Italian Women’s Struggle for Equality in The Wine Industry

Labor force inequalities have plagued the labor market since industrialization. Transitioning into the paid labor force came with challenges, especially for women. The rise of social movements such as black feminist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries led to countering these inequalities by petitioning to introduce policies to spearhead equality in the labor market. The troubling history of inequality has endured and is felt in many facets of contemporary society. One of these areas is the Italian wine industry. Italian women have transformed their role in the agricultural sector by fighting for their place, and the struggle is coming to fruition.

Women’s inequalities in the Italian wine sector resulted from the practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, where men were considered sole breadwinners. Women were left caring for the home and raising children, leading to a significant gap in the paid labor industry. Besides, the land property rights led to the development of unique socioeconomic relations between genders.

These differences were unique in Italy following the feminization of the agricultural sector later in the 20th century. A 2015 study by Graziella Benedetto and Gian Luigi Corinto on “The role of women in the sustainability of the wine industry” found many women farm managers “localized in southern Italy by the end of the 20th century.”[1] The changes were significant in the struggle for women’s representation in the sector.

landscape photography of farm

Lower Pay and the Pay Gap Question

However, inequalities still exist coming into the 21st century, and Italian women are fighting to overcome them. Italian women from the previous century broke many barriers in the wine sector, presenting hope for a better future that has not been forthcoming. Some of the struggles, such as the pay gap, still exist between women and men winemakers; this is reflected in their workers since women receive considerably lower wages than men in the same field. Women in the Italian wine sector receive up to 39 percent lower wages than men.[2]

The practice is widespread in all sectors and organizations of the wine industry. Low pay forces women to work for long hours to make tangible proceeds. These differences can be fatal, as demonstrated by a case of a woman vineyard worker, Paola Clemente, “a farm hand who died of fatigue while she was working in the fields in the southern region of Puglia.”[3] Her case raises the curtain on women’s struggle and stark inequalities in the Italian wine sector.

Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination

Unemployment in Italy has made jobs scarce, especially in the agricultural sector. Job scarcity is a thorn in the eye of women in the wine sector as they are forced to keep up with sexual harassment and gender discrimination for their jobs. Most women fear standing up for their rights due to job scarcity; they feel lucky to have these jobs and are afraid to complain. Women are also underrepresented in instruments of power such as the Consorzio, making it difficult for women to project their voices. Underrepresentation also discourages competition spirit as women feel beaten before even competition for positions in the Consorzio. Besides, the lack of women’s inclusion in wine topics significantly reduces the chances of addressing these issues.

man in brown dress shirt standing on green grass field during daytime


Middlemen are another challenge women face in the Italian wine sector. Unlike men, women are mistreated by middlemen at all levels. Handy workers’ pay is reduced significantly as well as women managers. Sometimes, in Clemente’s case, they “pocketed two-thirds of the women’s pay and deducted transportation costs.”[4] Middlemen often stand in the way of women restricting their rise in the wine business. Women are also restricted by other women who are afraid to take on the injustices and discrimination they face.[5] Therefore, on top of inequalities in the labor market, women have to overcome intermediaries to prosper in the industry.

Excessive Working Hours

Paola Clemente’s death unfolded the cruel working conditions employees undergo in the Italian wine industry. Workers spend up to twelve hours in the vineyards and wineries with little pay. Besides, they work more than they indicate in their employment contract, a sign of the economic crisis in the country. These conditions may also be influenced by society’s perception of women in the wine industry. For instance, women are judged by different standards, they are unlikely to be promoted, and their mentorship is limited. Tackling these issues is part of the initiative to address women’s issues such as excessive working hours and improving the general working environment for women.

New Legislations

Paola Clemente’s death raised the curtain as the government implemented new laws preventing worker exploitation and checking inequalities in the wine sector. These regulations are necessary to remedy the dark face of the country’s wines, loved worldwide.

Light At the End of The Tunnel

Despite the wine industry’s male domination, women are progressing in attaining balance. Even with the challenges, they are engaging all sectors of the wine industry. Women-run enterprises and organizations such as ‘the Women of Wine’ are continually being established in Italy, indicating rising involvement in the sector. The gender gap is reducing with increasing education and mentorship of women in the Italian wine sector.

Women are establishing organizations to spearhead women’s development in the wine sector, leading to the decline of male dominance. It is no surprise that the largest women’s wine organization, Le Donne del Vino, is in Italy. These developments have seen a shift in wine industry leadership in a society with great tradition. Currently, most women in the industry are born into winemaking families and have not ventured into independent businesses. The changes are encouraging as they will potentially develop a balance in the wine industry.

two women standing near green plants and string lights during daytime

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This Day in Wine History

February 12, 1963: The appellations system was introduced in Italy. The appellations system, which controls wines’ region of origin, was introduced to protect and differentiate different wines. The system contains several wine production parameters, including place or origin, type of grapes, minimum aging period, and maximum produce per acre.[6] The system guaranteed quality and authenticity, placing Italian wines in the same category of elite wines as in other European wine-producing countries. Besides, it elevates wine produced by Italian indigenous grapes protecting their culture. The appellations system is thus important for the Italian wine industry.

March 19, 1988: Le Donne del Vino was established. Le Donne del Vino is an Italian women association founded “to promote an understanding and culture of wine thanks to the experience and knowledge of women involved in this mission in different but complementary sectors.”[7] The association was founded at a time the industry was deeply male-dominated. It was interesting to understand how women would prosper. However, over time the organization grew, attaining membership of more than 900 women in the wine industry. The organization is critical in spearheading women’s interests. For instance, they advocate for women’s involvement in policy development and other decision-making positions affecting women in wine. The organization has been instrumental in shifting perceptions and male dominance in the Italian wine sector.

May 9, 1993: Cantine aperte’s first edition took place. Cantine aperte, which means open cellars, was invented by Donatella Cinelli Colombini, one of the most influential women in the Italian wine industry and the president of Le Donne del Vino. The event significantly boosted Italian wine tourism in the preceding years. The tradition continues today, involving several wineries that organize events such as wine tasting, tours, and other recreational activities. The invention continues to boost Italian wine tourism today, indicating women’s contributions to the male-dominated wine sector. The event has marketed Italian wines beyond Europe and will only strengthen in the future.

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  1. [1] Graziella Benedetto and Gian Luigi Corinto, “The Role of Women in the Sustainability of the Wine Industry: Two Case Studies in Italy,” in The Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin, ed. Antonella Vastola (Cham: Spring International Publishing, 2015), 173 – 190
  2. [2] Cathy Huyghe, “Modern Day ‘Slavery’ in Agriculture, and What’s Being Done to Address It,” Forbes, April 14, 2017,
  3. [3] Maria Elena Spagnolo, “Paola Clemente, the Woman Who Died of Fatigue for a Few Euros in Italy,” La Stampa, April 12, 2017,
  4. [4] Gaia Pianigiani, “A Woman’s Death Sorting Grapes Exposes Italy’s ‘Slavery,’” The New York Times, April 12, 2017, sec. World,
  5. [5] Cathy Huyghe, “Women of the Wine World at Vinitaly International: Obstacles and Challenges,” Forbes, April 20, 2018,
  6. [6] Italian Wine Connection, “APPELLATIONS: Understanding Italian Wines,” Italian Wine Connection, n.d.,
  7. [7] Le Donne del Vino, “History,” Ass. Nazionale Le Donne del Vino, accessed July 27, 2022,

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