progress has been made in female representation in leadership, only 30% of females are in board level roles.

“There are still not enough role models in the industry, for young women starting out.” 

Tate & Lyle’s McCarthy also acknowledged the value on flexibility, and this is something that the company is responding to.

“As we emerged from the pandemic, 71% of our London-based employees told us they saw themselves in the office 1-2 days a week and expect a 20% increase in collaboration activities,” ​she explained. “So, we designed a working space in London that could accommodate and enable collaboration. We also support hybrid working by encouraging leaders to strike a balance between bringing teams together in person for team building and tasks that benefit from in-person collaboration, while also leveraging technology to allow people to work remotely.”

Wilkinson also flagged gender biases and stereotyping as a key concern. She cited research from IGD Diversity in Food and Grocery 2019, which found that women tend to be recruited into support roles, such as marketing and HR.

“There needs to be a shift for more equity across all departments for there to be true diversity throughout the industry. This can look like encouraging more women into manufacturing and engineering roles, as well as supporting greater flexibility.

“I think it’s really important that women are not made to feel that they are the problem, as many of the issues are systemic in the industry but there are some of our own behaviours and beliefs that feed into that gender stereotype – which is why I work with women to be more confident in themselves, so they can assert themselves in a way that feels comfortable to them and together we can create more positive change in the industry.”

Flexibility was also raised by Kerry’s Eimear Robertson, chief technology officer, North America, who explained that although we’ve learnt a lot about this during Covid, there’s still a long way to go in terms of recognising those in the workforce who may need different accommodations.

“We need to be able to create an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work,”​ she explained, “and that’s why this year’s International Women’s Day theme is particularly important.”

Fighting stereotypes 

“As a woman in manufacturing, I know that the sector can be traditionally be perceived as a male dominated one,"​ added Amie Brown, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) environment manager.

"This is something that CCEP and the wider manufacturing sector is working hard to shift. In our GB business, we have a goal for achieving an inclusive and diverse workplace.

“Many people seem to retain the image of the manufacturing industry as involving tasks more suited to male skillsets. But in my experience, these are outdated perceptions which don't accurately reflect reality. I’m surrounded by many talented women in my role who bring many different skills and insights to the table.

“Changing these perceptions is going to be key to achieving a fully equitable workplace and achieving our goals on gender, both as a business and an industry.”

Recognising health conditions 

For Emma Verkaik, BCMPA’s membership & marketing director, who has been working in the world of contract manufacturing and logistics for more than 25 years, the areas for further focus are around women’s health conditions.

Whilst she praised the progress the food and drink sector has made and notes the emergence of a cohort of women making a difference, she believes more can be achieved.

“I have no doubt that over time there will be greater awareness of the needs of our sex, which include the sensitive areas of menstrual cycles and menopause, and other conditions like the debilitating condition, endometriosis.But for now, we should raise a glass to the steps we have made and feel proud that the industry is all the better by being inclusive and welcoming to us all.”

Things are changing

Christine Peers, who manages the sales team at EHL Ingredients, agrees significant headway has been made in reaching gender equity.

EHL Ingredients women leaders
EHL Ingredients in Stockport currently has a senior leadership team of ten women, from chairman, to heads of technical compliance, NPD, sales and operations

“When I joined the food industry in 1988 it was a very different landscape and it was definitely a male dominated industry. However, I am pleased to admit that it is not something I really think about now, there are so many wonderfully talented women who work in the business and there are opportunities for women to excel and thrive, and inspire the next generation of females in the food industry.”

Adding to this, Keeber said: “Although gender discrimination is no longer such a public issue, it hasn’t gone away, however a change in women leaders in companies such as Coca-Cola really pave the way for other amazing, talented and capable women to step to the forefront and take a seat at the table. With more than 80% of food purchases worldwide being made by women, surely it makes sense to have women at the head of companies making decisions. We are, after all, making up 80% of the sales.”

