As Retail Week unveils a campaign to encourage women leaders, we look at the importance of role models in creating boardroom diversity.

Be Inspired

Visit the Be Inspired website here, for full details and the video documentary.

If ever there were an industry in which women should fill the bulk of the seats in the boardroom, retail would be it. When it comes to customers, they lead the way: its big spenders are women, it’s marketed to women and its target customer is often referred to as ‘she’.

So why are female leaders the exception rather than the norm in the boardrooms of the country’s largest retailers?

For years there have been discussions about what needs to be done, but change has been slow to take effect.

Earlier this month, the Korn Ferry Annual Retail CEO Tracker revealed that there had been a 41% increase in chief executive appointments in UK retail in 2015, yet the proportion of newly appointed female leaders fell from 25% in 2014 to just 15% in 2015.

The industry doesn’t lack talented women, but clearly blockers remain as to why so few make it to the top. Retail Week wants to address that imbalance and, as a response, is launching Be Inspired: Role models for future female leaders.

“For me, it’s all about empowering and encouraging career-focused individuals to become the leaders of tomorrow”

Vanessa Gold, Ann Summers

The celebration of female chief executives and senior leaders as role models is what sets this campaign apart.

Be Inspired ambassador and Ann Summers managing director Vanessa Gold believes it will set an example for the next generation: “That example being that everyone has the potential to succeed and excel in their career.

”In fact, gender is irrelevant. For me, it’s all about empowering and encouraging career-focused individuals to become the leaders of tomorrow.”

The word ‘women’ has deliberately not been referenced in the campaign strapline. The women in retail debate is synonymous with boardroom ratios, positive discrimination, box-ticking and, at its most negative, has been perceived by some to be a feminist rant.

Jacqueline Gold, chief executive, Ann Summers

Jacquelinenew web

Jacquelinenew web

Just over 35 years ago I started my career in retail, a career which has allowed me to work in an industry I love and as chief executive of a brand run by women, for women.

I look back on the early days of my career, the challenges I faced as a 21-year-old woman in retail and the lack of female role models in the industry at that time, and I am saddened that nearly four decades on, while there has been some change, we are still severely behind where we should be.

I know there is a huge amount of female talent out there, and it is our responsibility to embrace and nurture this talent to create leaders of the future. For those of us in senior positions, we must prove that it is possible to reach the top, and the Be Inspired initiative from Retail Week is a fantastic way to bring the industry together to work towards this common goal. Uniting senior female leaders in this way will, I am confident, inspire the next generation to believe in themselves and in their ability to climb to the top.

Thirty-five years ago there were almost no female role models – in 2016 there still aren’t enough, but what we do have is a collection of men and women who have achieved great success and it’s important we come together to support the next generation to ensure that we are not having this same conversation in another 35 years’ time.

“I genuinely believe more senior female talent will only bring huge benefit to our industry”

Jacqueline Gold, Ann Summers

I am reaching out to ask you to take the time to support this initiative. I genuinely believe more senior female talent will only bring huge benefit to our industry. So let’s take the time to really address this inequality, inspire more women to reach for the top and, together, do all we can to help them get there.

Campaign ambassador Beth Butterwick, chief executive of Bonmarché, says: “I’ve never believed in ‘quotas’, and firmly believe that great businesses have a balance of both men and women. However, I do feel strongly that women can offer different skills, intellect and emotional qualities to a business discussion.”

“I do feel strongly that women can offer different skills, intellect and emotional qualities to a business discussion”

Beth Butterwick, Bonmarché

Through Be Inspired, Retail Week wants to bring together and shine a light on some of the most high-profile and successful female leaders in UK retail.

What has fuelled their ambition? How did they make it? What were the highs and lows along their career paths? And why is having role models so important?

We want to use these stories to provide practical inspiration for the next generation of female leaders. We want to create direction for emerging talent and effect change throughout the industry.

As PetsPyjamas boss Gracia Amico says: “I’ve been lucky to have had several successful mature women around me throughout my career who took the time and cared enough to pass on their knowledge and life lessons.”

