The UK government made history last month with the election of Britain’s second female prime minister. But, in 2016, the retail industry still has a long way to go in narrowing the gender gap, with only 10% of executive boards in the sector being made up of women. We spoke to six top female leaders working in lingerie and fashion retail to discover the reasons behind gender inequality in the industry and hear what paths they’ve taken on their routes to success.

A new report has explained why the majority of women in retail are not climbing the ladder into senior leadership roles.

Women in Retail, an inspirational and inclusive community for accomplished and emerging leaders, and management consultancy Elixirr conducted the study into gender diversity across 44 different retailers.

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Seventy retail bosses from companies such as John Lewis, Tesco and ASOS were asked why women only make up 10% and 20% of retailers’ executive boards and teams respectively, despite 60% of total retail employees being women and 85% of purchase decisions being made or influenced by women.

The study uncovered three common reasons or ‘excuses’ as to why gender balance in retail boardrooms has not yet been achieved. They are: a lack of female role models, a lack of confidence and a lack of flexible working hours.

Setting gender balance targets, making a deliberate decision to always consider female candidates for recruitment and appointing an executive owner who is responsible for driving the gender diversity agenda at all levels were suggested as ways to kick-start effective change.

But what do female executives in the lingerie and fashion world make of these findings? And what experiences have they had in working their way from the shop floor to the top floor? We spoke to six women in retail to find out.

Jacqueline Gold
CEO, Ann Summers

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Have you ever received any negative comments from male co-workers?
At the very beginning of my career I was on the receiving end of a fairly shocking statement from one of the male board members. I was just 21 years-old and had developed the idea for Ann Summers parties.

I was convinced my idea would do great things for the business and so pitched the idea to the all-male board, who at the time weren’t particularly interested in attracting a female customer. As I pitched my idea, one of the board tuned to me and said, “This will never work, women aren’t even interested in sex”.

At the time, I remember thinking that clearly said more about his sex life than my idea, but I bit my tongue and told him why I disagreed and felt there would be a real want from female customers for the parties. I look back on that comment now and smile, but at the time it said so much about his opinion of women. I will always be proud of myself when I look back on that moment and was able to find the courage to keep going and not be wrong footed or swayed by his comment, something I encourage every woman to do when they have belief and passion in an idea.

Have you ever been discouraged to pursue a senior role in retail?

No I haven’t; I have been lucky that within Ann Summers we have always encouraged progression and celebrate all of our talent, male and female.

Why do you think women only make up 10% of retail executive boards?

I wish I knew the answer to this! I think it’s ridiculous that in an industry such as retail we have so few female leaders. I can’t understand why some retailers fail to recognise and appreciate the female talent that’s in front of them and nurture this, as I genuinely believe more female leaders will equal better results for the sector.

What can be done to change this?
We, as an industry, need to commit to making a real change in this area. It’s about us coming together, acknowledging the issue and looking at the ways in which we can make a change together. We need more female role models, better flexible working hours and a change in culture. It’s also important that women find the confidence to put themselves forward for senior roles.

What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a senior leadership role in retail?
Make sure you are vocal about your desire to pursue a new role and ask your seniors what they want to see from you to achieve that role. Keep reminding them of your skills and why you would be good for the role and don’t let them forget how much you want it and why they should consider you. Be proud of what you have achieved and have the self-belief that you absolutely will achieve that senior role.

Dawn Barber
Founder and managing director, UK Tights

Why did you choose a career in retail?
I know it sounds cheesy, but I really am a people person. I’ve worked in B2B for many years, but its always been about the people for me.

Have you ever experienced animosity from your co-workers during your retail career?
Not really, as I’ve always been the boss, but I have experienced this in the past when working as a member of a large team in the IT industry. This industry is very male-orientated so it’s quite normal to experience that behaviour.

Have you ever received any negative comments from male co-workers?
When I was much younger yes; I was called bossy and pushy. If I had been a man, they would have called me ambitious. It just made me more determined to push on.

Have you ever been discouraged to pursue a senior role in retail?
When I was in sales I was discouraged by men to go for a senior role, as they felt slightly threatened by me. I’m not sure if this was because I was a woman or because I was a good sales person.

Why do you think women only make up 10% of retail executive boards?
I think a number of women are hesitant when it comes to pushing for that better position within the company due today’s culture. I believe that women who want to go higher also have the issues of juggling home, family, work etc. Men rarely have these issues. Having run my own company with four children in tow, I know how hard this can be.

