Fashion has shockingly few female CEOs

Where are the women?
Where are the women?
Image: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
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Something is off in the fashion business. Say a woman and a man who graduate school with comparable educations, grade point averages, and internships enter the fashion industry at the same time. As they start moving up the ranks, everything is fine for a while. But eventually, the woman is much more likely to get stuck in middle management while the man continues to rise.

As a consequence, while there are plenty of women in middle management roles in fashion, just 12.5% of clothing companies in the Fortune 1000 today have female CEOs, according to “Unraveling the fabric ceiling,” a report by the global accounting and consulting firm PwC. That’s less than companies in the aerospace and defense industries, which are about 20% female-led, and financial services, where 18% of companies have women as their chief executives.

The discrepancy exists despite the obvious fact that women are the main audience and biggest spenders on fashion. Even by modest estimates, “women make some 80% of all fashion-related purchasing decisions—representing as much as $15 trillion—not just for themselves but for a much wider circle of family and friends, especially spouses and children,” PwC notes. Even so, among 61 womenswear companies in the Fortune 1000, 75% had mostly male corporate teams.

What gives? That’s the question PwC set out to answer.

The problems

The report documents a number of structural barriers preventing women from getting into the top jobs, even though government and industry data show that nearly 80% of students at fashion schools are women. And data shows that there’s good reason to put them in charge. PwC notes that “among apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 (including apparel retailers), female-led companies are almost twice as profitable as companies with male CEOs.”

Yet according to PwC’s analysis, while companies are spending billions on diversity training and promoting the need for diversity, CEOs are too often failing to make concrete commitments on diversity, and companies aren’t establishing metrics by which they can measure success. Statements of commitment to equality are nice, but they’re no substitute for results. Company pipelines also aren’t working: the report found that just 25% of female CEOs got there by rising up through the company, compared to 54% of male CEOs. In the clothing industry, men have typically gotten into executive training programs in higher numbers than women, PwC pointed out.

Women can suffer from institutional blind spots and unconscious bias within companies as well. Men may not recognize (paywall) that women are underrepresented in top positions, for instance, and companies on the whole can overlook the need for internal change. The way women themselves are socialized contributes, too. Women often won’t apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the requirements, where men will apply if they meet 60%, creating a so-called confidence gap. Plus, women pay the price when they have children—their pay and their rate of advancement suffer for the duration of their careers.

PwC based its analysis on interviews with current and former CEOs, insights from experts on diversity and inclusion, and a variety of data. It’s not the first to notice how few women are making it to the C-suite in fashion. Last year, a study conducted by Glamour magazine in partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and McKinsey & Company consulting group similarly found that women in fashion are hitting a wall mid-career.

The solutions

There are steps companies can take to solve these problems. First off, leadership needs to live up to its name. “There’s no substitute for the tide-changing influence of a committed CEO,” PwC writes. A board that’s balanced between genders can also help make balance within the company a priority.

And it’s critical that companies measure progress. Vague goals aren’t going to be as effective as setting clear diversity targets at every level of the company, and then supporting programs to make sure those targets are met. The report recommends giving “teeth to targets” by holding people accountable for hitting trackable goals (it doesn’t offer any suggested penalties; companies will have to decide what’s appropriate on their own).

Bias training for staff is also useful to ensure staff are spotting it where it appears, and companies should review how they handle hiring and promotions, as well as investigate any anomalies they see. If women are leaving the company more often than men, or not getting promotions at similar rates, the company should be asking why. Tools such as surveys and interviews with employees, including exit interviews, can help.

For employees who have families, companies can work out “nonlinear” career paths so those who need to juggle their duties at home and in the office aren’t being penalized for it. They should also offer flexible work arrangements and family-friendly policies—for men as well as women. When men use their family leave and take advantage of work-from-home policies to care for kids, it helps counter the stigma against women doing the same.

Individuals have their own part to play. Men can take the time to understand their own biases and blindspots, and be willing to mentor junior female colleagues. Women can raise each other up, and make it a point to ask for the things they need.

These actions aren’t just for companies to consider when they get around to it. They’re necessary now. They can help attract and retain talent, making businesses more profitable and innovative.

They’re also the right thing to do. Companies today are expected to stand for a set of values. Those values start from within.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.