NBWA’s Kim McKinnish interview with NBC News about BREW

Sept. 8, 2021, 7:20 AM EDT

By Halley Bondy

Over the course of her 25-year career in the beer and alcohol industry, Heineken USA’s CEO Maggie Timoney has often been the only woman in the room while rising the ranks of the alcoholic beverage industry.

And now, Timoney, and her peers, are making moves to level the playing field.

“I think it is incumbent upon us to be allies for young women coming up to help them believe in themselves, to help them put themselves forward and not take crap from people,” she told Know Your Value.

Timoney became the company’s first woman CEO in 2018 and has announced a commitment to increasing gender diversity in Heineken USA and in the alcohol beverage sector at large. On Sept. 8, Heineken released a white paper that addressed disparities within the industry, with a focus on garnering more female talent.

Alcohol, a traditionally male-dominated, trillion-dollar global industry has plenty of opportunities for women, Timoney said, and yet it lags behind when it comes to gender diversity.

A McKinsey 2020 Women in the Workplace report found that women represent 21 percent of the entire C-suite across industries, while just 10 percent of C-suite roles in the food and beverage distribution sector are made up of women. At Heineken, women represent 30 percent of senior management roles. Under their diversity initiative called “Behind the Label,” Heineken’s current goal is to inch that percentage up to 40.

Women of course enjoy beer. Yet, representation in the C-suite does not reflect this.

“We sell products that are usually there when you’re celebrating people and celebrating a moment. We don’t just bring men together. We bring people together. So, why can’t we attract people in our industry who are diverse and can help drive our business performance?” Timoney posed. “We know that we need diverse people at the table in order to win. We need them to add value to the conversation.”

As part of the white paper, Heineken USA interviewed 13 female employees across different roles in the industry. Timoney said the most important takeaways included a need for better women recruitment strategies, more work flexibility and more allyship opportunities within alcohol and beverage companies.

“It wasn’t easy in those early times when I felt my voice was not heard,” said Timoney. “When I think about the other young, diverse talent coming behind me, it is my responsibility to give them their voice. I wouldn’t want an advisor. I would want an ally. I want someone in my corner fighting for me.”

Points of entry into the centuries-old alcohol industry has often eluded women in the past, according to Kim McKinnish, SVP and CFO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, a nonprofit trade organization. For a long time, even sales employees would get their start by moving heavy kegs or by driving trucks, which in many cases, was a physical barrier to women. In addition, men in the C-suite typically stay in their positions for decades, leaving little room for women recruits or promotions, McKinnish said.

“Now there are opportunities that include brand managers, event leaders, or any sort of management role that has less of a physical requirement,” said McKinnish, who entered the beverage industry as an accountant. “Distributors value gender diversity and they know it leads to a more cohesive and productive environment … I think it’s important in every industry to have gender equality. For the beer industry, we’ve said maybe it was a late adopter, not because women couldn’t do it, but because it evolved to be male-dominated.”

Recently there has been a heightened focus on addressing gender diversity throughout the industry, beyond Heineken. Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO of gender diversity organization, Women of the Vine & Spirits, said that companies are focusing on diversity more than ever, in part due to recent events including #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Covid-19. The Brewers Association’s Black is Beautiful campaign, is attempting to recruit and nurture Black talent in the industry.

“Stakeholders are asking companies about their diversity and inclusion plans,” Brenner said. “It’s not just about being the right thing to do, it’s about employee innovation and creativity. It’s about the bottom line.”

A few years ago, the NBWA launched an initiative called Building Relationships and Empowering Women (BREW), featuring an annual convention and networking opportunities for women.

Allison Kafalas, who as director of food and beverage for Hilton Americas curates product selection throughout the company’s hotels, said that, while the beverage industry remains male-dominated, she is seeing many changes on the corporate level. She recently underwent diversity and inclusion training, and she just returned from a three-month maternity leave. She didn’t receive any paid leave for her first child at a different food and beverage job earlier in her career.

“It was a night/day experience. I’m happy to see all the advancements taking place in that regard,” Kalafas said. “With Covid and the increase of flexibility in where you work, how you work, all of that, it’s been beneficial for me as a mother and wife.”

McKinnish said she is seeing the difference every day.

“I’ve never dealt with as many women as I’ve dealt with now in my career. It’s amazing,” said McKinnish. “I’m guessing that five years down the road there will be much more equality in terms of women in the industry.”

To continue increasing gender diversity, active recruitment of women all over the corporate ladder will be necessary, said Brenner.

“There’s a broken rung in the middle. People are recruited, and then they see that the culture does not support them, and they leave. Replace senior roles. Bring in new thinking,” Brenner said. “Promotions need to happen from within, and also from out of the company. There needs to be a balance.”

Further, more companies need to come forward with strong messages and commitments.

“It’s become a competitive advantage,” said Brenner. “Heineken put out a stake and said ‘we will have this many women by this date.’ It sends a message across the industry to make such a bold commitment to the public. Hopefully that will encourage others to be so bold.”

This article originally appeared on NBC News.