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Caroline Buisson on Gender Equity and Women in Travel Retail

26 Apr 2024 12:00 PM | Anonymous

Introduction by: Peter Marshall

“By advocating gender equality, we can create a more equitable and diverse industry for future generations”. Caroline Buisson is Senior Global Account Manager at Brown-Forman and this quote from the interview that follows will resonate deeply within  Travel Retail. The interview itself is wide ranging and covers Brown-Forman’s own employee resource group – GROW (Growing Real Opportunities for Women) – as well as the important role  that WiTR+ provides.

Peter Marshall (PM):  Caroline, welcome to Now, you’ve been working in the spirits business in a variety of roles since 2009. I think we can agree that, historically, the spirits and liquor sector has been a very male-dominated business. With this in mind, how do you feel the positive contributions of female professionals have changed and developed over the years?

Caroline Buisson (CB): From my point of view, the spirits industry has undergone significant transformation, with more recognition given to the positive contributions of female professionals. At Brown-Forman, I’ve witnessed a shift towards greater gender diversity, reflected in the increasing number of women in leadership roles within our Global Travel Retail team. This trend indicates a broader cultural change within the industry, fostering an environment where women are valued for their expertise and contributions.

PM:  So what has been your personal experience here?

CB: I’ve experienced an evolving landscape within the spirits industry, where opportunities for women are expanding. Initiatives like our partnership with Women in Travel Retail+ (WiTR+) have provided platforms for women to thrive and advance in their careers. Also, our Brown-Forman employee resource group GROW, which stands for Growing Real Opportunities for Women, contributes to this. As more companies prioritize diversity and inclusion, I’m optimistic about the continued progress and empowerment of female professionals in our industry.

PM: Can you identify how female employees are now being more appreciated and acknowledged by their companies? And do you think the gender pay gap is narrowing?

CB: I think the first big step has been taken with the introduction of initiatives like mentorship programs, resource groups, and networking opportunities. You can also see how important they are by the fact that male colleagues feel excluded if they are not invited. So the tide is turning. A good example of this is that the WiTR initiative has added a plus to its name to signal that everyone is welcome to contribute to the goals of the initiative, regardless of gender. I would say that the gender pay gap remains a concern, but efforts to narrow it are underway, reflecting a commitment to equitable compensation practices. Companies are recognizing the value of diversity and inclusion, not only for fostering a positive work environment but also for driving innovation and business success. Studies also prove the positive aspect of a diverse and inclusive company on innovation and success.

PM:  So in what areas of the business is there still room for improvement? I guess board representation is a starting point.

CB: Achieving gender balance at the highest levels of leadership is essential for fostering diverse perspectives and driving meaningful change within organizations. By prioritizing inclusivity in governance structures and leadership development programs, companies can create environments where all employees feel valued and empowered to contribute to their fullest potential.

PM: Moving on, you’ve been in Travel Retail with Brown-Forman for almost 7 years now. Tell us more about the company’s commitment to gender equity, for example, the Brown-Forman Employee Resource Group GROW  – Growing Real Opportunities for Women. How does this initiative work and what benefits have you personally and your female colleagues gained?

CB: Initiatives like GROW provide valuable resources and support networks for women within our organization. It is a cross-national group that meets at regular intervals and is chaired by a member of the Leadership Team. Everybody within our corporation is invited to join the group. Of course, there are fixed dates on which the group is active externally, such as most recently on International Women’s Day where the third consecutive year of the HerStory panel in celebration of Women’s History Month was presented. There was for instance a conversation highlighting a panel of women, working at Brown-Forman from around the world and the work they’ve done to champion inclusion, instill a sense of belonging, and inspire empowerment.

While some of my female colleagues, including myself, have been members of the WiTR+ initiative for some time, Brown-Forman recently signed up for a corporate partnership with WITR+. By doing so, we’re ensuring that all our female GTR team become members of WiTR+ and have access to networking events and opportunities for professional development, furthering our commitment to supporting women’s advancement in Travel Retail.

PM: Brown-Forman is a full corporate partner of WiTR+ and actively encourages TR employees to join and participate. What are the current corporate partner numbers and what actions is WiTR+ taking to further encourage other companies to take up corporate partnership?

