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International Women’s Day: How these three whisky advocates are inspiring inclusion

Issue Date: 8 March 2024

This year’s International Women’s Day focuses on inspiring inclusion. To acknowledge the day, three inspiring woman who work at Gordon & MacPhail across three completely different disciplines, who are all part of the company’s leadership team, have spoken about what more can be done to #InspireInclusion. Read on to find out how early education into whisky, having positive role models and shining a light on the range of careers available in the industry might help. 

Woman in distillery

Mhairi Winters joined The Cairn as Distillery Manager two years ago. Her role sees her manage a team of three. Together they manage the raw materials and specifications for our malts and make sure our products are of the highest quality.

“Early education needs to be at the heart of making the step change to encourage more women to think about a career in whisky.”

“My passion for whisky started when I was a student and working a summer job at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience. The people I worked with were so inspiring; their whisky knowledge unapparelled. Their enthusiasm and passion for the product made me want to learn more. I was studying Medicinal and Biological Chemistry at the time, but I swiftly changed my course to Brewing and Distilling. You could say the rest is history!

“Much of the whisky making process at The Cairn is automated, with my team and I charged with monitoring the process, making adjustments, and ensuring consistency, efficiency and spirit quality are maintained. I think there is still a preconception that our roles consist of heavy, manual labour. It couldn’t be further from the truth. While much of my day-to-day is making sure the distillery is functioning as it should be and being responsible for the raw materials through to the spirit leaving the site, there’s no physical barrier for woman who may be considering a career in distilling.

“There’s also so much more that makes up my role; from team appraisals, to managing maintenance works, keeping up to date about the latest technology and how efficient we are at making our product.  I’m also chairing our environmental committee to develop sustainability plans to align with the Scottish Government’s Net Zero targets, which is an exciting focus for the future of the industry.

“Industry perceptions around certain roles need to change. It’s also about young people, both men and woman, having more knowledge of what industry roles are available to them.

“Spreading awareness to the next generation has to be at the heart of making this step change to encourage young people to think about a career in whisky. This could start right from primary school all the way through to school and university leavers looking for their next pathway. In my experience of attending careers fairs, whisky isn’t normally on young people’s, especially women’s, radars, unless a family member already works in the industry. This might not be a huge surprise as whisky is an industry which is traditionally viewed as having more men than women work in it. Being a girl has never held me back and it shouldn’t hold others back either.

“Across my career, I’ve certainly not seen a lack of women in the industry, but I have seen an imbalance in certain roles. Distillery operators and shift workers mainly. Since 2009 I’ve only interviewed two women for such roles. If they’re not applying, I’m constantly thinking about how we can change this.

“We run distillery days at The Cairn which sees colleagues working for Gordon & MacPhail  in other roles come and visit us to better understand the distilling process should they be interested in applying for future roles or expanding their knowledge.

“At Gordon & MacPhail we support the Developing the Young Workforce initiative. This sees us visit schools to speak to young people, manage visits from secondary students and offer a mentoring scheme paired with a four-week apprenticeship.

“We recently welcomed a group of high school biology students to The Cairn to learn about the science behind whisky making. We spoke about enzymes, fermentation, effluent and ecology.  It was wonderful to see their enthusiasm for what we’re doing and expose them to something completely new. It would be lovely to think we may have inspired a future distiller within the group!

“Speaking to young people doesn’t always need to focus on the production, there’s so much more that can be spoken about, from taking whisky tours, taking on a customer facing role in a visitor centre or working to ensure the books are balanced in the finance team.  The key thing is starting to work with kids in schools, so it becomes an option for them.

“I’ve also recently become a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) ambassador which means I can access different learning materials and activities which we can roll out as part of our school’s engagement activities. It also enables those interested in my role or industry to reach out to find out more. It’s a collaborative platform I hope we can use more and more.

“A person needs to be chosen for a role based on their knowledge and skills for the job at hand. With a passion for whisky and for helping to inspire the next generation of whisky experts, I hope some of the work we do can inspire more women into roles in the industry that they might not have otherwise thought about doing.” 

Portrait of woman

Susan Colville has worked with Gordon & MacPhail for 10 years, initially as Brand  Home Manager running the visitor centres and more recently as Senior Visitor Experience Manager which sees Susan look after the Benromach and The Cairn visitor experience

“My dad worked in the industry, as does my husband, so you could say it’s in my blood. But studying French certainly paved the way for my whisky journey.”

