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Spotlight on diversity: driving gender equality

As Jo Jenkins takes up the top job at White Stuff, we look at whether efforts to get more women into senior management positions in fashion retail are paying off.

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Suzanne Harlow, Angela Spindler, Suzie de Rohan Willner and Jo Hooper

Despite the melting pot of cultures in this country and the fact that 80% of marketing is aimed at women, retail CEOs in the UK are predominately white males. As the discussion around diversity continues to build momentum within fashion and across society, this apparent homogeneity at the top will be a subject to which Drapers will return over the coming months, examining whether change is afoot and, if so, at what pace it is happening.

Employees in several groups – for example, minority ethnicities or people with disabilities (or, of course, those in more than one of these categories) – can be held back in the workplace and face hurdles to success. However, women remain the most visible and therefore the most discussed demographic. The appointment of Marks & Spencer’s director of clothing and beauty Jo Jenkins as CEO of White Stuff, announced on 25 October, will make her one of only a handful of women in the top job at fashion retailers. 

Retail performs better for female representation as a whole than other sectors in the FTSE 100 – female board representation in retail stands at 19.9%, ahead of the FTSE 100 average of 17.7%. However, in the FTSE 250, only two retail CEOs are female – Véronique Laury, CEO of B&Q and Screwfix owner Kingfisher, and Alison Cooper, CEO of Imperial Tobacco.

And representation is not the only factor to consider. Recent research from the Chartered Management Institute suggests that female managers in retail earn on average £4,315 per year – or 19.4% – less than their male colleagues, although this is actually lower than the UK average of 26.8%. Only this year, with the Gender Pay Gap Regulations 2017, has the government told larger employers – those with more than 250 employees – to publish and report figures on their gender pay gap by April 2018.

It’s difficult for women, that feeling that if you want to work flexibly you’re not taking your job seriously

Jo Hooper, Pure Collection

There have been numerous campaigns on gender diversity in retail. However, for many senior women in the fashion sector, businesses often pay lip service to the issue without addressing it properly.

“They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk,” says Jo Hooper, product director at Pure Collection. “Large corporations talk about supporting women in returning to work and flexibility, but it’s difficult for women, that feeling that if you want to work flexibly you’re not taking your job seriously at a senior level. It’s about output, not the time you spend [in the office] with your bottom on the seat.

“It’s being spoken about and things are changing, but [actual] work-life balance isn’t and the nuts and bolts of flexible working aren’t [there] for many women. HR directors and very senior board members say the right stuff, but they aren’t prepared.”

The British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) Retail 2020 report revealed last year that more than half of survey respondents (54% overall, and 56.5% of women), said they would only accept a promotion if they could maintain a flexible or part-time working pattern. The BRC also stated that a majority of retail’s approximately two million part-time employees are female. In September, the BRC paired up with recruitment agency Timewise to push for more flexible jobs at management level.

Some retailers seem to be paying attention. Five of 13 people on John Lewis’s partnership board are women. At 38%, this is considerably more than 22% national average uncovered by charity group the Directory of Social Change in March.

M&S, meanwhile, is examining how to improve its working practices.

“More than 70% of our employees work on a flexible basis – this is the nature of retail – but there is still more we can do across our office locations,” says Simmone Haywood, head of talent at M&S. “Over the next year, adopting smarter working practices is a priority for us, and we’ve invested in the systems and infrastructure to enable more remote working.” 

Gender equality is not just relevant to me, it’s a commercial imperative

Simon Harrison, Marks & Spencer

Meanwhile, its Gender Equality Network – rebranded this year from Inspiring Women Network – invites inspirational speakers to the business. Celebrating the rebrand on International Women’s Day in March this year, its co-chair, Simon Harrison, wrote in a blog post that the Network wanted to “challenge the perception of this being a female only issue”.

He explained: “Over the last six months, I have come to learn as a senior leader and a man, that gender equality is not just relevant to me, it’s a commercial imperative.”

