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Women with quality don’t need quotas for fashion’s top jobs

I was interested to read that Jane Shepherdson is backing calls for quotas for women on FTSE 100 company boards.

The boss of Whistles also supports business secretary Vince Cable’s idea that women-only shortlists for board appointments ought to be drawn up. He has asked independent statutory body the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to propose guidelines for recruitment specialists on when and how women-only shortlists could be used.

The wider background to this always interesting (but not very new) debate is that the European Commission has proposed that mandatory quotas should be established to force companies to put a minimum number of women on boards. However, Labour peer Lord Davies, described in the Daily Telegraph’s piece as “the Government’s boardroom diversity champion” (did you know such a person existed? I didn’t) said quotas would be a mistake. Last year he proposed that by 2015 women should occupy at least a quarter of board seats of FTSE 100 companies, but shied away from making that compulsory.

Shepherdson was quoted as saying: “Once you get to board level in a lot of companies, it’s very male-dominated. Unless culturally that changes, you’re not really going to see that many more women taking those positions because women don’t want to work in that confrontational environment. But it’s never really going to happen unless there’s a quota. I think quotas would be a good idea. It’s something you can do to kick-start the issue. After it’s established, you can relax it.”

I am all for equal opportunities but I shiver at the thought of inviting more government intervention into business. Yet maybe Shepherdson is right and forcing change is the most effective way of making it happen. She mentions in the Daily Telegraph article that she has encountered sexism in her career and alludes to the threat of sexual harassment.

The fashion business is probably the most contradictory sector because while women can and do rise to the most senior positions in even large companies, there is still a blatantly sexist attitude in much of the advertising and marketing the industry produces.

By coincidence, before the Daily Telegraph piece appeared last weekend I was chatting to the female chief executive of a decent-sized fashion multiple. Drapers regularly organises off-the-record dinners for chief executives and other senior directors and I was curious to know whether an all-women gathering would be of interest. My friend said she was more interested in meeting anyone, male or female, who ran a similar-sized business to hers. I’d like to know if female readers of Drapers feel any real sense of “sisterhood” with their peers of the same gender, or whether this is an artificial distinction. Are good and able people simply good people, irrespective of their sex?

Although clearly men still dominate the top jobs in our sector, the fashion business is a good place to see what women can achieve.

Angela Ahrendts, the soon-to-depart boss of Burberry, Melissa Potter at Clarks, Angela Spindler at N Brown and Stacey Cartwright at Harvey Nichols are women running very large concerns. There are even more examples at slightly smaller concerns, such as Liz Evans at Oasis and Warehouse, Kate Bostock at Coast, Teresa Tideman at Jacques Vert Group, Dame Margaret Barbour at Barbour and Julie Deane at The Cambridge Satchel Company.

Let’s not forget that Whistles was the creation of Lucille Lewin (and her husband Richard). Shepherdson moved to Whistles from Topshop after becoming frustrated at the notoriously “confrontational environment” of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia. She is an excellent example of what women can achieve by taking a different approach, quotas or no quotas.

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