CB: Since we signed up for corporate partnership, almost 40 female members now have access to the WiTR+ services. The WiTR+ membership offers year-round events providing access to networking opportunities throughout the year, facilitating industry connections; but also webinars providing access to a diverse range of topics, including “Unconscious bias in the workplace,” “How to Succeed as a Female Executive in the Middle East“. Additionally, the WiTR+ membership offers access to a private members area, a member database, and a wealth of resources including industry-specific data and research. Finally, members benefit from a dedicated jobs board, industry communication, newsletters, and support for fundraising initiatives. WiTR+ aims to inspire more organizations to embrace gender equality and become active participants in advancing women’s representation and empowerment in the industry. WiTR+ now has 14 corporate partners and the number is growing every month. Every single member is an ambassador for these goals and we are naturally delighted to welcome every new member.

PM:  In your recent interview on International Women’s Day (March 8th) you mentioned Brown-Forman’s sponsorship of future events during 2024. It’s May now, so what can you reveal to us?

CB: In June we are co-sponsoring a networking event with other partners at a restaurant in Paris. We will share more details in the coming months.

PM:  Now, WiTR+ has been running a series of webinars for members in recent months. What topics have been covered and how successful have they been?

CB: WiTR+’s webinars cover a broad range of topics. Last month, for example, there was a webinar on the topic of unconscious bias in the workplace. And a few months before, there was another webinar about Women in the workplace from an HR Perspective with Dubai Duty Free Senior Vice President Human resources Mona Al Ali.

These webinars have enjoyed robust participation, typically drawing an average of 70 attendees per session. The highest attendance recorded reached 110 individuals, indicating a strong level of interest and engagement among WiTR+ members. It’s worth noting that these sessions are recorded, allowing members to access them for viewing at their convenience, thus extending their reach and impact beyond the live events. This ensures that valuable insights and discussions are accessible to a broader audience within the WiTR+ community.

PM: Of course, we are all aware of the networking and associated fundraising activities of WiTR+ at key trade shows and conferences. But outside the mainstream international events, what other events and networking take place on a regional level?

CB: Outside mainstream international events like TFWA, WiTR+ hosts national gatherings initiated by steering committee members. For instance, in Europe, there are several events planned for 2024. These include one already hosted at Diageo headquarters in London in February 2024, featuring discussions on sustainability in retail. Events such as conferences remain prime opportunities to bring together women from various countries due to the very nature of the GTR industry. These gatherings offer opportunities for members to network, share insights, and discuss pertinent industry topics.

PM: Fundraising also lies at the heart of the WiTR+ ethos and the group has made significant donations to many outstanding and life-changing charities over the years. Can you briefly give us an overview of the charities that have been supported and the level of fundraising achieved?

CB: WiTR+ has been actively supporting various charity projects over the past 11 years, with each year dedicated to raising funds for a specific cause. In recent years, WiTR+ has supported impactful initiatives such as the Koma Karanth Foundation in 2023, the Hope Foundation in 2022, and ImpactHK in both 2021 and 2020. These projects aim to protect vulnerable children in Kolkata, support homeless women in Hong Kong, and build homes for impoverished families in the Philippines. This year we are raising money for the FRASI Bike to School initiative, providing bicycles for children who may otherwise walk long distances to get to school each day, sometimes in unsafe conditions.

WiTR+’s fundraising efforts have resulted in significant contributions to these causes, demonstrating its commitment to making a positive difference in communities worldwide. It is wonderful to see that the donations raised last year more than doubled our fundraising goal. In previous years, the donations raised were also often above our target.

PM: What then are the criteria employed when selecting a charity to merit WiTR+ support?

CB: All projects aim to address critical issues ranging from education and healthcare to homelessness of females and social welfare.

The criteria for selecting charities to receive WiTR+ support include possessing a valid charity registration number, proposing tangible projects with a budget not exceeding €15,000. 

Annually, WiTR+ members nominate charities, and eligible proposals are presented for a membership vote. 

PM:  Do you have your personal favourite of the charities WiTR+ has supported over the years, and why?

Every project is equally important and every support for people in need makes a great difference. Speaking as a mother of two children of my own, the protection of vulnerable children is particularly close to my heart.

PM: If the Steering Committee had a key message to communicate to the GTR industry, what would it be?

CB: Everyone’s efforts are needed to create a fairer and more inclusive industry that benefits all stakeholders. The great advantage of the GTR sector is the global network, which integrates cultures from all over the world. Let the global travel retail world be a pioneer that inspires other sectors worldwide.

PM: And one last question, Caroline, do you think this interview will help your career and gain further rapid promotion within Brown-Forman?

CB: While career progression is important, my focus remains on driving positive change and fostering an inclusive culture within the wider industry. By advocating for gender equality, we can create a more equitable and diverse industry for future generations.

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