When Debbie Robinson first entered the food industry in the early 1990s, it was rather different to the one she helps run today. “It was 100% male,” says the Central England Co-op’s CEO. “Page 3 calendars all over the walls. I didn’t know where to look. I’d be in a meeting room and there’d be 10 topless women on the wall.”

Her experience was far from unique. Caroline Cater, vice president of field sales at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), recalls travelling to an industry conference in the mid-1990s as the only woman on the coach. “It was a boys’ club, there’s no doubt about it,” she says.

Thirty years later and Page 3 calendars no longer exist (albeit a recent development), gender discrimination is less of an in-your-face affair, and statistically speaking, representation has largely improved. Almost 40% of UK FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women – up from 12.5% 10 years ago. The leader on this front is drinks giant Diageo, which has a 60% female board and  women in 37% of its leadership positions – better than any other FTSE 100 company. Across the food sector, female representation at board level was 30% in 2021, up 2.5% from two years before, according to IGD.

Things are improving outside board level, too. The retail sector has consistently registered some of the lowest pay gaps, and the gap across the supermarkets fell from 15% in 2017 to 7% in 2021. Traditionally male-dominated sectors such as haulage are seeing an increase in female representation, with women now making up 15% of applicants aged from 21 to 25, according to Logistics UK. Meanwhile, the percentage of women experiencing discrimination in wholesale fell from 57% in 2019 to 36% in 2021, according to Women in Wholesale survey.


of Sainsbury’s leadership positions are filled by women – the highest among British retailers

But as that relatively latter figure suggests, the problems haven’t been ironed out entirely. The same survey found nearly a third of women still face a “lack of respect” at work, while Ocado, Morrisons and Tesco have fewer women in top jobs than they did four years ago. Global supply chains exhibit particular inequality: Cocoa Life says female cocoa farmers earn up to 70% less than male ones in Ivory Coast, and about 30% less in Ghana.

Lack of balance

The truth is, the industry still has a way to go before it can consider itself truly equal even in the UK. Industry events are largely led by men and trade associations are still heavily male-dominated. The Association of Convenience Stores has 16 male members on its board versus four female. Dairy UK’s 12-person board contained just one woman.

Ten out of 11 executive team members for the Scotch Whisky Association are now men, since former CEO Karen Betts left to head the FDF. And the Road Haulage Association has 14 male board members versus one female director. The list of examples goes on and on.


of women in wholesale experienced gender discrimination in 2021, down from 57% in 2019

Representation at this level “is still not balanced”, says The Co-op’s Robinson. “There are a lot of people with a point of view and we’re just hearing one – the male version of that. There are a lot of fabulous men in the industry that do really brilliant jobs. But there are also a lot of women doing a lot of things quietly in the background.”

So why is it still so hard for women to trump decaying stereotypes and step into more powerful roles? “These barriers are deeply rooted,” explains Tea Colaianni, founder and chair of Diversity in Retail. “It’s all about society’s expectations and the role women have in the social economic construct. There is still a lot of conscious and unconscious bias.”

As the past few years have demonstated, necessity can be a powerful way of deconstructing this bias. With labour shortages reaching crisis levels last year, major players like CCEP and P&G have had to make an extra effort to ensure jobs were more attractive to a wider pool of talent.

CCEP’s Cater says supply chain roles are the trickiest area to recruit women due to the image of jobs like HGV driving. But she insists it is possible to break the myths as long as people “are able to see themselves in a role”.

This is where CCEP’s apprenticeship and graduate programmes play a huge part. The company has just welcomed 28 apprentices and graduates into the business, 40% of which are female and 60% male. Cater emphasises that it’s more than a “quick fix”, though. It’s not about saying “‘OK, let’s drop someone into that level to tick the box’, because if they do arrive and it’s a boys’ club and they don’t fit in, then they’ll go.” It’s easy to understand why. According to Logistics UK, only 1.2% of all UK drivers are female. So this International Women’s Day, logistics company Gist launched a campaign to showcase the female talent in its transport teams and help overcome gender bias in the haulage industry.


the profit margin at London-listed companies where at least 1/3 of leadership positions are women

P&G is similarly working to increase its female recruitment with initiatives ranging from inclusive advertising to providing education to young girls in countries like India and boosting equal paternal rights to support female growth in traditionally male-dominated cultures (its Bangkok plant, for instance, has now achieved 70% women on its leadership team).

These efforts are particularly important given that Covid has had a “disproportionate impact” on female workers due to factors such as higher levels of job loss and a greater likelihood of additional childcare responsibilities, a PwC study found. In light of these pressures, many employers are responding by offering more support and flexibility.

