Demand is growing for better representation of women in retail’s upper echelons, so what approaches are being used in an attempt to bring about real change?
Even in an industry that largely targets female customers retailers are all too aware that there is a lack of women in the boardroom.
Women make up 60% of retail’s workforce, yet just 20% of executive teams and 10% of executive boards are female.
The fact that so many of the UK’s largest retailers, from Tesco and Dixons Carphone to Marks & Spencer, have thrown their weight behind Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign, demonstrates there is a real desire to change these worrying statistics.
However, affecting real change is easier said than done.
Where does the pipeline stop?
People and service director at Dunelm Amanda Cox says it is important to identify where in a business the female talent pipeline dries up in order to tackle the problem.
“If it seems to stop at store manager level, it’s important to identify that and try to work out why. It could be down to a lack of role models at department manager level or a lack of flexibility,” she says.
In many cases, that pipeline comes to a halt not at a specific job role, but at a stage of life – when women opt to start a family.
The 30% Club, an organisation that aims to get a minimum of 30% women on FTSE 100 company boards, has identified the ‘danger zone’ where a woman’s career trajectory slows as being between the ages of 28 and 38.
This is a period when many women take time out of work to have children and when many men’s careers propel.
Cox says it’s important to make sure your company is supportive during this period by trying to understand what each individual wants.
Women’s needs can differ wildly, says Cox, but mentors can play a vital role in determining them.
“It’s dangerous to make assumptions. Each person should be treated as an individual,” she adds.
“Some women may choose to take a step back when they’ve just had children. That’s fine, but we shouldn’t forget where they are. In a couple of years, they might decide they want to step it up again.
If it seems to stop at store manager level, it’s important to identify that and try to work out why. It could be down to a lack of role models at department manager level or a lack of flexibility
Amanda Cox, Dunelm
“We need to make sure we support them and remember the trajectory they were on,” she says.
Employers should provide options such as flexible working and sabbaticals to work around the needs of new mothers.
Fashion retailer White Stuff is investing in flexible working to retain its best talent.
Employees are encouraged to challenge the number of meetings they have to attend, and the business has invested in IT to provide remote access to data to help make working from home a reality.
Dianah Worman, associate adviser for diversity and inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and co-director at consultancy Inclusive Talent, argues that taking time out to look after children can help build new skills that can benefit the business.
“They can go off and learn new skills and strengths. Give them that room to do that and let them know you value them,” she says.
Training, development and mentoring
With training and development important for all talent, Cox believes companies should “layer on” specific training and informal programmes for women.
Dentsu Aegis Network, which owns eCommera – Be Inspired’s platinum sponsor – introduced its Women in Leadership programme last year to help foster a culture where women can become leaders on their own terms.
Tracy De Groose, chief executive of Dentsu Aegis UK & Ireland, says the programme is already having a positive impact on female career progression.
We have addressed this is by setting up a development programme specifically designed to help our women accelerate their careers and achieve their potential
Tracy De Groose, Dentsu Aegis UK & Ireland
“No single strategy will fix the challenge, but one of the ways we have addressed this is by setting up a development programme specifically designed to help our women accelerate their careers and achieve their potential.
“The results speak for themselves and several are now taking on bigger roles including moves into managing director positions,” she says.
Cox says Dunelm has introduced mentoring, networking events and informal guidance sessions to help female employees build confidence, which she says can be a real barrier for some to progress to the next level.
Beth Butterwick, chief executive of Karen Millen, says mentoring helped her to achieve her own success.
“I believe one of the key factors that has supported me in being the experienced leader I am today, is the support, mentoring and sponsorship I have had from other great leaders along the way…
“They encouraged me to be curious, believe in myself and shoot for the stars,” she said in the Gender Balance in the Retail Boardroom report earlier this year.
Many of the UK’s largest businesses, including Kingfisher, John Lewis and Dixons Carphone, have mentoring schemes.
Cox says it is important to have a mix of mentors of both sexes, across a wide number of business areas, and HR leaders should make sure mentors are trained to bring the most out of their mentees.
It is also important to tailor the format of mentoring. Dixons Carphone director of talent and development Caroline Angell says its well-established mentoring programme, which is offered to all staff, can be operated as formally or informally as the employee likes.
She says: “We have found that it is particularly helpful for women as they progress into senior roles and are trying to maintain the right work-life balance.
”However, we are beginning to see a trend that this mentoring assistance has also become hugely valuable for our male workforce.
Ultimately, while we are extremely committed to supporting women as they progress within our business, we believe mentoring should be an entrenched company ethos rather than simply a gender diversity initiative
Caroline Angell, Dixons Carphone
“Ultimately, while we are extremely committed to supporting women as they progress within our business, we believe mentoring should be an entrenched company ethos rather than simply a gender diversity initiative.”
Annabel Thorburn, director of retail services at eCommera, also believes development programmes should be offered to men, but for a different reason.
“While increasingly these programmes are being rolled out, what is interesting is that the participants are typically all women, which is a great investment in them, but arguably the education needs to be across the board – men included,” she says.
Positive role models
Retailers need to get to the root cause of what stops career progression for women in their businesses, says Cox.
“You need to understand what the barriers are,” she says. An all too common factor is the lack of female role models in their organisation.
“When you only see men in senior positions, you think ‘I can’t get there’,” adds Cox.
Cox says the fact that three women sit on Dunelm’s executive team, and there is a good spread of female directors and area managers across the business, makes people think “it is possible”.
“It shows it’s not just a box-ticking exercise. Women are successful here,” she says.
When you only see men in senior positions, you think ‘I can’t get there’
Amanda Cox, Dunelm
Cox says it’s important for the senior leadership team, both female and male, to be visible and accessible.
Dunelm holds career talks by its executive and non-executive team where small groups can hear about their career progression.
Inclusive Talent’s Worman points out that it is important that those women at the top are identified as women, rather than just leaders.
“Often women at the top do not bring their experience of being a woman into the job. They try to behave more like men,” she says.
The Co-op retail chief financial officer Jo Whitfield said in the Gender Balance in the Retail Boardroom report that she has experienced such behaviour.
“It is particularly hard in some of the functional areas which are more male-dominated and you often see women feeling compelled to display more male behaviours such that they are not being true to themselves,” says Whitfield.
Worman says that is a missed opportunity for retail. “We shouldn’t block the way women see things. People shouldn’t have to change to fit in. The culture needs to change,” she says.
And that is where the real challenge lies. To truly change the make-up of retail’s male-dominated boardrooms, the culture of their businesses must be one in which gender does not inhibit or enhance progress.
After all, diversity isn’t HR policy or a mentoring scheme, it’s a culture.