What can be done to change this?
I believe women everywhere should follow their instincts. If they feel they can do a job then they should go for it. I used to always believe in the old adage that to be a women in a senior position you have to look like a woman, think like a man and work like a dog.

What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a senior leadership role in retail?
I would tell them to just go for it. There is nothing in any role that a man does that a woman can’t do just as well. If you’re committed and truly want to move up then just keep going. Don’t take no for an answer.

Fiona Holmes
Managing director (outgoing), Figleaves

Why did you choose a career in retail?
I did a Business Studies degree at Edinburgh University as I wanted to be rich…so I went on a milk round and chose to work at M&S as I have always loved shopping. What girl doesn’t?

Have you ever experienced animosity from your co-workers during your retail career?
No; M&S were super supportive in my early career and throughout three maternity leaves. Since then, I have had great bosses who positively encouraged me to expand my horizons, especially Roger Holmes at M&S and Alan White at N Brown.

Have you ever received any negative comments from male co-workers? 
No. Menswear at M&S was a different culture to womenswear, partly because of the number of men there. When I joined M&S there was a glass ceiling that very few women broke through, but that was 25 years ago. I have loads of female contemporaries who run retail businesses – Beth Butterwick, Liz Steele, Meg Lustman, to name a few.

Have you ever been discouraged to pursue a senior role in retail?
I have chosen to balance my family responsibilities and my desire to peruse not-profit roles with managing my full-time career, and I guess that may have influenced the choices I have made, but I have always felt that my destiny was in my control and that I could peruse the path that was right for me.

Why do you think women only make up 10% of retail executive boards?
I think that there is a ‘slip road’ that women in many industries take when they become parents. I think most families need to be more demanding of their employers to find solutions that enable top talent to keep progressing. I also think that if we analysed race and disability then similar patterns would emerge. An enormous generalisation is that men like belonging to clubs with other men and we facilitate that by not pushing on when the going gets tough. Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

What can be done to change this?
I used to be super anti-quotas, but now I am a firm believer in them. I think we (today’s leaders) also need to adopt flexible working environments to enable employees to look after themselves and their families, combined with holding down a role that enables them to progress to the extent of their talent and capability. At the moment I think the race for the top is all about who shouts loudest and works hardest, not necessarily the smartest. We also need to start talking about working fathers, not just working mothers.

What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a senior leadership role in retail?
The same advice as I would give to men – go for it. Make good choices on the way and always know where your current role is taking you. Surround yourself with the best team you can find. The best road is not always the straight road. It is a long race, so be brave and find yourself mentors you can trust.

Isabel Baert
UK management team member, Rigby & Peller

Why did you choose a career in retail?
I believe retail is one of the most exciting business sectors to be a part of. I’ve always felt retail is a performance-driven sector which provides clear opportunities to rise up the career ladder. To date, I’ve not
been disappointed.

Have you ever received any negative comments from male co-workers?
Like everyone, I’ve been on the receiving end of both good and bad management, regardless of sex. However, I can honestly say I haven’t encountered any negativity from male co-workers that hasn’t been constructive. I have some excellent male role models and mentors and I have found them to be nothing but supportive. I’d actually go as far as to say that I’ve received more negative comments from female colleagues in the past.

Why do you think women only make up 10% of the retail executive boards?
To my mind, it’s the age-old problem of balancing work with family commitments. Retail involves long and unsociable hours, seven days a week. Travel often plays a part in more senior roles, and the overall set-up, where a lot of your work has to be done outside of trading hours, is not particularly flexible.

What can be done to change this?
We need to focus on stronger succession planning. Women in ‘middle weight’ positions need to feel supported and need role models and mentors to help them build the confidence in going for more senior positions. Personally, I don’t agree with ‘quotas’. While this may help with fast-tracking change, I think it could in fact undermine the work which women are capable of and could serve to further dampen confidence. People work for people, and I strongly believe only the best person for the job should be hired.

What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a senior leadership role in retail?
Work hard, stay calm, don’t take things personally, be humble and, above all else, be respectful.

Julie Donnelly
Womenswear buying director, N Brown Group

Why did you choose a career in retail?

It runs in the family. My mother was a HR manager for a large retailer and my father and stepmother owned several fashion boutiques in the North West. I think I was one of the first teenagers in Liverpool to own a maxi coat.

Have you ever experienced animosity from your co-workers during your retail career?
I can honestly say no, but I have always been open, honest and straight-talking, which I think my colleagues have always appreciated. Well, I hope they have anyway!

