If She Can See It, She Can Be It

Members of ISIPCA’s Class of 2018. The fragrance future is female!

“As soon as we started smelling, I couldn’t imagine this was actually a career path. With my Asian background, a perfumer pathway was just not on the radar!” -Linda Song, Issu Magazine, February 2013

Linda Song wasn’t sure what to do with her Boston University biology degree until she came across a New York Times article about a beauty industry chemist. That article led her to prestigious perfumery school ISIPCA, where she caught the attention of Givaudan, the world’s largest fragrance firm. After eight years as a Givaudan perfumer, Song was named a Fashion Group Institute Rising Star Award finalist last year. (And we all know what a coup that is- after all, C√©cile Hua was 2003’s FGI Rising Star, and look at her now: the nose behind Arielle Shoshana! ūüėČ)

I have the privilege of being one of several women¬Ļ posting a series of responses to an otherwise excellent recent article on American perfumery. Of the seven fragrance experts quoted in the piece, all seven were men.

“If she can see it, she can be it” is the official slogan of the Institute on Gender in Media. The idea is that when women achieve, they show other women that a given career or pursuit has a place for them. Visibility is far from the final step, but it’s a crucial one. Women can’t apply for jobs that they don’t know exist! Think about that Linda Song quote at the beginning of this post: “A perfumer pathway was just not on the radar.”

The Allure piece could have been a catalyst for the women who read it, like the New York Times article that set Song on her “perfumer pathway.” Instead, by depicting American perfumery as completely devoid of women, it fails to acknowledge the increasing diversity of this traditionally male industry that female perfumers have been working for decades to achieve.¬†As of 2016, women make up 38.2% of employees at the three largest fragrance firms¬≤.

However, like many industries, that figure becomes much worse for women of color. There is no official data for perfume industry ethnicity demographics¬≥, but of the 434 perfumers‚Āī in Fragrantica’s “Noses” database, 28 (6.4%) are people of color, and 14 (3.2%) are women of color. To put this into perspective, there are 15 perfumers in the Fragrantica database named “Pierre.” (20 if you count “Jean-Pierre”s.)

I find these numbers unacceptable, as should anyone who loves perfume. A perfume industry without diversity is a stagnating industry, lacking in diversity of thought and ideas. So this post is intended to highlight the women of color whose successes are changing the landscape of perfumery. If she can see it, she can be it, so let’s see it!

Pissara Umavijiani

Thailand-born Umavijiani is both the founder and perfumer of Dusita Paris, which just received an Art and Olfaction Award (awarded to just four brands each year) only two years after its launch.

Ruhi Patil

The nose behind several Clean fragrances, Patil is still relatively unknown outside of her fragrance firm, IFF. But after her Fashion Group International Rising Star Award in 2014, we know we can expect great things from her. (Like a Ruhi/Linda/Cécile #girlsquad, please and thank you.)

Tanwi Nandini Islam

If this indie up-and-comer looks a little familiar, it’s probably because we’ve been seeing the novelist-turned-perfumer’s name everywhere from Elle to Racked. Islam has grown Hi Wildflower from a one-woman operation in a Brooklyn studio to an ever-expanding line of perfume oils, nail lacquers, and vivid cosmetics.

Ver√īnica Kato

Since becoming the in-house perfumer for Natura Cosmeticos, the $4.1 billion Brazilian giant that recently bought out Aesop and The Body Shop, Symrise-trained Kato has created over one hundred Natura fragrances over the past decade.

Anne McClain

Within a month of graduating from Grasse Institute of Perfumery, McClain founded MCMC Fragrances, catching the attention of industry giants like Birchbox and Anthropologie.

Adriana Medina-Baez

Over 23 years at Givaudan, Medina-Baez has worked her way from perfumer trainee to junior perfumer all the way up to Vice President perfumer. She also created Prince’s official perfume, and if she’s Prince-approved, she’s us-approved.

Shyamala Maisondieu

Malaysia-born Maisondieu is an utter chameleon of a perfumer, careening effortlessly between mainstream blockbusters like Tom Ford Violet Blonde and edgy independents like Etat Libre d’Orange Charogne.

Disclaimers: This post is not sponsored and does not contain affiliate links. 

