While we were all gearing up for the holiday season in mid-December, there was an email scandal brewing that was destined to change the future of one of America's most treasured television spectacles, forever.
On the 21st of the month, The Huffington Post broke a story of salacious emails from the upper echelons of management in the Miss America pageant. The emails paint a bleak view of the pageant's hierarchy - a male-dominated, crude system grounded in what can only be described as the purest form of "bro-culture," and chaired by Sam Haskell.
It's nothing we haven't seen before. From tech, to Hollywood and beyond, every industry has been plagued by this behavior, 2017 just happened to become the year it was exposed.
In the wake of the story, Haskell and other executives implicated by the emails quickly resigned, while former Miss Americas Gretchen Carlson, Mallory Hagan and Kate Shindle put together a petition with a view to restructuring the entire board behind the organization. They succeeded, and what we have now is Miss America 2.0.
Leading the new phase of the pageants's history is Carlson as Chairwoman, with three other titleholders, Heather French Henry, Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss, and Kate Shindle, gaining seats as well. The news has been greeted with applause across the board, with many predicting Carlson's resounding accomplishments for female empowerment will have a massive impact on the future of the pageant.
Below we've rounded up why we think her appointment as Chair is significant, both literally and symbolically.
“In the end, we all want a strong, relevant Miss America and we appreciate the existing board taking the steps necessary to quickly begin stabilizing the organization for the future."
1. A win for women
It was an enormous year, for women, for the workplace, for Carlson herself who released her second book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back. But wins like this are few and far between. Yes, there have been breakthroughs and those who would uphold the Mad Men era of misogyny today are slowly being weeded out, but a shift of this proportion bears a resounding significance for women everywhere.
Regardless of whether Carlson was coming in to chair Apple, Walmart or Uber, the symbolism of the shift in leadership is enormous in and of itself. Haskell, a man who evidently cared so little for those who worked for him and competed in his competition has endured a very republic removal from his seat, and Carlson, a woman who has displayed on countless occasion her respect and admiration for women and fellow contestants, has taken the role.
Whether you're a fan of pageantry or not, it's hard not to see how positive an influence this new dynamic in leadership will bear on the competition itself, and the pageantry industry worldwide.
2. Stability for Miss America at a time of tremendous turmoil
Carlson is perhaps the wisest and most conscientious pick for an incoming chair for any organization that has gone through the ringer in recent months for similar scandals.
Her championing of female causes, from her women's leadership initiative, to public outreach following the Roger Ailes scandal, makes her a terrific candidate given the climate we find ourselves in.
Turning the pageant's image around after the enormity of an email scandal such as this won't be easy. However, when you've got the approval rating of a woman who veritably began the crusade against workplace sexual harassment, there's a great probability that the organization's reputation won't remain in the gutter too long.
Gretchen Carlson. Photo courtesy of Variety
3. Changing the pageantry narrative
It's no secret that pageants themselves are contentious subjects. At its most basic level, participants are objectified, scrutinized and judged based on their physical appearance, and for ultra-feminists, this is particularly problematic.
Former Miss America Nina Davuluri notes, however, that while these are the aspects of the competition that might get the most attention, they're not nearly the most important. "I chose to enter this organization because of the values and integrity associated with the title and organization," the 2014 titleholder told SWAAY. "Empowering women through service and scholarship has always been at the forefront, and we must continue to uphold those values. Yes, Miss America is relevant. Yes, our voices are being heard. And yes, we're here to stay."
With four former titleholders on the Board who are evidently in an open dialogue with many of the others former participants out there, this indomitable network are sure to be the force for change the pageant needs right now to remain relevant and embrace a different approach going forward.
"It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle."-Nina Davuluri. Photo courtesy of Parade
4. A lesson for the masses
Justice really does taste so sweet when it's wearing heels and a fresh blowout.
Before Weinstein, Ailes, O'Reilly, Trump, there was little to no chatter about this kind of shift in power - in fact, it was almost unfathomable. A man, making $500K a year, on top of this long-held institution, would have been near untouchable, regardless of the scandal. The times, however, have well and truly changed.
The public fall from grace of the innumerable men embroiled in similar scandals will serve as cautionary tales for those in the future who might deign to treat women as they subservients, but this tale, and the rise to prominence of these women, will serve as an emphatic lesson. Do not bite the hand that feeds you.
For over a hundred years these women have been the focal points of this pageant and, gone unrecognised, they have become a force that has overhauled the board and plans to drastically change the very premise of the competition.
"As a former Miss America I feel positive & optimistic about the change of leadership at the organization. It's important to note that we also democratically elected among ourselves the four women who we felt could help usher (us) through this challenging transition: Gretchen Carlson as Chair, along with Heather French Henry, Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss, and Kate Shindle."
- Nina Davuluri
5. No better woman for the job
As Davuluri mentions above, Carlson was elected by the ladies of the organization to take charge and given our experience with her, we have no doubt as to why. Above all, she is dedicated to the cause of female empowerment with a ferocity that is unrivaled. Her passion for the cause in the aftermath of her suit against then-Fox CEO Roger Ailes undoubtedly served as the straw that broke the camel's back in the sexual harassment scandals that were to follow. Her book, Be Fierce, is a veritable guide for women to find strength enough to emerge from these difficult situations. She is a mouthpiece for the movement that has swept the nation and the world, and indicted a response never before seen.
"Gretchen has always been a woman I've admired and viewed as a role model for many years even before competing in the Miss America Organization--she is a true testament of our values," says Davuluri.
Once the dust settles and she and her fellow Miss Americas get to work on the reinvention of the pageant, we can only imagine what they will achieve.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.