“There’s a tonne of room at the top, go after it,” Baroness Neville-Rolfe urged women seeking career progession in retail.

Former Tesco executive director Neville-Rolfe, who is now energy minister, also advised the packed room at Retail Week’s inaugural Be Inspired conference to seek positions on external boards, particularly in the public sector, in order to prepare themselves for retail’s upper echelons.

“Seek out complementary experience. It teaches how to behave [in the boardroom] and how to get on,” she said.

Neville-Rolfe said it was important for women to have a clear vision of where they want to be and what they can contribute to a business. This sentiment was echoed by Dunelm people and service director Amanda Cox. “Know what you want and let us know. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious,” said Cox.

The importance of mentors

Mentoring should be used more in retail and Neville-Rolfe said women should identify who they want to be their mentors. She recommended choosing mentors from outside of their organisation and said headhunters often run useful schemes to link up people.

Hallett Retail managing director, Wendy Hallett, agreed that mentors were essential for career progression at every level. ”Every women at every level needs to have a role model and be a role model,” she said.

Maternity matters

Hallett said one of the biggest challenges she faced was getting women to return to the work after they have children. However, she said that “women never catch up” after maternity leave and pointed out that at ages 28 to 30 – when many women decide to have children – is where the gender pay gap begins to widen.

New Look ecommerce director, Sally Heath, agreed that having children could impact career progression. “I got promoted to director. I can’t help wonder if that would be the case if I had children in my 30s,” she said.

Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign is designed to promote the careers of the next generation of women retail leaders. You can find more information and details on how to get involved by clicking here: retail-week.com/beinspired