Campaign supports women in retail

A campaign launched by Retail Week, to inspire and promote the careers of successful female leaders, has gained support from across the retail sector. The Be Inspired campaign,...

A campaign launched by Retail Week, to inspire and promote the careers of successful female leaders, has gained support from across the retail sector.

The Be Inspired campaign, which began in March, has been backed by high-profile women such as Paula Nickolds (commercial director at employee-owned John Lewis), Meg Lustman (chief executive at Hobbs) and Anna Barsby (chief information officer at Halfords). Now male retail leaders are adding their voices.

One of the most recent is Co-operative Group chief executive Richard Pennycook, who has pledged his support by becoming a Be Inspired ambassador. He is joined by Rob Collins, managing director at Waitrose (the food retail division of the the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership) and Matt Davies, CEO at Tesco UK and Ireland. Mr Pennycook’s predecessor at the Group, Euan Sutherland (now of SuperGroup), and Debenhams chair Sir Ian Cheshire have also become ambassadors.

“The Co-op was started by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, and became a movement that spread worldwide,” said Mr Pennycook.

“A founding principle was ’equality’, with everyone welcome to become a member and all members welcome. We’ve held true to that throughout our history, with the women of the Co-op occupying as many pages as the men. I couldn’t be more pleased to support the Be Inspired campaign.”

If ever there were an industry in which women should fill the bulk of the seats in the boardroom, “retail would be it”, says the campaign. “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’.”

The Korn Ferry Annual Retail CEO Tracker revealed that in 2015, there had been a 41% increase in chief executive appointments in UK retail – but the proportion of newly appointed female leaders fell from 25% in 2014 to just 15% in 2015. Women make up just 23.5% of FTSE 100 board members.

Looking at what is hindering progress, Retail Week says: “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.”

In comparison to traditional business models, co-operatives demonstrate significant drive towards gender equality; looking at the top 12 UK co-operative retail societies that buy through FRTS, women make up 43.8% of boards. Of these societies, Midcounties Co-operative has the highest proportion of women board members, at 68.8%. Another four societies have 50% women or more. Three have under 25%.

Related: What next for women in co-operatives?

“Co-operatives are a democracy, and democracy makes it easier for women to step forward – though co-ops have to make sure this is reflected in the executive and the management,” said Ruth FitzJohn, president of Midcounties, in an interview with the Co-operative College revisiting the Co-operative Women’s Challenge. “A more diverse group of people means there is a better chance of getting a full range of thinking. It’s a practical, moral and quality issue.”

Ms FitzJohn added that there is a need to go where women are already and “create the right shapes of jobs for the right shaped doorways”.

“We should run opportunities to help women understand why they are reluctant to put themselves forwards. Women are getting more and more experience but not going to the board level above them. We need to create the right roles and reach down to groups of people who want to be mentored.”

  • Read about the Women in Co-ops debate at Congress 2016 here, and find out more in the Women in Co-opeatives Facebook Group.
  • To help engage the next generation of female retail talent, Retail Week is hosting a Be Inspired conference on November 9 at the Fashion Retail Academy in London. The event will be a full day of networking, shared learning and mentoring in the form of an interactive conference.
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