In a recent pitch for a blue-chip retail business, the Client spoke about the importance their company places on Diversity and how in particular they are keen to bring more women into traditionally male-dominated General Manager roles.
They asked how we go about ensuring that we present a diverse shortlist of candidates. This is always a difficult question to answer.
In short, when we are searching for candidates on behalf of our clients, we are looking for the best talent in the market and their gender, race, colour, age or sexual orientation is simply not a factor. However, we can only fish from the pool available to us and the problem with some sectors of retail is that they have been so historically male-dominated, that there are relatively few females who hold positions at the right level. Equally, the situation is reversed in other sectors eg. fashion, and in commercial functions such as Buying & Merchandising.
Our challenge is to seek out females in the under-represented sectors who are not known to us and who may not be active in the market.
One encouraging fact is that as the focus on Diversity has now been in the consciousness of major businesses for many years now, the major retail grad schemes are producing high calibre candidates of both sexes however this will take time to filter through and chances are, these candidates will be destined for Head Office positions rather than the operational roles, however senior.
It is an issue for retailers especially those, like our client, who have incredibly strong company values based on respect, compassion, communication and a supportive culture. Women naturally possess softer skills which support these values however when there are so few women holding senior operational roles in some sectors, how do companies ensure that their values are being truly reflected at all levels in their business?
The emphasis is often on the recruiters (in-house or agency) to provide more diversity. However there is a major issue which companies are still slow to address. Namely, in order to attract more women into certain sectors and functions, the roles first need to appeal to them and enable them to balance their wider family commitments. This could mean anything from flexible working, an on-site crèche or an attractive maternity policy. However, the real issue is often the very culture in which you are expecting them to work.
Earlier in my career, I worked in Food retail. The roles were in store operations so very much at the coal face and the over-riding culture was deeply male dominated. In one of my employers, the MD himself was widely quoted as saying that he didn’t like employing women as they “didn’t have the b**ls” and in my first placement with the company, my Manager was open about his aim to ‘break me’. The culture was one where weakness of any kind was not tolerated and you either put up with the aggression and relentless hours or you were out. As it happens, they didn’t break me and I worked an 80 hour week, staying longer in the role than several of my male colleagues.
Part of this was driven by my determination to prove them wrong, however one night, after driving through East London at 1am after having done a late check on one of my stores, I reflected that this wasn’t the sort of business who would ever appreciate my skills and wouldn’t be able to support my long term career or life aspirations. I moved to a different company in the same sector which had strong company values and a focus on people development and while my experience in store was more civilised in terms of working conditions, the culture was autocratic, the General Manager referred to as the ‘Guvnor’ and nobody (however senior they were) would leave the store until the Store Manager had left. This wasn’t an isolated situation and again, as a young woman starting her career in retail, I looked around and saw nobody that I could relate to or anyone who demonstrated the kind of leadership behaviours that made me want to climb the ladder.
I’m sure I’m not the only person to have experienced this and it is less of a problem if you can make the move to Head Office however for those at the coal face in some retail sectors, there is little to entice women to progress to more senior level.
Working at a company in which I am the only female employee, I know the benefits of balance in the workplace (read my previous blog here) however when recruiting we face the same issue as our larger clients. We may want to hire more women but we need to make sure that a. we are recruiting them for their calibre, b. that we can find them in the first place and c. that we are an employer of choice for people of both genders.
This is an issue which I know many major companies are addressing, keen to make sure that their suppliers are as committed to Diversity as their clients are. There seems to be a reluctance to adopt out and out positive discrimination or quotas etc. and rightly so, however there is no question we need to do what we can to make sure, when there are strong female candidates out there, that they are getting the same exposure as their male counterparts. Equally, companies need to provide greater clarity about their strategy and really think about how attractive their company actually is for women.
We would be really interested to hear any suggestions or ideas you have of best practice in this area.