The men assume I don’t know what I’m talking about,” says Pauline, a professional grape grower from the Champagne region of France. “I’m never looked at as being head of the business.” In an industry that is over 80% male, Pauline is used to people assuming she is the wife or the daughter of the boss. In Champagne, it’s the men who work the land.
How could it be, then, that female grape growers are charging higher prices for their crop, and making more money than their male counterparts? Researchers Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, Adecco Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, and Amandine Ody-Brasier, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management, found that the relationships that women develop to cope with the social isolation they feel gives them an invaluable resource: a network.
"How could it be, then, that female grape growers are charging higher prices for their crop, and making more money than their male counterparts?"
“Female growers are able to charge higher prices than male growers for grapes of the same quality,” says Professor Fernandez-Mateo. “We know the grapes are of the same quality because all grapes in the region are measured on an official scale that’s been in use for over 100 years. Also, the limited supply of grapes and the rocketing demand for them mean that the price sellers can get for them is fairly inflexible. In short, it’s hard for buyers to price-discriminate against female growers.”
This is important because, in order to get a clear result, the researchers had to be sure they were only looking at what was causing this phenomenon on the seller side. In other words, they didn’t want to look at how buyers were treating sellers or vice versa. They wanted to look at the consequences of how the sellers – both male and female – were treating each other: the horizontal relationships, as opposed to the vertical ones.
It’s not news that social relations between buyers and sellers affect pricing. But in Champagne, meaningful relationships among female sellers have given them a premium on their prices. The amount isn’t huge, amounting to around €2,500 (£2,222) a year. But for grape growers who operate with an average of three employees it’s significant.
The women growers share valuable information about the grape-growing business, including information about pricing. Male growers, on the other hand, do not. There is an unwritten rule in the grape-growing community that it is simply not ‘done’ to discuss prices.
One woman in the study, Charlotte, commented: “There are many [male] growers who think they shouldn’t talk about prices. With men ... you have to keep quiet, not tell anything, do things on your own.” Another woman, Blanche, said: “We’re less bothered with [saying] ‘No, in Champagne, this is not the way things are done.’ We just go for it, so we can make better decisions.”
A male grower, Lucas, had a starkly different approach: “Price is not something people talk about in Champagne. It’s a private matter. For some reason, it makes people feel uncomfortable. I think it’s a bit distasteful anyway.” Lucas’s view sums up the attitude of most of the men interviewed. They mostly had no idea of the women’s different approach and the rewards they reap as a result.
Trust and truthfulness are key in the Champagne women’s success, explains Professor Fernandez-Mateo. While the men didn’t like talking about pricing, they expressed doubts about each other’s claims when discussions did take place: “Nowadays, no one tells the truth,” said one male grower, Vincent. “It’s a big problem. You just can’t figure out what the true market price is.”
Another, Benjamin, said he’d rather get “serious” information from their union: “I remain pretty cautious when someone gives me information. I would not act on it until I’ve received confirmation.”
Thierry said he would rather rely on Champagne Viticole, the growers’ trade publication, for useful information.
“The women’s collaborative, informal approach allows them to price their grapes more aggressively,” says Professor Fernandez-Mateo. Blanche said that a woman will call her friends for advice on price. When she renegotiated her grape contracts, she asked them how much they got paid per kilo. “I think more women are willing to ask,” she said. “As women, we’re more willing to get help and less proud about asking our neighbours for advice. It’s all about information… knowing what others are doing in terms of price. I mean working the network.”
Professor Fernandez-Mateo stresses: “It’s important to mention that we did not observe collusion: women primarily got together for social support and did not coordinate their pricing activities. Furthermore, this pricing advantage, although encouraging, does not make up for the disadvantages women experience in Champagne. Many talked about the lack of respect, recognition and inclusion inherent in their jobs.”
"When minority members pull together in the face of discrimination, the resulting relationships are powerful"
There is no doubt that women’s relative lack of power and status in the workplace places barriers at every juncture. Multiple studies have found that female networks may sometimes impede a woman’s journey to leadership because they limit their access to the more powerful – usually male – actors at the top. But in the case of Champagne, cohesive female networks allowed women to exercise market power.
“We can’t be completely sure why this is happening in Champagne,” says Professor Fernandez-Mateo. “But history tells us that when minority members pull together in the face of isolation or discrimination from the majority, instead of deserting their group or aligning with the majority, the resulting relationships are powerful.”
Here we are talking about gender, but a strong group identity – whether that’s race, nationality, age or any other category – is a force to be reckoned with. The size of the group is likely to be key. There must be enough group members for individuals not to compete against each other, but not so many that identifying with the larger group instead becomes easy.
Professor Fernandez-Mateo believes that more research into this phenomenon is needed because there are sections of society where minorities could benefit more from stronger networks: “It’s possible that this is happening already in the labour market. Are some minorities benefiting from higher wages because of the pooled strength of their community?
“For now, though, one thing is clear. Discrimination can sometimes be attenuated. Whether overtly or covertly, like the women of Champagne, pulling together can pay off.
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