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Gender in the food and beverage industry: a changing landscape

A key part of job satisfaction is finding the work that you do engaging and meaningful. However, this widely understood concept is, unfortunately, so rarely realized.

Dame Fiona Kendrick, for one, can count herself among the lucky ones. At the beginning of her career, faced with a number of offers, she decided to join Nestlé because, amongst other reasons, she could relate to the company’s products. “You have to find work that really interests you if you are going to enjoy it, be good at it, and ultimately find it fulfilling.”

Last year, after 40 years with the company, where she reached the post of Chairman& CEO for Nestlé UK and Ireland, she stepped down and now has several non-executive director roles. Today, as part of Agribriefing’s Women in Food and Agriculture initiative, she shares with Flexnews the lessons and perspectives acquired over four decades at the world’s biggest food company.

Gender in the food and beverage industry: a changing landscape

Her early years at Nestlé began in sales and marketing roles, but eventually saw her climb the ladder, driven by a firm belief that it was up to her to create her own career path. Following roles in Nestlé’s food business and their out-of-home business, she went on to become MD of the beverage business and finally achieved the role of head of the global Coffee Business Unit in Nestlé HQ in Switzerland. It was the job she had always aspired to “It was challenging moving the entire family over there at the age of 50, with a husband and teenage boys, however it turned out to be a fantastic move for both myself and the family, we had the most amazing 5 years”.

She came back to Britain to take up the position of Chairman and CEO of Nestlé UK and Ireland at a time when there were few women at that level either in Nestlé or indeed the Food and Agriculture sector. Of course, this wasn’t the first time she had found herself the only woman at the table; the corporate world in her youth was a much less diverse place, she recalls “Through my 20’s and 30’s it was much more male-dominated, no question.”

But, Fiona says, it wasn’t all bad; while men were the majority, there was plenty of space for women to shine, to bring their own unique perspectives, and to stand out. Fiona didn’t feel that there were any explicit roadblocks, but did acknowledge that an environment with mainly men required that she make a conscious effort to put herself forward. “Yes, I felt I had to work harder, make sure that I found my own voice. In meetings, I spoke up, I found I had to be more proactive to be noticed.” As a woman, you might have to take a bit more risk, she says, but make sure you are well prepared and don’t be afraid to take the initiative. “That is what I believe in and what I have done.”

“Through my 40’s and 50’s there were definitely more females coming in. I think the food and agriculture sector is really attractive to females, as they often find they have an association with the products in that market. What we did see at Nestlé were more females applying for graduate positions”. Her view is that this is not uncommon given their interest in food.

On the question of intrinsic motivation and capabilities, of course, it is a level playing field: “Women start their careers with the same level of intelligence, education, commitment and perseverance as men.” In some cases, women [and indeed men] don’t have the ambition to climb to the top of the corporate ladder—and that’s fine, if that is their choice. In other cases women take time out to have children, returning from maternity leave often in a part-time or job-share arrangement. When the company is accommodating and flexible, in Fiona’s experience, they return to take up their career with renewed enthusiasm and commitment.

“I do genuinely think [the workplace situation] is improving, I see more women in senior positions, I see companies being more flexible in finding working environments that are more accommodating—and let’s remember it is not just women, but increasingly men who require this flexibility.”

Indeed, she expects that by the time the next generation are in senior roles, the workplace will be a different place. “The next generations will demand the changes. They won’t have to push changes themselves; instead, this will be the norm”.

Attitudes or behaviours creating obstacles

While there might have been certain unhelpful, even sexist attitudes and behaviours years ago, Fiona doesn’t think this is the case anymore. “I think now more than ever, the world is their oyster. There are great opportunities out there, and they need to grasp them, be confident and have the courage to act on them. The idea of it being a man’s world has long gone.”

In her view companies recognise the skills and attributes women bring at all levels, including in the boardroom. “There are many facts and stats about the positive impact women have on boards and how those companies perform. So, I think some of those skills that people recognise at board level are relevant and important at all levels. Women are typically more inclusive, supportive, more flexible and have higher emotional intelligence, and are great team builders. If I look across all the functions, I would say sales, plus the technical functions, are still today more male-oriented, other than that, women have an equal voice.

Beyond evolutions in mindset, Fiona says that other forces are helping to change who participates in the workforce. “Technology has been the female’s friend.” For example, Fiona points out that the transformations brought by digitization have opened up positions such as factory manager and supply chain roles, which were typically male domains, are now of interest and open to women.

“What is important is to keep an open mind. I believe women can excel particularly when they demonstrate key skills like curiosity and initiative. In my view it’s all about your leadership tool box…and how you plan to fill your tool box.”

Where are the opportunities for women?

Fiona firmly believes opportunities are everywhere, so it’s your choice of where to start. However, she does counsel that those at an early stage in their careers must prioritize breadth, to gain wide, diverse experiences. “It’s tough to move sideways to gain experience at a senior level,” she confides. “So, I always advise young men and women to get breadth early on in their career, as it is much easier, you naturally become a more informed and stronger leader having gained critical skills and experiences which ultimately will be key in your career”.

There is nothing wrong with planning a direction for your career but it’s important to seize opportunities as they arise as well. “I never considered going into the out-of-home sector, but in those four years I gained so much experience in a different market, yet it was never on my radar to go there. So my advice is to grasp the opportunities that come your way, don’t automatically turn them down if they don’t fit into your ‘career map’. Opportunities will potentially provide new routes and new experiences.” For women, Fiona says, this may mean being a bit more of a risk-taker.

Many companies today use quotas in an attempt to drive diversity in the workplace. “I am personally against quotas, and grateful Nestlé do not have quotas. The last thing women want, and indeed the last thing I wanted was to become the CEO of Nestlé because it ticked a box. I wanted the job because I was the best person for the job. Thankfully that was also Nestlé’s position.”


In the main work defines you, so finding that job that motivates you is very important.

“Find a job you love, that way you will flourish. Never turn an opportunity down. Always give every opportunity serious consideration. Don’t write it off at first instance. Take initiative and be curious—nobody will ever knock you back for taking initiative. Do it in a professional, respectful way, do it with evidence, but taking initiative and being curious are phenomenal skills to have. Have courage, find your voice, speak up, and take ownership of your career. Manage your own professional development, if you think you need training find it, research it, don’t wait, take your career in your own hands.

Finally, it’s your career, your future, your life. It’s up to you to own it and make it the success you deserve”.

Dame Fiona Kendrick
Formerly Chairman & CEO for Nestlé UK and Ireland

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