John Lewis, for example, is taking steps to become “the most inclusive in the industry, says Liz Mihell, John Lewis Partnership’s head of inclusion. That has included the introduction of an equal parental leave policy last year, blended working options to existing employees and flexible contracts to all new recruits. On the supply chain front, the retailer has joined forces with NGOs such as Better Cotton Initiative and the Fairtrade Foundation to ensure equal rights for farm workers.

Similarly, Sainsbury’s has signed up to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment across the supply chain. The supermarket regularly publishes gender-related data, and it encourages its suppliers to do the same through its Human Rights and Sustainable Sourcing policies.


The average amount earned by women for every £1 a man earns  at major British supermarkets

Meanwhile Selfridges has introduced a flexible sabbatical leave policy, whose applicants are 75% female. Asda is spearheading several long-term initiatives to support more women into senior roles, such as delivering unconscious bias awareness training for all managers and introducing a hybrid working model that allows head office colleagues to choose where they want to do their job.

And Boots will now cover the cost of hormone replacement therapy for employees in a major new initiative that aims to fight the “taboo” aspects of menopause.

These are just some examples of how organisations are looking beyond those “quick fixes” and instead baking diversity and inclusion into their overall strategy with clear targets, measurements and accountability. It’s become a vital way of  retaining talent against the backdrop of two years of high-stress, high-pressure, high-maintenance and, at times, highly abusive work environments.

All this work to help women reach the top should help address another substantial barrier to equality: visibility. As Co-op Food CEO Jo Whitfield puts it: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In her case, senior female colleagues have been a powerful force.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have great role models,” Whitfield says. “People I could look up to as examples of what great looked like, who were low-ego and wanted everyone to reach their potential. Their support gives you confidence in your own abilities and that in turn encourages more women to be themselves and seek more senior positions.”

That importance is increasingly being recognised through women-led groups. Whitfield is founder of Grocery Girls, a social enterprise focused on increasing female representation. It sits alongside an array of other groups like Women in Wholesale, Meat Business Women, Women in Transport, and Diversity in Grocery, to name a few.


of board positions at consumer and grocery companies are held by women – up 2.5% in the past two years

“I grew up in a business where they used to say women didn’t network,” Tesco CCO and newly-appointed Advertising Association president)Alessandra Bellini (our number one entry, right) wrote in a 2020 ‘Role Models in Consumer Goods and Grocery’ report.

Now, looking back, Bellini advises to “be kind to yourself and learn to ask for help. I always thought that whenever I had a problem or made a mistake, I had to solve it by myself. Socialise the problem; get everyone else to pitch in and help.” “I’ve made a point of reaching out and making friendships and building networks.”

That mantra also holds true when it comes to tackling the problem of gender inequality. At GroceryAid’s Diversity in Grocery event last October, JLP chair Sharon White opened up about the “challenging conversations” the company had held on gender equality, as well as all scopes of diversity & inclusivity.

“Discomfort is a real sign we’re making progress,” she said. White gets it. She is an Oxbridge alumnus and experienced civil servant who joined the Treasury in the 1990s when she was one of the “very few women, let alone from an ethnic minority background”, she recently told the BBC.


of major supermarkets will have female CEOs once Shirine Khoury-Haq takes over Co-op in May

Turning the dial

But in order for the dial to turn in 2022, it won’t just be up to women to spearhead efforts. Male leaders in the industry also need to start making diversity and inclusion their priority.

That’s already happening. Take Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts, one of the very few men sitting on the FTSE Women Leaders advisory board. He has made a conscious effort to make sure women are represented AT Sainsbury’s. According to its latest annual report, Sainsbury’s is the top-performing retailer in terms of female representation at leadership levels, with a combined 47.8% for executive committee and direct reports.

But Sainsbury’s doesn’t have to be the one successful industry case study. “There is nowhere to hide anymore,” says Diversity in Retail’s Colaianni. “Leaders who are not taking this seriously belong in the past.” This democratisation is opening the way for an unprecedented number of women to reach the top, and glass ceilings are being smashed across the sector.


of food and drink companies now have a formal strategy to improve representation

Despite the challenges and hurdles still to overcome, there is a general “let’s move forward kind of attitude”, sums up Susan Barratt, CEO of IGD. “We’ve got some leading companies within the industry who have been very creative in the way they’ve addressed this and we should very excited about that.”

The Co-op’s Robinson agrees. “We need to change the industry from the inside. Every article, every presentation, every conference and every event has to be representative. The industry will thrive, but we have to be our own conscience. And we mustn’t give up.”

The 10 most powerful women in food, drink and grocery