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Women in the top jobs? It seems the industry’s not for turning

Margaret Thatcher was laid to rest this week, but exactly what her legacy will be is far from settled. Leaving aside the miners’ strikes and dubious foreign friendships, one of the biggest questions is over what she did for women’s rights.

The country’s first female prime minister undeniably broke through the toughest glass ceiling around, offering
scores of young women an icon to follow, and yet her track record for promoting those eager to follow in her footsteps was appalling.

It’s an interesting dichotomy - although the idea that she must be a feminist just because she was a woman is, clearly, nonsense. If truth be told, she probably would have shrugged her shoulders at our lead story this week, which shows there are now fewer female chief executives and board members at fashion retailers and brands than a year ago. But it is essential the industry doesn’t do the same.

Some of the retailers I spoke to while gathering research insisted - apparently without irony - that there were many women high up in the business. Those who have started out lower down the business and worked their way up within their specialism of product design, marketing, ecommerce and so on are spread thickly throughout the industry. But where are those with the full breadth of skills needed to punch through to the next level?

Allowances are now being made for businesses which, against the backdrop of even more economic pressures, are taking the most risk-averse approach they can. But to run a company without representation from the group of people you arguably want to hear from is incredibly short-sighted.

Quotas, however, can be just as short-sighted. The idea that someone is hired or promoted simply because they tick the right box at the right time, rather than having developed the skills necessary to lead a business, is entirely wrong.

Often this is where the arguments about diversity - be it gender or ethnicity - conclude, but it needn’t be the case.

One company, Burberry, has been identified as encouraging its staff, both male and female, to push past their comfort zone and take new roles and responsibilities. Under its (female) chief executive, several ex-members of the team have gone on to take roles as chief executives at other businesses. The same approach - encouraging staff to take non-executive directorships at other companies, or moving personnel around so they develop a balanced set of skills, could be adopted by others with similar success.

Thatcher once said the battle for women’s rights “has been largely won”. While ground has certainly been gained since she was first elected MP in 1959, the fact there are fewer women in the top jobs now than a year ago highlights just how far there is still to go.

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