Keeber believes that leadership teams and business owners need to look at equity more holistically and ensure that women are part of the team from the ground up. But she also stressed the need to see “beyond workforce diversity” and acknowledge the bigger picture, recognising how equity across the board will help create not just a happier and healthier workplace, but also enhance brand reputation and profits.  

“As a woman, raised on a council estate, who became a single parent and domestic abuse survivor, the odds were stacked against me,”​ Keeber told Food Manufacture. “Statistics said I shouldn’t have succeeded. I pride myself on my tenacity, creativity and willingness to learn alongside having incredible role models such as Karren Brady, Oprah Winfrey and Emmeline Pankhurst. Women who showed me that anything was possible if I set my mind to it and worked hard enough.

“The girl who was told she would amount to nothing ended up creating a business that turned over more than 1.2 million pounds in its first two years, she has supported hundreds of thousands of women globally – and hasn’t even got started yet.”

Tips for succeeding in business

“There are a variety of things that can set you up for success, regardless of your gender,”​ Allen said. “First of all, build your credibility and deliver on what you promise. If you’re consistently and reliably delivering, that gives you gravitas and a base to build upon.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for support. Sometimes we think that we have to take everything on – and I have absolutely been guilty of this, where you think, ‘I have to prove myself’. But in my experience, when you do ask for help, people are very generous with their time.

“And finally, believe in yourself, in your worth – know that you can add value every single day and nobody can take that away from you.”

Iuliia Vozniuk (left) and Amie Brown (right) from CCEP
Iuliia Vozniuk (left) and Amie Brown (right) from CCEP

This was a sentiment, Iuliia Vozniuk, production manager at CCEP at the Sidcup site, shared: “My top tip is to surround yourself with supportive people. I’ve had a lot to learn in my role, while also juggling my commitments at home. But the inclusive working environment and knowing I have the support of all my colleagues, both male and female, has helped me to believe in myself and have the confidence to succeed.

“I’ve had so much support to help with my development, including coaching and mentoring from other colleagues. I would encourage all women in manufacturing offer up their time to help train, support, and mentor those entering in the industry so that we can continue to help others with the potential to thrive.

“Above all, be fearless, brave and believe in yourself, no matter the challenge you’re taking on. Be confident, be kind to yourself and others, and take on every possible opportunity.”

Her colleague, Brown, added: “When I first moved from sales to manufacturing, I was overwhelmed by how much I’d have to learn. But I shouldn’t have been. At CCEP, I’ve been offered so many opportunities to upskill, both through formal training and from other team members. Everyone is open to both giving and receiving support and I’ve found that if you ask for it, you’ll always get it.
“As long as you’re willing to take the time to research a sector, work hard and learn new skills, the world is your oyster.”
“There are so many opportunities for women to get involved in manufacturing and so much room for progression. Never let false perceptions about gender or anything else get in the way of following your passions. I’d love to see more women discover and take up the challenge!”

Robertson, who has previously experienced imposter syndrome, also offered the reassurance that everyone doubts themselves.

“No one talks about it much,”​ she said, “but everyone experiences it.”

She added, “I think it's really important that you think about the circle of people that you engage with. You need cheerleaders!

Adding her two cents, Wilkinson said that “while you can have it all, you can’t do it all at once without burning out”, ​also offering comfort that it’s ok to ask for help.

“Be realistic on your expectations of yourself inside and outside of work,” she advised.

“Work on your inner confidence – there’s a lot of narrative out there about ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ when it comes to confidence and whilst there is a place for that, doing the work to really build your inner confidence is much more important – focusing on your strengths is a great place to start with this,” ​she continued.

Wilkinson also noted the importance of owning your own achievements and self-promotion.

“The number one issue I see with women struggling to progress in the industry is their lack of ability to own their achievements. So stop saying ‘it was a team effort’ and take credit where it’s due!”

Concluding, Copes added: “I personally do not think that succeeding in business is the same for everyone. So, for me succeeding is being able to align my purpose with my work, working with people that I like and respect, and making time for rest and joy. Also, important to me, is building community and continuing to learn, grow and evolve.”

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