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Retailer Insight: The business case for gender-inclusive working

Claire Henderson is CEO and co-founder of womenswear etailer Oh Polly. She tells Drapers how inclusive working is the foundation of its financial success.

Despite being an industry primarily focused on female consumers and driven by a predominantly female workforce, fashion brands are among the worst offenders when it comes to gender imbalance in the workplace.

Although 85% of all retail purchases are made or influenced by women, Elixirr has reported, only 24% of CEOs appointed in the retail sector in 2018 were female (Korn Ferry).

As a woman working at a senior level in the fashion industry, this issue is close to my heart and inspired me to co-found my own business, [womenswear etailer] Oh Polly.

Oh polly ss19 (1)

Oh Polly spring 19

The rise of ecommerce and social media platforms has created opportunities for many female entrepreneurs across different industries. Rather than fighting their way up the career ladder at an established organisation, many women have started their own businesses with forward-thinking cultures embedded at their core.

By integrating flexible working practices, implementing policies that eradicate gender pay gaps and ensuring women are well represented on the board, these businesses are creating an environment in which female employees can thrive.

When our younger employees see women in senior positions, it proves to them that glass ceilings are no longer the norm

At Oh Polly, we were determined to integrate similar practices into our business model from the outset. We have no gender pay gap and our employees benefit from flexible working, including the option to move starting and finishing times to allow for outside commitments, such as childcare. Employees are also given three hours’ personal admin time per month and three days’ emergency paid leave each year, and we have a lenient working-from-home policy.

The impact of these policies is reflected in the make-up of our global senior management team: more than half (59%) of positions are held by women. We are aiming to employ 140 people across our Glasgow and Liverpool offices by the end of this year.

In the UK and Los Angeles, 70% of our leadership team are women, and in Bangladesh, a country where women in managerial positions are rare, we employ several female senior managers. In China, 66% of leadership positions are held by women, including our head of operations – the most senior role in our Chinese business.

The numbers speak for themselves. At Oh Polly, sales have rocketed for three years running. Turnover is on track to hit £21m this year – up 140% on 2017/18 – and EBITDA is expected to more than double by 104% to £3m.

Oh polly ss19 (2)

Oh Polly spring 19

I believe that, when our younger employees see women in senior positions, it proves to them that glass ceilings are no longer the norm.

If other fashion brands fail to adapt, they may not only struggle to retain experienced female employees, they will also miss out on attracting the next generation of talent – regardless of their gender. Millennials across all sectors now expect more from employers in terms of helping them to achieve a better work-life balance, and they reward those who do so with higher levels of loyalty.

Girl power

Being female led also helps us appreciate the ways in which women use fashion to celebrate their individuality. Having women well represented in our creative team, from design through to marketing, means we can truly embody our slogan “for girls, by girls”.

The fashion industry, which is already known for its vibrancy and creativity, can only gain from creating more inclusive workplace environments and online communities. And thanks to its sheer size, if more brands put positive values at the heart of their business models, the fashion industry will have a profoundly positive impact on society. 

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