Paula Nickolds, commercial director, John Lewis: “This is a great opportunity to celebrate and surface female leaders of today and to inspire the next generation. Women make up just over half of the UK population and therefore customers. Ensuring they are better represented in senior roles and boardrooms across our industry must help us understand and deliver for them more effectively.”

Meg Lustman, chief executive, Hobbs: “In the long term, I hope Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign will align with a broader momentum in society to improve representation and recognition of diverse leadership groups, and in this case to help support and celebrate the role of women as leaders in the retail sector.”

Vanessa Gold, managing director, Ann Summers: “Women have never been in a stronger position to lead and shape the economic, social and political landscape. However, as a female MD in retail, I understand how crucial campaigns like this one are, because the industry still has a long way to go before men and women stand side by side as equals. Be Inspired is a stepping stone for ending the gender inequality gap.”

Beth Butterwick, chief executive, Bonmarché: “Even though retail is gradually becoming less male-dominant at the top, the underlying issue remains that women often need more confidence to pursue their career advancement dreams.”

Gillian Drakeford, country manager, Ikea UK and Ireland: “I’m proud to be supporting the Be Inspired campaign. By sharing our career experiences I hope we can inspire and give confidence to the next generation of women leaders to go out and pursue their career goals.”

The retail sector is not short of discussions about what needs to be done. No one questions the value of more women in the boardroom and the industry does not lack male leaders who are fully behind the drive.

Meg Lustman Hobbs

Meg Lustman Hobbs

Meg Lustman, Hobbs

Meg Lustman, Hobbs boss and campaign ambassador, says: “The value of balancing representation in the retail sector, and indeed the broader economy, is clear. Ensuring diversity throughout an organisation makes simple and good business sense – it reflects the customer and it reflects society.”

So what is hindering progress? The retail workforce is dominated by women up to a certain level, after which they often disappear into the ether or remain in the shadows.

What is really needed is a change in cultural thinking and aspirations. Retail Week wants to give these individuals access to the women who have made it to the top of their careers, use their stories to inspire them to do the same, and offer practical guidance on overcoming the challenges.

Ultimately, change is only going to be effected by helping individuals to help themselves.

Campaign ambassadorsRoleCompany
Gracia Amico Chief executive PetsPyjamas
Anna Barsby Chief information officer Halfords
Katie Bickerstaffe Chief executive UK and Ireland Dixons Carphone
Kate Bostock Founder Angel and Rocket (and former chief executive of Coast)
Beth Butterwick Chief executive Bonmarché
Gillian Drakeford UK and Ireland manager Ikea
Susanne Given Non-executive director
Jacqueline Gold Chief executive Ann Summers
Vanessa Gold Managing director Ann Summers
Wendy Hallett Founder Hallett Retail
Suzanne Harlow Group trading director Debenhams
Lindsay Haselhurst Supply chain director Screwfix
Genevieve Kunst Vice-president and managing director Europe Shopstyle
Miriam Lahage Chief merchant Navabi
Fiona Lambert Former vice-president of brand design and development Asda
Bridget Lea Head of O2 Stores Telefónica
Meg Lustman Chief executive Hobbs
Catriona Marshall Chief executive Hobbycraft
Paula Nickolds Commercial director John Lewis
Angela Spindler Chief executive N Brown
Mary Turner Chief executive Koovs

Butterwick believes Retail Week’s campaign is “fundamental” to the industry. “I’m hoping it will enable colleagues to hear about, and have access to, role models.

Beth Butterwick

Beth Butterwick

Beth Butterwick, Bonmarché

”Ultimately, this will facilitate the process of ‘believing in me’ so that the notion of a glass ceiling can disappear.”

As Gold says: “I look forward to the day when gender doesn’t play a role in someone’s career progression.”

We want to bring women leaders’ career paths to life, making their achievements tangible, creating the kind of inspiration that turns ambition into reality, and which moves the women in retail debate out of theory and into practice, out of statistics and into stories.

Get involved

If you are a senior female leader and would like to back the campaign as an ambassador, or would like more information on our Be Inspired forum, please email

Join the conversation on Twitter: #RWbeinspired

For more on the campaign, click here