Leading the Charge to Level the Playing Field

Confronted by gender discrimination in her career, sommelier Rania Zayyat founded Lift Collective to make the industry a safer, more welcoming place for all

Leading the Charge to Level the Playing Field
Rania Zayyat harnessed her frustration with the sommelier world to help create more opportunities for others through her organization, Lift Collective. (Olive + West Photography)
Mar 8, 2021

Rania Zayyat has followed a similar career path as many other top wine-service professionals, earning accreditation from the Court of Master Sommeliers and serving at esteemed restaurants. Stints at Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and Award of Excellence winner June's All Day in Texas are just two of the feathers in her cap. But along the way, she’s had a drastically different experience than her male counterparts.

Gender discrimination seemed to permeate each stage of her journey, Zayyat says, whether through public slights like being ignored and interrupted during wine-tastings or blatant sexual harassment shrouded by fear of retribution. She was one of 21 women who shared their experiences in the New York Times’ explosive October 2020 article about master sommeliers manipulating, harassing and even assaulting the candidates they were supposed to guide up the career ladder; the revelations led the Court to suspend numerous members and ultimately restructure.

In 2018, Zayyat started Wonder Women of Wine (WWOW) to tackle inequality in the industry directly. Powered by a staff of volunteers, the organization launched its cornerstone event in March 2019. The two-day conference in Austin, Texas, drew more than 200 attendees and featured guest speakers like winemaker Cathy Corison, beverage director Victoria James of New York's Cote Korean Steakhouse and Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible.

WWOW was recently rebranded to Lift Collective, a move that Zayyat says was “to be more inclusive of all marginalized groups in wine, and to focus on community and collective efforts as we advocate for equality in the industry.”

Though Lift Collective’s second annual conference, originally an in-person event, was postponed by the pandemic, it has been rescheduled as a virtual event for March 23–24, 2021. Then on April 22, the organization will host its latest initiative, a virtual job fair called Be the Change. A collaboration with Diversity in Wine and Spirits and female wine pros Cara Bertone, Philana Bouvier and Lia Jones, the event is intended to foster inclusion in the industry, not just for women, but for everyone. The first Be the Change job fair took place Dec. 3 and welcomed hundreds of jobseekers for four hours of programming with employers committed to diversity. Hosted through the online job fair platform Brazen, the event featured panel discussions and virtual “booths” for each company, with one-on-one chat functions available to connect job seekers and recruiters.

The organization also offers scholarships for wine education and conference attendance, and conducted a gender equality survey released in September 2020 that will likely be updated annually. Among the key takeaways: Out of more than 550 wine-professional respondents, 61 percent of women said they believe that hiring in the industry is biased, and 73 percent of all respondents said they believe that career advancement is mostly based on relationships, rather than merit (Lift Collective solicited responses by offering a chance to win free a conference pass, and outlines the various limitations of the survey on its website).

In addition to overseeing Lift Collective, Zayyat is also wine director of Austin’s Bufalina Pizza and owns a wine-consulting business, Vintel, with partner Chris Kelly. The ambitious somm found time to chat with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans about what propelled her to take action, some signs of hope this year and what wine lovers can do to help.

Wine Spectator: What made you take that leap from being passionate about gender equality to launching your own organization?
Rania Zayyat: I really had the idea to start the organization on the heels of the Me Too movement. I was feeling very inspired by seeing groups of women together and sharing these collective stories and narratives about their experiences. As I was reflecting on my own story, I realized that there was a lot that I had experienced in the hospitality and the wine industry, and I really felt empowered to do something.

WS: Why start with a conference as WWOW’s first major initiative?
RZ: The idea for a conference came to mind very organically. I thought, “Wow, here I am maybe eight years into my wine career, and I feel like for the first time I have so many women that I find really inspiring, but I didn’t really know about when I was getting started.” I wanted a way to bring together all those voices and have a collective and safe place, and a platform where women could talk about these issues, and then also think about how we can start to find solutions for these problems. So it just felt like the way to create the biggest impact.

WS: What was the idea behind the Be the Change Job Fair?
RZ: We decided to create a virtual job fair that focused on diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] for all, not just limited to women. Because we know that the conversation about equality has really expanded beyond just women, and we really need to make an effort to be part of that conversation. So we felt like creating a job fair with an initiative and a mission to get companies to sign on to bringing in the DEI conversation to their business is really important. And also giving candidates a safe space to apply and work with companies that are committed to those changes is really important.

WS: Were there any results from your organization’s gender equality survey that particularly shocked you?
RZ: The fact that women feel like they don’t necessarily understand their opportunities to increase their income and how to negotiate, that’s something that I feel like we’ve kind of always talked about, but it was really solidified in that study. And then also the idea that moving your way up in the industry is more relationship-based than it is merit-based, which we know can be a big issue for women, especially with lack of mentorship, and how men naturally have had more access to mentors.

WS: How do you incorporate men into your mission?
RZ: That is something that we’re still figuring out. It’s been a part of the conversation since the beginning. There are a lot of great male allies out there for sure, but I still feel like a lot of the conversation with men has been “Are we welcome to participate in your event and these initiatives and programs? How do we become allies?” So it’s been sort of an uphill battle, and I think that as we diversify our programming and our messaging to be more inclusive, not just of women but the whole diversity spectrum, that that shift is going to happen naturally and we will naturally get a more diverse group of allies. So I hope, and certainly think, that men will be part of that.

WS: What do you say to those men in the industry asking how they can be allies?
RZ: I definitely think that they need to nurture the career development of women they work with. Learn how to become mentors to women, not just to men. Make sure that women have equal speaking opportunities at meetings, that their ideas are represented as their own, that they’re getting credit for the ideas that they bring to the table.

If somebody says something that’s inappropriate, call that person out and let’s have a conversation about that, because so many of these issues happen behind closed doors. And it’s that acceptance of those types of behaviors behind closed doors that I think makes people feel like that’s OK when you’re in front of a larger group or in more of a public setting. So it really starts with personal accountability, and then also accountability for the people in your immediate circle.

WS: What are some signs of progress you’ve seen recently?
RZ: Some of the scholarships that we’ve awarded have been really positive for some of the recipients … This year particularly, we’ve seen a lot more conversation around inequities. It’s not just about us; we’re part of a greater mission, and I feel like there’s been a lot of signs of hope this year with all these new organizations starting that are tackling all sorts of issues in the industry. Knowing that now there is this really great network of professionals who are all supporting each other and supporting everyone’s initiatives, pooling our resources, collaborating together, that to me is the biggest sign of improvement. Just being able to work with other organizations to further this greater mission, to me, it’s been the most rewarding part of this.

WS: What can the average wine consumer do to help promote equality in the industry?
RZ: Consumers have a big role to play in this conversation. Demanding and requesting more diversity in wine programs when you’re dining out, when you’re shopping for wine at a retail shop or online, really trying to figure out who’s making the wine and who’s behind the production, what is the story, I think that’s really important. People are definitely starting to support more women winemakers this year, but there are still a lot of black-owned wineries that need that same support. Supporting diversity with our dollars is the best way that consumers can be a part of it.

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