For Suzanne Harlow, former group trading director at Debenhams, the biggest challenge and opportunity for women lies in confidence. “Women feel that in order to progress, they need to be able to tick all of the boxes,” she explains. “Male role models recognising this female trait can massively change how women feel about development and succession. It’s a key thing that needs to be addressed – at board level and below, it’s about recognising individuals regardless of gender and developing them in an appropriate way.”

Perhaps controversially, CEO of N Brown Group Angela Spindler said in a BBC interview last month that if a recruiter supplies an all-male shortlist, she “sends it straight back”. She added thar recruiters should always supply female candidates – not to guarantee them the role, but to “get their names on the list”.

“A lot of businesses talk a good game but we’re not seeing any progress,” she tells Drapers. “That being said, there is a good pipeline of talent coming through for the future. Young women now have equally ambitious plans for their careers as men, so I’m hopeful we will see a rebalancing in the future.

“We all have a part to play, but it starts from the top. Chairmen and recruiters need to make sure candidates for positions are balanced. There has been a lot of talk about women in retail, but we seem to just be limping along, the rate of progress is frustratingly slow.”

Ambition and talent are not difficult to find in the industry but having female role models at a senior level and advice when needed does not hurt, Harlow adds: “Mentoring for women is critical. Role models are important – it’s about individuals leading from the top.

“I have a daughter and I would want her expectation to be of a 50-50 gender balance [at a senior level]. We can strive to reach 30% but it’s about turning it on its head and asking: ‘Why wouldn’t we have an equal-gender board? What’s blocking it from happening?’”

Another believer in the power of coaching is Suzie de Rohan Willner, CEO of Toast, who says she wishes she had known this sooner herself: “I would have benefitted from some coaching. Job coaching is the best thing you can do as long as it’s constructive and provides balanced, positive feedback. It’s a brilliant mechanism to help you develop very fast.”

Like Harlow, confidence is key for Willner: “The earlier we can feed young women confidence, the better, and the more women we get out there doing that the better – confidence, standing tall, shaking hands, owning our space, not apologising all the time, looking people in the eye.”

“Did you know that female cyclists are more at risk on the road as they try to take up as little space as possible? Men tend to dominate the road without apology, and are safer for it, while women try to hide and are apologetic about taking up space.

“And it’s a bit like that when taking space up in an organisation – you want to encourage women to take up that space, to walk in confidently.”

For Hooper, both the problem and solution lie in company culture: “That comes from individuals. They can start the process of companies embracing [change] and delivering it at all levels from junior to senior.”

She says people must be willing to experiment and, ultimately, have a conversation: “[It’s about saying]: ‘Let’s trial working like this, and if it works well, let’s carry on. If not, we’ll find another solution. I want to see active steps being taken and to see some market leaders taking that stance.

“We feel conflicted about quotas on boards, but if you don’t take action, what will the results be? If your human resources handbook says you can ask for flexible working or a leave of absence, but you know if you do that people will turn their noses up, you won’t do it. 

“We need some big examples and some flag flying: forward-thinking corporations within retail who will take up these challenges.”

However, confidence, representation and flexibility and are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the barriers facing women in retail and, as Harlow says, merely touch upon a larger issue: “If companies struggle with gender, they will struggle with wider diversity issues. The challenge is only going to become bigger.”

The Drapers verdict

Gender diversity in retail is discussed so often that, unsurprisingly, many in the industry tire from hearing about it. But although leaders are doing a lot of talking not enough action is being taken, and women still find themselves facing the same obstacles they did years ago.

Contracts may allow for flexible working on paper but if, as Hooper says, the “nuts and bolts” are not there, this remains an empty promise. Likewise, vague assurances from businesses that they will prioritise women’s needs are not enough and those right at the top must make clear, tangible differences to the way their organisations work.

Board quotas remain a contentious issue and one which many businesses struggle to find the best solution for, but each must decide upon the method that works for it.

It is less than six months until larger retailers’ gender pay gaps must be revealed. Perhaps the facts that are uncovered will spur some retailers into action.

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