Are bar operations losing too much talent to brands and does that disproportionately impact female representation in leadership positions, asks Anna Sebastian

It feels that every couple of months a post pops up on social media announcing the departure of another talented female bartender leaving to go to work for a brand.   

And while the bartender-to-brand career move seems to disproportionately involve women, it is far from gender exclusive. In fact research suggests only a quarter of those that work in operations are over 30, giving weight to the perception that bartending is a young person’s job. Because women make up a minority of the bar workforce, this leak of talent has a greater impact on women’s progression in operations, if not in the brand world. 

In the absence of data on this trend, I conducted a poll via the Celebrate Her Instagram page just to see if others had observed the same. While it should be said that the vast majority of respondents were women, more than 80% of them were of the impression women were more likely to leave for brand roles than men.  

So when we look at the imbalance of our industry, at the shortage of women in leadership positions, this brain drain has to be part of the problem. But why does it exist at all? 

Pippa Guy and Jo Last, two incredibly talented bartenders, moved from The Savoy to look after brands with Diageo in the last couple of years. “The first Covid lockdown gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I wanted to get out of my life and set some new goals,” Guy explains. “I had been working so hard the years leading up to it I had missed so many birthdays and family occasions and I simply decided I needed more life in my work/life balance while staying as close to the industry as I could.” 

It’s a familiar tale. Many staff in operations are sick of missing out on personal moments in their life due to the inflexibility of scheduling, last-minute rotas and being guilt-tripped into covering shifts.  

Charlotte Baker meanwhile, was working in Milroy’s bar in Soho this year when she was headhunted by Diageo to become the Talisker ambassador. She was not looking to move and loved her role in operations but struggled to see a career path behind the bar. 

“I was ridiculously happy at my bar but I knew moving would aid my career,” she says.   

This is no slight on brands recruiting bartenders, nor bartenders taking up the roles they are offered. It makes perfect sense to recruit talent from a pool of people with a diverse skill set and ready-made brand knowledge. And let’s not forget that in categories such as whisky, brands have their own job to do to change perceptions around gender. But none of this helps operations. 

Nicola Sykes, formerly of Dandelyan and Satan’s Whiskers and now the Maker’s Mark diplomat, suggests that gender personality traits may also come into play: “There tends to be generally less ego/arrogance [among women]” she says. “I think it also depends on the brand, for Maker’s for example there is a strong female connection due to us having a female co-founder and we are heavily female led at the distillery but we are really proud to hire purely on personality and attitude.”  

Biological clock

The other big reason for women leaving operations, is to start families. In my career I have only ever seen one female bartender rock out a shift while pregnant. While I might not personally want children, I can see how unaccommodating this industry can be for those who do.   

“Women have a biological clock that we are constantly poked about and have hanging over our heads from an early age,” says Bea Bradsell, a former bartender and now on-trade project manager for
The Drink Cabinet. “From our 30s we have to start making plans, even if that is a decision to not start a family. A timeline has to be set and if you’re making a life plan you may as well include a more accommodating career.”   

It feels as if the bar world needs to take a moment to look beyond this week’s rota and think bigger and long term. People leaving operations at a certain age – regardless if this disproportionately impacts women – is a symptom of short-term thinking and the undervaluing of talent. 

Some serious questions need to be asked: how do we retain, grow and develop talent to keep people in the business? How do we improve working conditions, flexibility of hours, job security and pay? These are difficult questions to answer, but if my Instagram survey is anything to go by, they are the questions that need answering.  

Respondents to my poll said the lack of flexible hours was the biggest drawback of service, with 45% citing this as the thing that needs to change most; 26% thought help with childcare costs would be most helpful and 26% said paid maternity (beyond statutory) would be the best way of supporting females in operations.  

But what of those rare unicorns of the industry who have stayed the distance in operations? Keila Urzaiz de Calignon from Satan’s Whiskers and formally Artesian says she has remained in operations for the service and hospitality element: “Although I have been working in the drinks industry for over 10 years, what appeals to me isn’t the booze but the service itself. Some people feel passionate about spirits or flavours, but to me that’s just a tool, an experience I deliver to a guest. The challenge of serving a room full of people is what I find fascinating about this job; every day is always different."  

Urzaiz de Calignon doesn’t believe the question should pivot around whether women are leaving operations more than men, but on why those in service feel the need to leave at all. “It isn’t about keeping women, it is about creating a safe working space where your staff feel valued and respected regardless of their gender or personal circumstances. If you do things right as an employer, your staff will want to stick with you.”  

On a personal level, I left operations because I felt there weren’t enough opportunities to develop and learn. And while many flourish in brand life, when I made the move I found it wasn’t for me. The grass wasn’t greener, but probably it speaks volumes that I haven’t jumped straight back into operations, instead working for myself as a consultant.   

What’s clear is that as the world changes, so must bars. We are in the midst of a recruitment crisis, with the bar industry struggling to attract talent, let alone retain it – long, inflexible hours, poor pay and little job security are the major contributing factors. 

Being ‘fun’ isn’t enough anymore. Expectations are different to how things were 10-20 years ago, when people were just happy to have a job. The needle has shifted and the power is moving to the employee and away from the employer – the best of them realise this and are adapting. 

The calls for working flexibility, allowing for time for a personal life, must be answered. Investment through training and development must follow. For women, more should be done to accommodate maternity and the promotion of family life. If we can’t give those in service more money, we must at least give them a better quality of life. If we can address all that, we’ll stem the brain drain to brands and more generally out of our industry. And who knows, we might even see more women in leadership positions in bar operations.