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Drapers Investigates: Getting women on board

While opportunities for women are improving across fashion retail, Drapers’ research reveals there is still much to be done to create parity with male counterparts at board level.

Since the start of 2020 several women have smashed the fashion industry’s glass ceiling by bagging chief executive roles: Helena Helmersson at Swedish giant H&M Group, Katherine Poulter at Laura Ashley and Michelle Ryan at Agent ProvocateurJ Crew GroupTotême and Lulu Guinness have all also appointed female bosses in recent months. Elsewhere, Sharon White joined the John Lewis Partnership last month as chairman – making her the first female holder of the role.

Other inspiring leaders at the helm of fashion businesses include Fat Face’s Liz Evans, White Stuff’s Jo JenkinsThe White Company’s Mary Homer, Toast’s Suzie de Rohan Willner and Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold. 

Then there are the women who have co-founded their own businesses – Boohoo’s Carol Kane, Goat’s Jane Lewis and Mint Velvet’s Liz Houghton, to name just a few.

The achievements of these women – and the many others who are making or who have left their mark on the industry – should be celebrated ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March. However, more action needs to be taken to address the persistent gender gap – both in terms of pay and promotion – that remains at the top of the fashion pyramid. 

Drapers’ analysis of the top 21 UK fashion and footwear retailers listed on the FTSE and Aim markets paints a worrying picture of the number of women running them.

Less than a third (28.1%) of board positions are held by women – below the 33% average at FTSE 100 companies found by a government-backed study from independent body Hampton-Alexander Review, published in February.

The big issue is not how many non-executive directors there are on a board – it is how many women are executive directors of a company

Lorna Fitzsimons, the co-founder and CEO of diversity business The Pipeline

At the time Drapers compiled the data, flash Sale business MySale Group and footwear retailer Shoe Zone had no women on their boards. Joules, Laura Ashley, MothercareQuiz and French Connection had just one woman at their board tables. Laura Ashley has since appointed Poulter as its new CEO. 

Of all the retailers Drapers contacted to comment on the lack of women on their boards, only Joules came back with a response. The lifestyle retailer said the “majority” of its operating board, which includes the creative director and supply chain director, is female (86%), while women make up 70% of its senior management team.

“These results are yet another example of how retail is still in the dark ages compared with other industries,” says Mary Anderson-Ford, managing director at recruitment consultancy Aqua Retail.

Karen Collier, managing director of fashion recruitment firm Karen Collier Careers, agrees: “The statistics only mean one thing – that women are not given the same consideration as men when it comes to applying for these roles. You only have to look up the board of directors for many fashion companies to find there is one token woman among them.”

Recent data is lacking, but in 2016 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that two-thirds of retail roles were held by women. And women are also represented more heavily as shoppers: womenswear accounted for 49% of the total UK clothing market in 2019, while menswear made up 26%, shows market research agency Mintel. Womenswear spending is almost double that of menswear: it grew 0.7% to £29.2bn in 2019, year on year, while menswear rose 1.2% to £15.4bn.

“Across the board within the fashion industry men have been making core decisions on products aimed at women, for women,” says Daisy Walker, founder of non-profit gender-diversity organisation Women in Fashion.

It is chairmen who make those [executive] appointments, so what’s stopping them making more female appointments?

Female CEO of one womenswear retailer

“Despite the fashion industry appearing female-led from the outside, it has always been men holding the top-tier jobs and making executive decisions. It’s certainly sad we’re still in this position.”

Fiona Hathorn, co-founder and CEO of Women on Boards UK, a network to help women get to the top in all sectors, says: “It is particularly short-sighted of the fashion industry ­­– where such a large proportion of the customer base are women – to have the female perspective under-represented in its strategic decision making.”

Good business

Drapers’ research also found that 81% of those women on fashion retail boards were in non-executive director roles. Just 19% were in executive roles, such as CEO, CFO and chairman.

Similarly, among the largest publicly listed companies in the European Union in 2019, only 17.6% of executives and 6.9% of CEOs were women, a report by Catalyst called Women in Management: Quick Take showed.

