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Women in Retail: Is Gender Really Part of the Equation?
As part of our content series to celebrate International Women’s Day, we speak to four leaders within the Australian space about whether or not their career path has been influenced by their gender.
More than half of the Australian retail industry is made up of women (57.7 percent). Despite this, the appointment of women to ASX 200 boards is still less than men, at 45.4 percent in 2018. The average full-time wage for women working within the sector is also less than their male counterparts, coming in at 15.1 percent lower for women than it is for men.
In a statement released on Friday morning, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) acknowledged the hard work of women working within the retail chain at all levels. However, the ARA also highlighted that despite improvements, inequality is still an issue.
“While it is encouraging to see that the proportion of women in leadership roles in on the increase, there is still a long way to go before the industry reaches full gender equality,” Executive Director of the ARA,” Russell Zimmerman said.
“As the retail industry is comprised of 57.7 percent of women, the ARA understands the significance of empowering and supporting women to attain a greater share of leadership roles in the industry and will continue to work with relevant stakeholders to minimise this gap.”
To find out how much women are feeling this gender equality gap in their daily work lives, Power Retail sat down with the Vice President and Managing Director of GoDaddy ANZ, Tara Commerford, Co-Founder of beauty sampling start-up, bellabox and MD of Supernova XYZ, Sarah Hamilton and the General Manager of Esther & Co, Travis Wright, as well as Terri Vinson, the cosmetic chemist and founder of Synergie Skin.
When asked whether they think the local retail market is a welcoming one for women, we received mixed answers, with some claiming that the flexibility of the digital economy makes it suitable for women juggling family and work responsibilities and others saying it provides more opportunities but that women are still “grossly unrepresented” at an executive level.
“The e-commerce sector is affording more and more women the opportunity to get involved, allowing them greater flexibility, creativity and financial independence. But, when it comes to leading a business in this sector, there is still a lot of work to be done. As in most industries in Australia, women in executive leadership positions are still grossly underrepresented both in corporations and on-boards. In October 2018, only seven percent of Australia’s CEOs were women,” Commerford says.
Despite this, Commerford and the other women we spoke to feel like the industry is moving in the right direction, as more women start stepping up to take charge of their own careers.
“There’s an increased focus on mentorship to see women move up through middle-level management, how we look to place more women into board roles, and how we give them access to the same level of funding when it comes to the startup sector,” Commerford says.
According to Wright, these opportunities are becoming more apparent, especially as a new generation of professional women start stepping into senior roles. “Growing up my parents never even mentioned that because I was a woman I may face additional challenges, maybe that’s why I have the mindset I do – I’ve never even let it be an option so unequal opportunity never has been,” she says. “If you’ve never noticed a glass ceiling and didn’t believe it existed, then how could you possibly hit it?”
Hamilton has a similar opinion on the industry, as she says women are leading the online shopping boom, so why shouldn’t it be knowledgeable women that are enhancing the customer experience for these consumers?
“Study after study shows that most shopping, especially online, is managed by females so of course there is opportunity there, first-hand experience breeds ideas and businesses,” Hamilton explains.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are times where we face our push-backs and difficulties, but we know our worth and when you know that you’re good at what you do, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re a male or a female. We listen to our customers, and that’s what makes our e-commerce business so successful – it’s not about us, it’s always about them!”
Vinson follows up by pointing out how many online businesses are spearheaded by women, praising the 24/7 mentality of the sector that makes e-commerce a more flexible environment than many offline industries.
“The beauty of the online space is having the flexibility to work from home, or any space, at all hours. The online retail space never sleeps! This gives way for all women, especially those juggling with work and motherhood, to step up, get ahead and drive their business with greater flexibility,” Vincent exclaims. “So many startups these days are spearheaded by women – and if they aren’t their own boss they are coming to the table at managerial positions. There is a certain fearlessness that I’m seeing a lot, for example, within the amazing community Business Chicks and it makes me feel so proud.”
The Challenges of Working Your Way to the Top as a Female Leader
There’s no denying the opportunities are there, but what about the challenges? Do men and women face the same levels of discrimination? Are women overlooked because of their gender? Or is the demand for more female-friendly boardrooms creating extra learning and career development opportunities for all retail professionals, regardless of gender, age, race…?
“I read a great piece in the New York Times last week related to the US presidential race now that there are six female candidates in the mix. It spoke a lot about double standards; a man who speaks authoritatively might be confident or opinionated while a woman who does the same might be perceived as arrogant, lecturing or unable to build relationships. It’s so important to call out double standards when you see them. Until you do, they’ll go unnoticed, but when you point them out, the men in your network will become your biggest allies,” Commerford says.
“I think it’s also been important to not hold back and wait for your achievements to be noticed. I’ve been in work environments where there’s been a heavy emphasis on driving sales, and if you’re not in a direct revenue contributing role, the value that you bring to an organisation can go unnoticed. So, speaking up and demonstrating what you’re good at, how you’re contributing to an organisation is so important,” she continues.
Vinson adds that one of the biggest challenges she’s faced in her career, which a number of women can relate to, is re-entering the workforce after having children.
“When I started my business there were fewer women in leadership positions and the work/life balance was more rigid. I took time off to raise my two young kids and didn’t start Synergie until my forties for that reason! When I came back into the workforce, I knew I needed to work extra hard to be seen and heard. I even continued my studies and gained a post-grad in Formulating Chemistry,” she says.
“When you’re hungry to get to the top, or to be successful, the hardest part is not having an ‘off’ button. Women are inherently multitaskers. The creative mind never stops and as much as I love what I do it’s important to remind myself to take a break, prioritise what’s important to me and delegate to a team that I trust,” Vinson adds.
Hamilton, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like her gender has created any hurdles outside of the normal challenges every one face when trying to work their way up within the business of their choice.
“I’m not really fussed what people think of me, given I can reflect and am humbled that I am a relatively privileged female. Life is full of mean people but it’s the amount of attention that you pay to them that rewards their actions. I’m, again, lucky that I don’t let them get me down but I know this is not always the case for everyone,” she says.
For Wright, gender also hasn’t been a hurdle for her, particularly working in a female-driven organisation like Esther & Co.
“For me, it’s always been about who is working the hardest, the most agile has the best ideas and who is the most resilient. I’ve also been quite loyal to relationships I’ve built and always worked towards building a strong network. It’s all of those things that have progressed my career and got me to where I am today,” she explains.
“Earlier in my career as well as in organisations prior, I was selected over male counterparts to lead. I think if you position yourself as a clear leader, are talented in your field and establish yourself as the best choice, the rest will follow.”
Or as Commerford says, fulfiling your career aspirations is all about being open to new opportunities.
“Learn to love taking calculated risks, and keep focused on your individual life purpose – make everyday matter,” she says.