Imogen Bailey investigates why there is a gender gap when it comes to women in C-Suite positions.

According to the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) women make up 85.9% of all employees in clothing retailing.

However, only 25% are CEOs.

Digging further into the WGEA statistics on clothing retailing, women comprise; 83.2% of all managers, 44.3% of key management personnel; 61% of other executives and general managers; and, 63.5% of senior managers.

While these numbers show that fashion retail does host a number of women at the top, those leading the business – CEOs and key management personnel – are still underrepresented.

And the numbers paint a similar picture for the footwear industry too. WGEA data shows women comprise 71.9% of all employees in footwear retailing, with 20% female CEOs and 30% of key management personnel being women.

So why is this the case?

According to WGEA engagement executive manager Kate Lee, the issue stems from a segregated workforce.

“It seems like a sector that is very highly segregated in terms of occupational segregation. The jobs that women are doing are quite different from the jobs that men are doing.

“You have women concentrated in large numbers at the lower end of the income scale and then you have men predominantly filling out those higher-paid, more senior positions.

“So what I presume is that you’ve got this quite big separation between the operational part of the business – the head office where you might have more men dominating in those operational roles – and then you just have a really big workforce of women at the retail end.”

Meanwhile, Femeconomy – an online portal that approves, advocates for and lists businesses on the basis of 50% female ownership or 30% women on the board of directors – believes the issue is behind the seams.

Directors Alanna Bastin-Byrne and Jade Collins say the reason for underrepresentation of women in Australian fashion businesses is a combination of a few elements.

“I think predominantly it’s unconscious bias,” Collins says.

“Unconscious bias really perpetuates lack of opportunity for women when there aren’t enough women in leadership to actually change the culture. Lack of visible role models – so when you can’t see senior women or there might just be one – then perhaps the mindset is that there’s only one seat for a woman at the table,” she says.

“Legacy systems, structures and cultures too,” Bastin-Byrne continues.

“So what previously may have got people into leadership positions, they tend to perpetuate those thoughts, behaviours, systems and structures.

“But they (legacy systems) also tend to be predicated on the male bread-winner model which is a persistent barrier in terms of a legacy structure that we’ve all inherited,” she says.

National Retail Association (NRA) CEO Dominique Lamb says that the industry can at times become hyper-obsessed with ensuring a successful bottom line and lose sight of employees.

“I actually think that the biggest challenge for us is that we're very focused on the bottom line and making sure our businesses are running successfully – especially with the ebbs and flows of this economy – and what we've been seeing happening in retail, is we get very focused on that aspect of our business.

“Sometimes I think what we forget is that the people that make our businesses great, the people that increase our sales and the people that give us our brand and our values of our business are the people that work for us,” she explains.

While some retailers may be focused on the bottom line and creating success based on existing systems and structures, the case for diversity in leadership shows that having greater gender diversity in executive teams can actually improve the bottom line.

The 2018 Delivering Through Diversity study by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

Meanwhile those with low female and other diverse groups’ representation were 29% more likely to underperform on profitability.

So what steps can a business take to improve its female representation?

Collins says that the first step is recognising the power unconscious bias has over decision making.

“I think the first step is actually recognising that everyone has unconscious bias and really starting to self-reflect on what unconscious biases we all have as individuals and how those biases have been formed. So it’s starting to unpick and self-reflect and challenge our own belief systems,” she says.

Bastin-Byrne continues and says this self-reflection can begin at home.

“I start with my own family. Challenging my own unconscious bias in the toys that I’m giving my children, in the clothes that I buy them, in the tv shows that they watch – it can start at that micro level and then it moves into different levels of society as you work and study,” she says.

Once those biases are realised, Lee says the next step is to ensure the business is committed to improving female representation.

“First you’ve got to get buy in – you need to have a business and a leadership that is decided it’s a thing that they recognise that is a problem and that they want to change. You need leadership buy-in, that’s the first and probably most fundamental point.

“Then you need a strategy. Organisations need to look at their data. Where do you have a lot of women and what kind of things do you want to change? Where do you want to get more women into your business?

“If that is in the head office, operational side of the business then you need to have a strategy, set some targets and really be mindful about what it is you’re trying to achieve and then the steps to do it will flow,” she explains.

Lamb continues and says that creating greater transparency for potential employees about the roles that are available in fashion retail will help to create gender diverse leadership.

“I think to begin with it's really simple: it's about promoting exactly what roles and what careers we have within retail to all of our workforce.

“It's about letting youth know – because we know we predominantly employ youth – what the opportunities are and to profile people that have successfully made those roles or retail a career.

“It means you inspire people within your business to want to stay longer and to want to be part of the organisation long term.

"That's where we start.

“Then from there I think that it's about starting to put some serious structure in place in terms of how we encourage more people to apply for those roles and how we identify future leaders,” she says.

With women making 85% of purchase decisions, the case for having women in leadership strengthens. Lamb says that consumers are attracted to businesses that they see themselves reflected in.

“Putting in place structures like this and committing to values like this, often means that you attract different types of consumers, because we know consumers want to see their values reflected in businesses. But you also see new ideas come through, you see new innovation, you see new ways of looking at things.

“We talk about women now, but what we're talking about is diversity: we're talking about LGBTI, we're talking about different races, different religions, we're talking about making sure that our businesses reflect the people that we're advertising to, the people that we're inviting into our businesses. That's what's important.”

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