¬Ļ Please enjoy the other responses by¬†Alyssa Harad,¬†Bois de Jasmin, Eau MG, Perfume Professor, The Non-Blonde, and The Scented Salamander.

² As of 2016, the percentage of female employees at the fragrance firms Givaudan, IFF, and Symrise were 38.1%, 38.3%, and 38.3%, for an industry average of 38.2%.

³ France made the collection of data on race/ethnicity illegal in 1978 (for laudable, anti-hate crime reasons), and the perfume industry remains very French.

‚Āī This methodology is imperfect for several reasons:

First, although Fragrantica is by far the best resource of its kind, its “Noses” database contains both perfumers and perfume brand owners. I went through each “Nose” one by one to separate the two; while I believe the margin of error is extremely small, if I was unable to determine whether a perfume brand owner was also a perfumer after extensive Googling, I did not count them as a perfumer.

Second, Fragrantica “Nose” entries only include perfumers who have created at least one fine fragrance. This means that there are many functional fragrance (body products, home fragrance, dish soap, etc) perfumers who are not included in this data. This is truly unfortunate, but there is currently almost no publicly available information on functional fragrance perfumers.

Finally, during the early stages of a perfumer’s career, . For example, Linda Song has worked at Givaudan since 2007, but her Fragrantica “Nose” listing was not created until her first credited fragrance was released in 2016. This suggests that there could be many perfumers at the beginning of their careers who do not yet have Fragrantica “Nose” entries.

International Women’s Month: Conclusion

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“Why do people always ask about women perfumers? Who cares? To me, it’s a non-issue.” –Frederic Malle, Persolaise, 2014

This post will address two questions posed by the above quote. First, “non-issue”; second, “who cares?”

To determine whether the longtime underrepresentation of female perfumers is now a non-issue, I created a spreadsheet with demographic information on every single perfumer I could find by cross-referencing Now Smell This, Luckyscent, Basenotes, and Fragrantica. (Please see the end of the post for methodology.)

Out of the 354 perfumers included, 38.1% are female.¬†That¬†38.1% figure¬†is relatively¬†skewed by the inclusion of independent perfumers, 71.9% of which are female. Many independent perfumers are¬†independent in the first place because the traditional perfume industry is not¬†accessible to¬†them, so they should not be used to give a falsely rosy image of the perfume industry’s demographics. When independent perfumers are factored out, 38.1% becomes 34.5%– barely one third.

34.5% is certainly progress, and there have been¬†many encouraging steps for¬†women in the perfume industry in the past few years (prestigious perfumery school ISIPCA now has more female students than male). But 34.5% is not equal representation, and it’s¬†hardly¬†“a non-issue” just¬†yet.

(This might be a good time to mention that the perfume industry’s numbers are even¬†worse when it comes to any other kind of diversity. Of the 288 perfumers for which¬†I was able to find ethnic information, 92.7% are white.)

But who cares? As Roja Dove is fond of saying, there are more astronauts than perfumers. (Thankfully, the astronauts take diversity a little more seriously.) Why should a lack of diversity matter to anyone else outside of a tiny industry?

It matters¬†to everyone who wears and loves perfume. Diversity goes far beyond physical characteristics; it means¬†diversity of perspective, new and different ways of thinking. Anyone who’s visited a perfume counter lately knows that new perspectives and new ideas are desperately needed in the perfume industry. When it’s the same white French guys making our perfumes, we get the same perfumes over and over. And I don’t know about you, but I just can’t smell¬†another Flowerbomb clone.

Methodology: For the purposes of this spreadsheet, I defined “perfumer” as “a living person who could be confirmed to have created fragrances”. I excluded brand figureheads who could not be confirmed to have created their fragrances. If I have incorrectly excluded anyone, I sincerely apologize. I also sincerely invite you to create your own spreadsheet, because this one¬†took three days.

I defined “independent perfumer” as “a perfumer who has never been employed by a fragrance firm”. This definition was trickier, but it made more sense to me than “a perfumer who is not employed by a fragrance firm”, as that definition would group perfumers such as Bertrand Duchafour or Francis Kurkdjian with smaller indie perfumers.