“The big issue is not how many non-executive directors there are on a board – the big issue is how many women are executive directors of a company,” says Lorna Fitzsimons, the co-founder and CEO of diversity business The Pipeline, board member of the UK Fashion and Textile Association and a former MP.

“The statistics only mean one thing: that women are not given the same consideration as men when it comes to applying for these roles

Karen Collier, managing director of fashion recruitment firm Karen Collier Careers 

“If a company has three or more women on its executive committee, then they’re in the top quartile of performance throughout the globe [according to Harvard Business Review report Women Directors Change How Boards Work]. Obviously the closer we get to parity, the bigger the dividend is going to be. But the tipping point is three or more.”

Wendy Hallett, owner and managing director of concessions business Hallett Retail, says: “Given my work on the Women’s Business Council (WBC), these results are not surprising, but they are frustrating. It is not just about ‘getting women on boards’ – we now need to move on to looking at getting women into the key executive positions on boards to increase their ability to influence and be highly effective.”

Miriam Lahage, former CEO of lingerie retailer Figleaves, and co-founder and investor of culture risk management digital start-up Aequip, claims it is important for women to get into C-suite roles because non-executives are not given as much say in company decisions: “Usually most boards are orchestrated by the CEO and chair, at least in the UK and EU. There is not usually a lot of space for contrary viewpoints [from non-execs].”

Mandy Rico, global director of inaugural gender diversity survey The Inclusion Index at analyst Kantar, agrees: “Non-executives are influencers – but we need to get more buy-in from the boards. Is [appointing women as non-executives] just a way of ‘filling in’ the gender criteria? In an ideal world, I would hope that this would not be the case, but I do fear that there is an element of tick boxing occurring.”

We always look for the best people, no matter what gender or race. It means we have an advantage if other retailers don’t do this

Nils Vinge, head of investor relations at H&M Group

However, Debbie Hewitt, chair of White Stuff and former Moss Bros chairman, argues that non-executive directors can be a “fundamental and important” role on a board: “I wouldn’t criticise the fact that the majority of female appointments have been in non-exec roles. It’s better than nothing. And if a non-exec is not making a positive difference, then that’s a missed opportunity.”

The female CEO of one womenswear retailer says women should use non-executive roles to gain entry to the C-suite: “Such roles are a great opportunity for working women to sit on boards that ultimately gives them the right exposure to not only go back and bring insight into their own role, but as a stepping stone to the key board roles.”

However, she adds: “It is chairmen who make those [executive] appointments, so what’s stopping them making more female appointments? What’s the block?”

Women on boards chart

Total board members (pink) with number and percentage that are women (grey)

Glass ceiling

There are many reasons why women are not getting to the top.

In 2017, the government introduced new regulations called The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017, which require UK organisations to report and disclose the gender pay gap in their workforce. One consequence of the legislation has been prompting businesses to address their overall treatment of women in the workforce, such as gender-diverse shortlists for new recruitment. 

Only when a company becomes an employer of choice for female talent will they then truly orchestrate a more harmonised and balanced board

Nicola Wensley, partner at executive search firm Page Executives

However, it has led to women being shortlisted for roles as part of a “tick-boxing” exercise, says Victoria Nightingale, partner at executive search firm Bailey Monatagu.

“For many businesses, it seems to be a box-ticking exercise. As headhunters, we make sure we provide diverse shortlists, that are less about men versus women but showcasing an interesting range of backgrounds.

“Women are on those lists, but it seems to be the case that they’re not getting picked. The best person should get the job regardless of sex, race, etc.”

Poor excuse

The non-executive of several luxury fashion businesses, says a shortage of women in the pipeline is a “glib excuse”: “The gender pipeline has been an excuse used for too long now. There are loads of talented women out there to fill these positions – and plenty are wanting to step up. They just aren’t being given the opportunity to do so.”

Other industry experts believe motherhood is another barrier.

“Recent innovations have made the world a very small place when it comes to communication, and saved on the time and cost of international travel,” Anderson-Ford says.

Businesses should be setting objectives, tracking results and paying bonuses based on achievement of the desired result

The female CEO of a womenswear retailer

“Yet still retail expects its employees to be in the office every day. It’s therefore no great surprise to see that women disappear off the grid once they have children. The industry simply doesn’t support the four or three-day weeks they need to raise a family.

