Champagne’s Grape Grower Women Could Teach MBAs A Thing or Two on Networking


Amid all the talk about women making less money than men at the workplace, It’s time to raise a toast to Pauline and other professional grape growers in Champagne, France, for earning more than the men.

Considering that 80% of the grape cultivators are men, the women’s success in getting a higher price for their produce is all the more remarkable. How did they manage to achieve it?

Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, Adecco Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School (LBS) and Amandine Ody-Brasier, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management, set out to conduct a study.

In an article posted on the LBS website, they said they found that the women were much better at networking than the men and used it to good effect.

“Female growers are able to charge higher prices than male growers for grapes of the same quality. 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,” Prof Fernandez-Mateo said.

“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,” she added.

She said in order to get a clear result, they looked at only the seller’s side, how the women and men were treating each other.

The networking among the female sellers gave them a premium on their prices. The amount is not very huge, adding up to around €2,500 (£2,222) a year. However, for grape growers who operate with an average of three employees, it is considered significant.

The women growers were found to share valuable information about the grape-growing business, including information about pricing. Male growers, however, followed an unwritten rule in the grape-growing community not to discuss prices.

“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, a male grower told the researchers that 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.

Two other important factors in the women’s success were trust and truthfulness. Even when the men did not talk about pricing, they expressed doubts about each other’s claims when any such discussions did take place. Vincent, a male grower, complained that no one tells the truth and it is hard to figure out the true market price.

Benjamin, another grower said he depended on getting serious information from their union.  Thierry said he would rather rely on Champagne Viticole, the growers’ trade publication, for useful information.

“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.”

The women used a collaborative, informal approach that allowed them to price their grapes more aggressively,” Prof Fernandez-Mateo said. For instance, Blanche would 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.”

Prof Fernandez-Mateo said the researchers did not observe collusion. The 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.”

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We can’t be completely sure why this is happening in Champagne,” Prof Fernandez-Mateo said. “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.”

While this particular instance is about gender, 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, she said.

Prof Fernandez-Mateo also stressed the need for more research into this phenomenon because there were sections of society where minorities could benefit more from stronger networks. (Image Source: wikipedia.org)

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