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Comment: Gender balance in retail must be addressed

On the back of the results from a Women in Retail and Elixrr conducted report, Jacqueline Gold, the chief executive of Ann Summers defends the importance of gender diversity in fashion retail 

The various challenges faced by the retail industry are widely discussed from the damaging effect of over-discounting to the various taxes levied at retailers and the continuous trials that changing weather conditions pose throughout the year. It has also long been recognised that the number of men and women in senior positions in retail is incredibly unbalanced.

Gender diversity is often on the agenda, and so it should be, and this week a new study released by Women in Retail and Elixirr has examined why there aren’t more women on retail boards and more importantly, what can be done to address this.

The report represents over 70 male and female senior executives from 44 different retailers and highlights that despite the majority of retail purchases being made or influenced by women, women are still underrepresented at an executive level within retail. The figures from the study show that 60% of those employed in the retail industry are women yet only 20% of executive teams and 10% of executive boards are female.

For me, this poses a real question as to whether retailers, without a greater number of women on their boards can truly understand their customer.

The board at Ann Summers is 50% men and 50% women and not for any other reason than they are the best people for the job - however, I do think this perfectly positions the team to really understand our customer.

It’s been my experience that small to medium size retailers are performing better in achieving gender balance than larger retailers, as a group we are more customer-centric and much more in touch with our workforce. This is also something I see with new businesses – they don’t have out-dated historical hierarchies or mind-sets. And they seem to have a different ethos, as they openly recognise the value of having women at all levels.

Getting more women to the top won’t be easy, but what I find encouraging is that the Women in Retail and Elixirr study has shown that the senior executives interviewed agree that change needs to happen. What isn’t so clear is how we galvanise this desire and take real action. For change to happen there are many factors to be considered, we need to review within our own industry but also look at what is being done by the Government and learn from the successes they have had with gender diversity more widely. Government initiatives such as the Davies Report and mandatory gender pay gap reporting have shown that significant steps towards equality on boards can be achieved. It also shows there is a commitment from the Government to achieve cultural change and challenge bad practice. I believe we need a similar approach in the retail industry where there is even more of a commercial reason to make sure our leadership reflects our customers.

I hope that this week’s study, along with other initiatives from the BRC, Drapers Next Gen and the Government (to name just a few) will allow the shift in a fairer gender balance in retail to begin. Each of us needs to make our own commitment to making a change within our own businesses - we can’t just keep talking about the issue, we need positive action and a plan, one that perhaps includes: targeting to appoint more women to boards, rolling out a policy to always consider female candidates for executive roles and appointing individuals to champion gender equality inside our businesses.

I believe these chages are a good starting point and should be explored further. As an industry, we owe it to our customers, as well as our employees to make gender diversity a reality, and quickly.

Jacqueline Gold CBE, Chief Executive, Ann Summers


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