The need to bring both voices to the table

Sonia Jabbar with nursery manager Lalita Sawria.

Although the situation is slowly improving, better engagement is still required to understand women’s needs and ensure they are being given the same opportunities as men and treated fairly within the tea industry.
By Anne-Marie Hardie

The story of women within the tea industry is a multifaceted one. Pockets of the industry continue to suffer from poverty, malnutrition, abuse and lack of education, with the primary victims being women and children. “Women are an integral part of the tea industry and are at the heart of tea communities. The industry’s future is reliant on women’s skills and expertise, but they are hugely under-represented in decision-making roles, face considerable challenges in reaching their potential and are vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination,” said Sarah Roberts, executive director, Ethical Tea Partnership. Slowly this story is being rewritten due to the combined efforts of several non-profit and NGO women-focused initiatives at the producer level and women in the Westernised world who have taken on leadership roles within the industry.

On a personal level, Roberts acknowledges that there are few female members in the industry who have achieved director level positions. “There are a lot of meetings where I’m the only women in the room,” she said. “However, perhaps due in part to the level of my position, I have not found that this is a barrier.” But the reception is slightly different in some of the supply origins that follow more of the traditional employment structures.

“There are times that they are not sure how to treat me, in part because I’m a woman and also because I haven’t run a tea estate, but they are still very respectful,” she shared.

Cindi Bigelow, chief executive officer, Bigelow Tea, Fairfield, Connecticut, said that it feels very natural to be a female in the tea industry. “It is an industry which is generally more inclusive,” said Bigelow. “When you think about the product itself, you often turn to the concept of sharing a cup with a loved one or taking a moment for yourself.” This does not mean that she hasn’t come across obstacles or what she called “head-scratching challenges” as a female executive, but she quickly shared that what defines you is not the obstacles but how you overcome them. The fact that she is female does not change the way that she navigates through the industry. “I operate the business as a leader, who just so happens, is female,” said Bigelow.

One of the advantages of being a woman in the industry, shared Shabnam Weber, president, Tea and Herbal Association Canada, Toronto, Ontario, is being able to look at challenges and opportunities from a different lens. “I am a big believer of men and women as equals, but we are not the same, and that is something that should be celebrated,” she said. Although there remains a lot of men in the room at conferences and workshops, this is slowly shifting. “Over the last 17 years, there have been huge improvements in the number of women involved in leadership roles in the industry, including younger women taking on more proactive roles,” said Weber. The conversation about both the challenges and opportunities for women in business, emphasised Weber, is not exclusively a tea conversation. “When you have a male/female combination, the conversation is often steered towards the male in the room,” she explained. “In fact, as women we half expect this to occur, and so we may try to compensate by being bigger and louder so that our voices are heard.”

Jennifer Commins, founder of Pluck Tea, Toronto, Ontario, aspires for a day where she will be recognised as an entrepreneur without the clause “female entrepreneur.” “It should be a non-issue, but there is no question that the tea industry continues to be heavily male-oriented,” she said. At times, it can feel like a bit of an “old boys club,” but Commins has identified a subtle shift with the growth of her company. Over the past few years, she has defined herself as an innovator in the industry, reinventing ingredient sourcing and the perception of tea within the hospitality and restaurant industry. However, when travelling, said Commins, there is no question that there are added challenges with being a woman in the industry. “From a personal safety standpoint, it has been recommended that I use brokers for certain tea-growing regions, as there are increased risks when travelling as a woman,” said Commins. She hopes that the positive tone towards women continues to grow and that women continue to be courageous and empowered to take on the critical roles within the industry.

The tea industry is an interesting one when it comes to gender, said Heather Kreilick, co-founder, Lake Missoula Tea Company, Missoula, Montana. In North America, it is mostly seen as a beverage for women, while in the rest of the world, particularly in the Eastern cultures, it is highly male-dominated. Due to this gender barrier, Kreilick has created a space where men can feel comfortable sitting around drinking tea. This includes an intimate tea bar where people come into the bar, order, and drink a cup of tea. “It is interesting to see how different cultures interact with tea,” she said. “We were extremely intentional not to make our space solely female-focused, we wanted to ensure that the other half was not ignored.”

Expanding Female Producer Opportunities

In the developing world, the experience for women within the tea industry is very different. In fact, it was when sourcing tea that Kreilick became acutely aware of the challenges that women face within the industry. “Now, it’s another criteria that I’m extremely conscious about,” she said. “It’s become a part of our culture to ask our sources about the women within their company, including promotion opportunities and whether they are paid equally.” Today, several of Lake Missoula Tea Company ingredients are sourced from women led organizations, including Sonia Jabber, fifth-generation owner of Nuxalbari Tea Estate in India.

For three generations, Nuxalbari Tea Estate in India, has been owned and operated by a female, a rarity there. “One is always a battling a very sexist environment in the tea industry,” said Sonia Jabber, the current owner. Previously a journalist, Jabber took the reins of the company when her mother was no longer able to do so. However, she wanted to do things a little differently, including being actively involved and engaged in the entire production and growth process. “Some of the managerial staff found it difficult to deal with me, often suggesting that I should return to Kolkata,” she said. She applied her science background and experience in the industry to help develop a more sustainable business. “It’s been a struggle but I’m happy to say that things have worked out quite well, we now have a really good partnership,” said Jabber.

She is committed to enhancing the lives of the workers within her estate including empowering women within her organisation to take on supervisory positions. “Although the tea industry is basically run by women workers, the tea garden unions fail to address the issue of women in these workers,” she explained. These challenges include malnutrition, poverty, health and safety concerns and balancing the responsibility of childcare. It is still common, she shared, for these tribal women to bring home their pay and have their male partner waste it on alcohol or drug abuse, leaving the women and her children in poverty.

To respond to this issue, Jabber advocated to an NGO woman’s organization that started a conversation with the Nuxalbari Tea Estate’s women workers, including developing self-health groups and teaching strategies to save money. Due to lack of funding, the support from this NGO organization was withdrawn, but the conversation among these women had already begun to make a positive impact.

These gender specific challenges within the tea industry have driven several key initiatives by the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) to forge partnerships between several NGOs and the ETP to make an impact in the lives of women within the producing countries. The extensive work on the Malawi 2020 Project has resulted in several key changes in the tea community including establishing clear policies to respond to gender and sexual harassment, improving literacy rates and educating thousands of women in farmer field schools, improving their overall crop and yields. “Having had the opportunity to visit many tea communities, I’ve seen first-hand the challenges women face moving into leadership roles,” said Roberts. “In a male dominated industry, women are seldom at the decision-making table. While this is changing and there are some important examples of good practice, I would like to see a far greater focus across the whole sector on making a more equal industry the norm.”

Thankfully, Roberts reported that the industry is changing quite rapidly for the better. Today, people are willing to talk about volatile issues, like sexual harassment and violence, that even five years ago, they would have brushed aside as not happening on their estate. “I would urge industry to adopt a forensic approach to ensure that women can realise the same opportunities as men and have a positive experience in the workplace,” she said. “There needs to be better engagement to understand women’s needs and what is stopping them from achieving their potential, then these barriers need to be dismantled. We want to see more empowered women benefitting from better incomes and reaching the top jobs. This should be the norm, not the exception, to ensure the longer-term sustainability of tea.”

Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: annemariehardie1@gmail.com.

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