Women at Work: Fashion's Glass Ceiling Prevails

Female shoppers make more than 80 percent of the purchase decisions in fashion — yet only a fraction of the corporate decisions.

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Mindy Grossman

Photo By Steve Eichner

Karen Katz

Photo By John Calabrese

Call it fashion’s great divide.

Women shoppers make more than 80 percent of the purchase decisions in fashion — yet only a fraction of the corporate decisions.

The modern Women’s Lib movement is about to turn 50, and while women are outpacing men in higher education and taking on more prominent roles in politics, only 1.7 percent of the retailers in the Fortune 500 are led by female chief executive officers, according to Catalyst research. That is less than half the average of 3.8 percent for all Fortune 500 companies.

A WWD examination of 38 prominent and publicly traded companies in the fashion, retail and beauty worlds found only five women ceo’s, or 13.2 percent.

The imbalance seems to be the product of both a lingering sexism in the corporate sphere and circumstance as women strive for a work-life balance. The old boys’ club isn’t what it was, but it is still mostly men deciding who gets the keys to the corner office. And companies are slow to identify women as rising stars and get them the experience they need to take on bigger jobs.

“Can women ascend even further and can we have more women at the ceo level and in other leadership roles in society? The answer is yes,” said Anna Marie Valerio, president of Executive Leadership Strategies, who has written about women leaders. “More women are getting themselves prepared. They have been getting themselves prepared since the Eighties. It becomes more a question of what else has to change.”

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Valerio said women need to get more “stretch” assignments that give them a management role and profit and loss responsibilities, as well as a chance to interact with customers and gain international experience.

“One of the issues for women and for their bosses really is to help women develop broader networks,” she said. “Networks of people who can help them understand how the whole [organization] works.”

Several leading females in the fashion world said women sometimes limit their own careers by not shooting high enough.

“Women need to start taking a stand and not being scared,” said Tory Burch, ceo of Tory Burch LLC. “The word ‘ambition’ should not be a four-letter word. It’s something I think women should embrace. There’s been something of a stigma to that word.”

It’s a double bind: women get labeled as too abrasive if they assert themselves or as not having the right stuff to make it at the top if they don’t.

The conundrum is far from the only thing holding women back.

“It’s not this overt sexual harassment or discrimination anymore,” said Jan Combopiano, vice president and chief knowledge officer at Catalyst. “But the underlying system that’s in place, people have been definitely inattentive to fixing that system. It’s really going to take champions, people who are willing to put themselves out there and say the system isn’t working.”

So even women with the drive to excel in the corporate setting are going to need some help from without to correct the c-suite imbalance.

“The only way it’s going to change is if the people at the top say, ‘We’re going to make a change,’” said Mindy Grossman, ceo of multichannel retailer HSN Inc. “If you don’t have senior women at the top and you’re not populating your ranks, if you will, it’s not going to happen by osmosis.”

Grossman said it’s the ceo and the chairman’s responsibility to make sure a company does not only have women in leadership roles, but an executive suite that’s broadly diverse.

Grossman recalled being the only woman at a meeting with 40 people while she worked at Nike Inc., which she praised as generally embracing diversity. “‘Guys, you might want a couple more of me,’ she recalled saying. ‘I don’t speak for all women, I’m giving you one point of view.’”

There are also opportunities for women executives to connect with customers in a way that perhaps men can’t.

“I can certainly appreciate the multiple roles that women have to play these days and that is somewhat different than men,” said Karen Katz, president and ceo of The Neiman Marcus Group Inc.

Female ceo’s might have a leg up in other regards as well.

“I’m a wife, I’m a mother and I’m a ceo and to achieve the ceo [part] I’ve had to juggle a lot of things,” Katz said. “I am a truly better juggler than my male colleagues out there who are ceo’s. By nature, women are better jugglers than men. That I will say definitely.”

But there remain structural issues within companies that prevent women from getting the platform they need to strut their stuff.

Ceo’s are chosen by boards of directors, which are predominantly male. Men are seen as more likely to know, identify with and promote other men. Many companies also want to stock their boards with former ceo’s, limiting the pool of women candidates.

The corporate world and fashion get better marks when it comes to the makeup of boards of directors, though: 17.9 percent of board seats among Fortune 500 retailers are filled by women, versus 16.1 percent overall, Catalyst said. WWD’s study of 38 fashion companies found that 24.5 percent of the directors were women.

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