Have you ever received any negative comments from male co-workers?
I’ve spent most of my career in clothing and have mainly worked with female buyers. However, at the start of my career (and we are talking a number of years ago) I spent many years buying lingerie and, to my surprise, that world was dominated by men. They were all incredibly welcoming and happy to share their knowledge.

Why do you think women only make up 10% of retail executive boards?
I think it’s very sad. Women have no problem making it to a head of department role, but that next step has always proved a problem. One of the things that attracted me to N Brown was the fact that women make up half of the board.

What can be done to change this?
Well, they say that people often recruit in their own likeness, so I guess it needs to start with some enlightened men. Employers need to encourage both men and women to keep climbing the ladder, and to not to treat anyone differently.

What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a senior leadership role in retail?
Be true to yourself and push for what you want. Also, never stop learning. Admitting you don’t have all the answers is not a weakness.

Alison Lancaster
Chief customer officer (interim), House of Fraser

Why did you choose a career in retail?
I started my career in advertising, and have always loved shopping. When I had the opportunity to move client-side into retail, I jumped at it.

Have you ever experienced animosity from your co-workers during your retail career?
From time to time, I’ve come across a few people who have been challenging to work with, but the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from those experiences is not to take it personally, and to listen, reflect, learn, become stronger and even more resilient. I just wish I’d understood that a little earlier on. Today, great organisations recognise the importance and benefits of creating a distinctive corporate culture with a clear set of values. This helps build, develop and foster a more positive, collaborative team environment.

Have you ever received any negative comments from male co-workers?
My mother and father worked in the motor trade and I grew up on a garage forecourt. I also worked in advertising during the 80s, so I’ve had my fair share [of negative comments], but what doesn’t break you, makes you.

Have you ever been discouraged to pursue a senior role in retail?
Never. Retail has enabled me to enjoy a fabulous career, and whether you are a man or a woman, it’s always been possible to go from the shop floor to the top floor. I’ve been privileged and lucky to work and network with some fantastic leaders, business partners and coaches throughout my retail career – outstanding men and women – who’ve been totally inspirational, motivational and supportive.

Why do you think women only make up 10% of retail executive boards?
Historically, the boardroom has been a rather male-dominated territory. However, appointments should be made on merit, performance and capability (experience, expertise and leadership). I do believe this is changing, albeit rather slowly, and I do hear about more women being considered for key roles on executive boards. It’s still rather disappointing that last year only 15% of the top retail CEOs were female, a decline from 25% in 2014.

What can be done to change this?
Unfortunately, due to the slow pace of change, I do think there has to be a gender balance agenda with specific targets and measures to keep at the top of our minds when building better boards for the future. It helps when organisations have a senior champion to mentor and encourage female candidates to go for key leadership roles. Needless to say, it also helps when organisations lead by example, and actively appoints female talent to the top table. Chairmen and CEOs such as Sir Charlie Mayfield, Beth Butterwick and Angela Spindler are truly inspirational leaders.

What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a senior leadership role in retail?
Live it. Love it. Lead it. Go for it. Be authentic and true to your core beliefs. Be honest, but kind. Be brave, bold and passionately curious. Dare to be different, and be prepared to stand out from the crowd. At the end of the day, it’s all about building relationships, strong networks and following through at pace. And the rewards – and fun – can be immense!

What the BRC says

Helen Dickinson, OBE
Director general, British Retail Consortium

Why do you think women only make up 10% of retail executive boards?
The reasons that we are still lacking female representation at the top level of our industry are complex and cross-cut many interrelated issues. There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet and making real progress is likely to require a combination of interventions jointly involving educators, businesses and government. This means that in the future we will need to continue to work closely with the Government across multiple fronts to ensure this happens.

What can be done to change this?
Recent government initiatives have helped to move things in the right direction. The Davis Review has been effective in setting targets for the number of women in boardrooms as well as in pushing the issue up the agenda.

These signs are encouraging but progress is slow and still too few women are climbing the ladder to the top of their companies. We know from the findings of the review that 45% of FTSE 100 companies did not meet the minimum target of twenty-five per cent of women in boardrooms by 2015.

Simply put, more needs to be done to ensure that the next generation of female business leaders step forward and are able to move further up the career ladder. Alongside this, there needs to be clear measures in place so that we can keep track of which interventions have been successful – and where they haven’t, what more can be done.

Our industry has a significant role to play in all this. We already have a strong track record of promoting good people quickly, regardless of their background and we are working hard to improve the opportunities open to women at all levels. But we need to make sure — by sponsoring and supporting women throughout their careers and by working with government — that the barriers that still exist at all levels are being tackled.