Francine Katz, once the highest ranked woman at Anheuser-Busch, was walking on her home treadmill Tuesday in St. Louis when she got the text from her 28-year-old daughter.
The iPhone message linked to a photo of a Bud Light label that has since gone viral: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”
“Oh my God,” she recalls exclaiming. “Are they kidding?”
Katz, 57, quickly realized it wasn't a joke. That didn't surprise her. She was the first woman ever appointed to the company’s top strategy committee, an executive known as the "queen of beer." But she resigned in 2008, claiming Anheuser-Busch discriminated against women.
“I worked with nearly all men. They didn't consider us their peers,” said Katz, who filed a lawsuit in 2009 saying her colleagues fostered a “locker room and frat party atmosphere.” While she served on the 20-person strategy committee, Katz said, only one other member was a woman.
On the current management team, as listed on the company's Web site, 13 of 14 members are men. Overall at the company, 17 percent of full-time, salaried Anheuser-Busch employees are women, a 2014 company report shows. That’s down from 29 percent in 2011.
Having more women in leadership roles can help catch problems like the one that surfaced this week, Katz said. The label, she argues, "demonstrates a complete lack of sensitivity."
The company announced Wednesday it has stopped producing the offensive bottles. Alexander Lambrecht, vice president of Bud Light, called the label a mistake -- but not a symptom of broader gender issues. "Both women and men reviewed the scrolls internally, and we just missed it," he said. "You don’t have to be female to recognize the issues with this scroll. It just shouldn't have run."
The stumble arrives as America's rape problem stays firmly in the spotlight. The Department of Education is investigating more than 100 universities for their handling of sexual violence reports. An estimated one in five women will be sexually assaulted before graduation, a Justice Department study suggests. And at least half of sexual assaults involve the consumption of alcohol by the perpetrator, the victim, or both, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Lisa Weser, who leads brand communications at Anheuser-Busch, according to her LinkedIn page, addressed the uproar Tuesday on Twitter.
“I just want to know how many sets of eyes let it by," one user wrote, "and how you'll change this culture.”
“I'd hazard that one set of eyes would be too many on this one," Weser replied.
She also urged people not to read too much into the bottle debacle:
Anheuser-Busch must adhere to the Beer Advertising Code, according to its website, which states: “Advertising themes, creative aspects, and placements should reflect the fact that Brewers are responsible corporate citizens.” No formal complaints have yet been filed against the company, said Megan Kirkpatrick, spokesperson for the Beer Institute in Washington, D.C.
Katz lost her suit when jurors decided her gender did not impact her salary. She said she earned less than 18 male peers on the strategy committee and less than half of her predecessor, John Jacob, a well-known civil rights activist and advisor to former chief executive August Busch III. She made about $1 million in 2002, the year she was promoted to vice president of communications. Jacob, however, made $4.5 million in 2001, a figure she learned when executive salaries were made public.
"The jury’s verdict in our favor acknowledged that she was always treated and compensated fairly during her 20 years of employment at the company," Anheuser-Busch said in a statement.
Katz helped run the company's Knowing When to Say When campaign, which gained stream in the eighties and called for responsible drinking. She pushed the company to donate $2.5 million to the University of Virginia’s National Social Norms Institute, which teaches students about safe partying. She hopes the brewery will learn from the public outcry.
“You have to be socially responsible," she said. "Your messages reach millions of people. You can do right by the public and well on the bottom line.”