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Editor's Comment: Time to tackle the lack of boardroom diversity

Women are under-represented at the top levels of fashion retail – there can be no argument about that.

There were no women in the top five of the Drapers Top 100 of influential people in fashion last year, and Selfridges’ Anne Pitcher, at number 16, was the first woman to appear in the list in her own right.

There are intelligent, innovative, dynamic women working in fashion who are nonetheless falling at the final hurdle of the top jobs. This has to be addressed.

The lack of gender diversity at board level is a deep-rooted problem in retail, and the fashion industry is no exception.

It may not affect all businesses, but it’s evident in a fair few. Yet I find it hard to believe that this is a conscious bias. So what is the problem? Are there simply not enough suitable women applying for these jobs?

One thing to consider is the fact that women are still much more likely than men to take a career break to have a family. As a result, their male counterparts are more likely to be promoted. This is a wider societal issue, and not one retailers can address on their own.

But it is dangerous to simply assume that the reason there is not more gender diversity on boards is because fewer women apply for those positions.

Then what is to be done? I am certain of one thing: board quotas are not the way to address this problem. Fashion retail faces a perfect storm of business rates revaluations, a higher living wage, Brexit uncertainty and increasingly demanding customers. In these circumstances, brands and retailers need the best people at the top as never before – whether that is a woman or a man.

Appointing a woman to a board position solely because she is a woman runs the risk of overlooking an ideal (male) candidate.

And there are other concerns with quotas. Will other top-level staff respect a woman they think is there to make up the numbers? Will a woman who gets a role entirely on merit doubt herself, believing she is only there to tick a box? Will companies find themselves embroiled in court cases with unsuccessful male candidates claiming “reverse sexism”?

Employers need to be free to make the recruitment decisions that suit their businesses. But I do think targets should be set, and there should be better reporting. There is a woeful lack of up-to-date data about the gender split of employees and job applicants available – although the new regulations on gender pay gap reporting, which come into effect next month, will start to shed some light on the imbalance.

Of course, in an ideal world, we would promote people based purely on their CV and experience, setting gender (not to mention race and physical ability) aside. But in reality that is not happening.

We need more women – the best women – at the top of the fashion business. We want the female leaders highlighted in our International Women’s Day feature to become the norm, rather than the exception. In the broader scheme of things, what is required is mentorship, guidance and, perhaps most importantly, encouragement for women to apply for the top jobs in the first place. We cannot just sit back and hope boards become more diverse: targeted action is needed.

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