“My whisky journey started when I turned 18 when I worked as a whisky tour guide. I was studying French and business studies at university, so taking whisky tours was a great way to practice the language with visiting French tourists. I had every intention of being a French teacher but growing up in Speyside and with my dad working in the industry, I believe I was always destined to work in it too.

“I initially worked in whisky export sales which involved travelling overseas and working with customers, doing cask selection, going to fairs and tastings. As fate would have it, I met my husband when working at a whisky fair in Glasgow. He also worked in the industry. It was when we decided to move back to Speyside ten years ago and that I started my role as Brand Home Manager and running the Benromach visitor centre.

“What’s exciting about my new role is that I get to build out my team and I’m excited that I’ve now got three assistant managers, two of whom happen to be female, supporting each visitor centre. My day-to-day can range from managing budgets, to supporting my managers and focusing on our strategic aims for our visitor centres.

“In the last decade, there’s certainly more women than even before working for our company and more females in senior roles which is really refreshing for young women considering getting into the industry.

“Flexible working has paved the way for a different way of working for the entire world and the whisky industry is no exception. The industry is steeped in tradition, but this new way of working has modernised how we work for the better. For working mums like me, it could open up opportunities for women to consider that possibly didn’t exist before.

“There’s always more that can be done and Gordon & MacPhail’s commitment to working with schools to support the Developing the Young Workforce initiative is testament to this. It’s a platform for our teams to share our career journeys with pupils and to demonstrate that there are many pathways in which to join the industry.

“During a recent visit to my daughter’s school, I spoke to primary seven pupils about how we use maths in our day-to-day working life at Gordon & MacPhail. During the Q&A session many of the girls were keen to know how they can get into the whisky industry. It goes to show there’s an appetite for more information.

“My whisky career has expanded beyond my 9-5 too. I led the project group that hosted the Whisky Festival opening dinner at the Benromach visitor centre. We had to get 600 people sat down for a 3-course meal which was challenging but we received fantastic feedback.

“I’ve also previously been named Whisky Magazine's Global Visitor Centre manager of the Year and knowing that colleagues across the industry had voted for me was really touching. I’ve also been inducted into the Keepers of the Quaich which is a real privilege.

“The whisky industry is as exciting as it is wide ranging. There really is something for every skillset you can imagine. Even all these years later, I still help with whisky tours when we have French visitors and it’s something I’ll always love doing.” 

Woman on beach

Jade Crotty has been with Gordon & MacPhail for four years and is Head of Compliance and Infrastructure and part of the company’s leadership team. It’s Jade’s first role in the whisky industry having worked for most of her career in the oil and gas industry.

“Positive role models are crucial for inspiring the next generation.”

“Unlike others who might have worked in the whisky industry their entire careers, I joined the industry after many years of doing similar roles in another and completely different one. I like to think that brings fresh ideas and perceptive to the fold as a result.

“It was my degree in mechanical engineering that led me to work in oil and gas at the start of my career. The industry is traditionally seen as a male dominated one, similar to whisky, and in my 20+ years of working in the sector, I was proactive as an ambassador for gender equality as a woman in a senior leadership position within the industry.   

“Regardless of industry, I believe that there needs to be positive role models who are visible in the industry to inspire the next generation. A current ongoing study being carried out by Heriot Watt University on Gender Equality in Mechanical Engineering highlighted that there's not enough women choosing to study mechanical engineering and one contributory reason is because there's a lack of positive role models out there.

“It’s also known that there’s only a small window in which to encourage young people to consider an engineering career, normally before they’re 12, so being able to inspire our next generation early in their educational journey, whether that be in engineering or whisky, is really important.

“As a Chartered Mechanical Engineering, one of the ways I support this theory is acting as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Ambassador. I’ve also acted as a mentee previously for engineers working towards their Chartership and it brings me great joy that some of those I’ve mentored have gone on to progress their careers to a senior level and become role models for younger generations and are now mentors themselves.

“With the focus of my role on ensuring we’re complying with health and safety and environmental and sustainability changes; I love how varied each of my days are. One day I can be helping to visit the sites where new warehouses are going to be built, doing routine health and safety audits, or preparing a site for a regulatory inspection.

“As a company, we’re motivated to get the next generation to consider working in the industry but my journey into whisky really is testament that it’s never too late to consider it.”