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Can Fashion Lead the Way with Reducing the Impact of the Pandemic on Gender Equality?

Today, there are 40 businesses led by women in Fortune 500 companies. In 2019, the number was 33. In 2000 it was just two. Some would say this is progress for women in work and it is, kind of.

While progress is undoubtedly being made, female representation at the very top is still incredibly low at just 8 percent. And we all know that change must be made at the top of companies before it filters down.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels

When women aren’t amongst the top leaders in their industry, decisions will be made that don’t factor in problems most-commonly faced by women. This includes:

  • childcare

  • unpaid labour

  • the gender-pay gap

  • flexible working

  • lack of support around female health issues such as menopause.

So in reality, yes more women occupy top positions now than ever before, but we are still a long way from securing equality in the workplace. And while progress must be celebrated, we must also acknowledge that we all have work to do and a role to play.

It's all the more troubling then, that the economic fallout from the pandemic is hitting women the hardest. And therefore threatening further progress in this area.

In fact, by September 2020, global women's labour force participation fell by over two percentage points – a statistic indicative of a potentially huge emerging gender gap. In the US, for example, 2.5 million more women lost their jobs compared to men (11.5 million and 9 million respectively). And in the UK, women and less educated workers are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Some are even likening this situation as a return to the 1970s female archetype where the woman remains at home and the man goes to work.

Even before the pandemic, there existed a significant gender divide in terms of childcare and unpaid care work. Globally, 75% of unpaid work (invisible labour let’s call it) is done by women, who spend on average 3-6 hours a day on this compared to their male counterparts who spend 30 minutes-2 hours. (I would highly recommend reading the fantastic ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ by Caroline Criado Perez for more on this.)

Over the past year, repeated lockdowns as well as economic and job uncertainty have only exacerbated this issue, with women now spending on average 22.5 hours a week on childcare compared to 12 hours for men.

Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva on Pexels

This, combined with unbalanced housework commitments, a worsening gender pay gap and fewer opportunities for networking and promotion, has meant that the pandemic has a potentially devastating impact on gender equality.

On a subject that is mostly doom and gloom, I do want to highlight a ray of hope that has come from an industry I work closely in. In Fashion, female representation among CEOs in the industry rose by 95.1 percent in 2020 according to data from research firm Nextail.

The fashion categories with the highest percentage of female CEOs joining their ranks were beauty and cosmetics (57.1 percent) and sportswear (50 percent). And, while men replacing men continued to be the most common turnover, women replacing men accounted for 40.2 percent of cases – and men replaced women in only 4.9 percent of cases.

One of these placements was Sue Nabi, who in September 2020 became CEO at Coty. Her previous roles include worldwide President at both L’Oréal and Lancôme during her twenty year tenure at L’Oréal.

And immediately, her placement has seen some real improvement not just in terms of commercial success, but bringing in employee wellbeing and culture initiatives that will significantly affect female employees.

Deadlines are no longer imposed and no emails are sent after 6pm. Sue spoke to The Gentlewoman in 2019 about the importance of leaders providing barriers so that work life doesn’t seep into free time

“Have downtime and a private life, so they can take care of their children, read books, learn new things.”

Alongside this, Sue has been directly credited with improving diversity at L’Oréal and Lancôme which is especially necessary in leadership - when leaders do not have the same backgrounds, the same education, the same beliefs etc, their decisions will naturally be much more inclusive - effecting positive change for employees and consumers alike.

We can see this in Ulta’s enormous success since Mary Dillon became CEO in 2013. During the first five years of her tenure, 6,000 women were promoted to management roles and as of 2018, 50 percent of Mary's senior leadership team were women - The same percentage as her 12 member board team.

And the fact that Ulta has gone from strength to strength, becoming a staple in the US beauty industry shows that when women occupy at least 50 percent of the roles, companies are able to deliver a highly differentiated approach to their competitors, putting them at an advantage.

And the good news for women in fashion doesn’t stop there...

While fashion has traditionally been dominated by male leaders (with only 12.5 percent of apparel companies on the Fortune 1000 list being led by women in 2019) this looks like it is about to change. Nextail predicts that female leadership will continue to increase in fashion as more representation naturally leads to more female-female mentorship and sponsorship.

Photo by Mentatdgt on Pexels

And having more mentors for women who are in their own image is one of the most effective ways to encourage more women to reach the top and importantly to stay there.

If this rate of change continues, the fashion industry could soon become a paragon of hope and an aspirational model for other industries – which would be a fantastic thing to see!

To minimise the impact of the pandemic on women, the Fawcett Society claims that flexible working and a more equitable breakdown of childcare, unpaid care work and housework needs to become the norm.

As Khara Jabola-Carolus Director of Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women put it so eloquently

“An equal paycheck is not enough, we want equal leisure time and shared responsibility.”

You should absolutely follow her on Instagram @Decolonizefeminism.

If women were to spend less time doing the invisible labour, they could have more time and energy to network with others (something anecdotally women are said to do less of - possibly due to lack of time), and be in the creative mindset rather than the doing mindset, all of which would massively contribute to women progressing further up the career ladder as well as improving quality of life.

We still have a long way towards gender equality. For instance, it baffles me as to how few workplaces offer daycare. This is undoubtedly a considerable expense, but one so worthwhile when thinking about the mental wellbeing of employees and the talent that you can attract and importantly retain with this initiative.

School hours and office hours also need to be talking to each other. My kids are not yet school age, but how does it work if the school ends at 15:15pm and office hours are until 18:00?

And what is the government's role in all of this?

There are still more questions than answers, and I would love to hear your thoughts on how to overturn this gender crisis! From company and marketing messaging, to legislation that would help lessen the burden women face. What are your thoughts on how we can improve this together?


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