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Unequal opportunities: fashion retail's gender problem

Drapers gender index

Drapers’ first gender equality survey reveals a worrying picture of women’s experiences of working in the fashion industry. 

Last year’s allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour at Arcadia Group and Ted Baker raised several questions around working conditions at some of the UK’s biggest fashion brands and retailers. As part of our ongoing investigation into this issue, we launched our first gender equality survey to explore what it is really like for women working in fashion today. 

More than 270 people working in the industry responded – women and men – and the findings paint a shocking picture of archaic attitudes towards gender. Although there are many progressive employers, at the top fashion retail is still by and large an old boys’ club. Women reported repeated references to their looks, being dismissed as “emotional”, and inappropriate touching and leering.

Half of the respondents said they do not feel there is equality between men and women in the industry today, and a further 22% were not sure. 

“Most of my customers are women, most of the shop staff are women, but that’s not what I see at the top,” said one respondent. “That makes no sense.”

The consensus is that women are not getting the most senior roles, although opinions on why that is differ. Two-thirds agreed that the lack of gender diversity at board level in fashion is having a negative impact on the industry. 

Worryingly, almost half (48.4%) of respondents had encountered gender discrimination in their workplace, while more than a third (36%) had experienced inappropriate behaviour – one respondent described it as “general sex pest stuff”. Interestingly, it seems women can experience discrimination in their dealings with international suppliers, who are culturally more used to dealing with other men.

More positively, when asked about equality in their workplace, 39.7% said there was and 45% said “mostly, but it could be improved” – only 15.2% said “no, not at all”. And there was other encouraging news. Four out of five respondents with children said their employer had “somewhat supported” or “supported” them to progress at work while raising a family. However, there are still issues to be addressed – some respondents pointed out that they are often unofficially expected to complete a full-time workload on part-time hours, and therefore they do more work in their own time. A minority felt they had been passed over for promotion because of their family commitments. Some made the point that, until parental leave is truly shared, there cannot be equality between the sexes at work. 

Indeed, when we asked people working in the fashion industry what is needed to support women to progress further up the ladder in fashion retail, the most common response was more widespread flexible working. Not many supported board quotas or other forms of positive discrimination. 

There is no fix-all solution to how we improve the opportunities for women in fashion retail. A flexible approach to family/work balance will certainly help, but it must come alongside better training on how to treat people equally in the workplace, mentor schemes, and a general recognition from senior leaders that the old boys’ club culture no longer has a place in the industry. 

Your views on gender equality in fashion retail

The role of gender in your workplace

Discrimination and inappropriate behaviour

What you told us:

“A 70-year-old colleague said it would be nice to see me and other female colleagues in fishnet tights.”

“It has been explained to me that men’s and women’s brains are different, and that it’s hard for lots of women to work together, as they are highly emotional.”

“I’ve been told that I should leave numbers and analysis to the men, and focus on looking good.”

“I was once chased around a room, Benny Hill style.”

“Repeated invitations to drinks/dinner with senior married colleagues”

“Comments made about the size of my breasts and how happy my husband should be”

“Shown sexually explicit imagery and asked to comment on it”

The large majority of those who have experienced what they considered to be gender discrimination or sexual harassment at work did not report it.

For many, the risk of losing their jobs or hindering their career prospects was too great. Others felt they had no concrete proof or dismissed it as “banter” or part of the culture. Some of the respondents said they would be embarrassed or feel awkward to report it, and some said the inappropriate behaviour came from senior management, so there was nobody to report it to. 

For those who did report it, the outcomes were mixed: in most cases, if it was brought to the attention of an HR representative, the person in question was reprimanded. Only in a few cases was the allegation brushed off – in one example, a respondent was told “not to lead the perpetrator on”. 

Fashion brands and retailers must review their workplace cultures and the reporting mechanisms for bullying or harassment, toensure employees feel safe to bring inappropriate behaviour to the attention of HR or management, without fear of repercussion.

Female leadership

Balancing work and family life

What you told us:

“We have an on-site nursery, but I still think more support could be given to show women it’s OK to have children.”

“My employer has always been flexible about family emergencies or commitments. However, there is an expectation for me to complete and inordinate amount of work. This has resulted in me sacrificing a lot of personal time to successfully do my job.”

“My own boss is supportive, but I do feel that not being to just drop everything at a moment’s notice and travel for day at a time has stopped me progressing.”

“I have been given flexibility, but the demands are no less.”

“I don’t have kids, and I’m expected to work longer hours and travel more than those that do.”

Changing the status quo


About the survey

  • Online survey ran from 29 January to 13 February
  • 273 responses
  • Just more than half (53.1%) in management positions
  • 84% female (one person identified as non-binary, the rest as male)

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