“And in many cases, once they try to rejoin the workforce after six or seven years, their skillset is deemed outmoded. Retail has changed so much in that time, and only those with current experience are in demand. Thus, they are left in the wilderness.”

Meanwhile, Lahage says the fear of being the only woman on a board can put people off of applying: “My observation is that it continues to be a challenging experience being the sole woman on the board. There are small, unintended incivilities that one experiences, such as getting interrupted, having your ideas attributed to others and an inability to participate in male-dominated extracurricular discussions. All can contribute to a feeling of invisibility even in the boardroom.”

Role models

However, some businesses are slowly making progress. Women held 16.9% of board seats worldwide in 2018 – a 1.9% increase from 2016, Deloitte Global’s sixth Women in the Boardroom – A Global Perspective report found.

Beth Butterwick, consultant operating partner at a high street clothing retailer, and former CEO at Karen Millen and Coast and Bonmarché, agrees: “I believe this important topic is making progress. Looking to my own experience, I receive calls regarding potential non-executive roles, and I would say there is definitely a big appetite out there.”

Several retailers stood out in Drapers’ study for having a percentage of women on their boards higher than the average in our findings: including Ted Baker (66.7%), Burberry (45%), Next (44%), Asos (40%), Marks & Spencer (37%), N Brown Group (30%) and Sosandar (28.57%).

“At Ted Baker we believe in equality and transparency and are committed to creating a truly inclusive culture, regardless of gender,” a Ted Baker spokesman says. “We continue to prioritise diversity throughout the business”.

If a company has three or more women on its executive committee, then they’re in the top quartile of performance throughout the globe

Lorna Fitzsimons, co-founder and CEO of diversity business The Pipeline, board member of the UK Fashion and Textile Association and a former MP

Ali Hall and Julie Lavington, co-founders and joint CEOs of Sosandar, tell Drapers: “We are pleased to see that Sosandar falls above the average in our sector, but we believe that there is still a long way to go to see more women on boards across the sector and more broadly.”

Nils Vinge, head of investor relations at H&M Group, agrees that more needs to be done: “The percentage is getting better, but it’s too slow.

“We are a listed company and have around 50% of women on the board. This reflects a good example in many ways and has been the case for many years.

“We always look for the best people, no matter what gender or race. If you’re open-minded it would be crazy not to. It means we have an advantage if other retailers don’t do this.”

H&M’s global policy on diversity, inclusiveness and equality aims to promote “reasonable adaptations” necessary to enable employment, development and retention.

Affirmative action

Several industry experts are calling for action to get more women on boards, such as introducing board effectiveness reviews, opening up the talent pool and providing mentoring.

Hewitt says quotas have helped to create momentum, but “the industry now needs to think in a more creative way about how we source and attract a more diverse group of candidates”.

The female CEO of one womenswear retailer says: “Businesses really need to make this a strategic priority: they should be setting objectives, tracking results and paying bonuses based on achievement of the desired result.”

Despite the fashion industry appearing female-led from the outside, it has always been men holding the top-tier jobs

Daisy Walker, founder of non-profit gender-diversity organisation Women in Fashion

Lahage suggests having women as interviewers of board seats for women candidates: “That would be very helpful. Also, breaking the paradigm that everyone on the board needs a finance background should open up the talent pool.”

Nicola Wensley, partner at executive search firm Page Executives, says some of the “best fashion companies that are embracing diversity well” have built it into training programmes, and rolled out initiatives regarding gender, parenting, sexual orientation and gender identity: “This includes: providing mentoring, pre and post-maternity workshops, providing a dynamic and flexible working culture, childcare support (vouchers and emergency/back-up childcare), showcasing women role models, monitoring and measuring the gender pipeline, career and executive coaching and return-to-work incentives.

“Only when a company becomes an employer of choice for female talent will they then truly orchestrate a more harmonised and balanced board.”

The fashion industry is in the midst of a disruptive transformation. Now is the time for companies to finally smash the glass ceiling and ensure their boards have greater gender parity, in order to be fit for the future. 

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