In-depth: Breaking the glass ceiling in retail

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“As I’ve become more senior, I’ve also been very conscious of the role I can play to actively support other women,” Alibaba UK chief Amee Chande said.

“Whether that’s being a private cheerleader, championing diversity initiatives, or calling out more explicitly unconscious biases amongst peers – I am grateful to those that paved the way before me, and actively try and do the same for those who will follow.

The infamous glass ceiling has hindered many great leaders from reaching their potential. 

In an age which champions equal opportunity and seeks to do away with historical privileges in every avenue of life, gender inequality is still prevelant in the boardrooms of retail.

Women hold just 23.5 per cent of non-executive director roles in the boardrooms of the FTSE 100. Moving up the ladder, the stats begin to further decline. There are more than twice the number of male chief executives in the FTSE 100 named John, than there are women in total.

“The UK’s retail sector contributes £339 billion to the UK economy and employs 2.8 million people, yet only 10 per cent of executive boards in retail are female.”

Women in Retail head Fiona Davis said while the percentage figure of women in the boardroom “makes the picture look not bad”, it doesn’t reveal the bigger picture per se.

“When you look at senior roles beyond that into executive roles and executive boards that’s when the percentage goes down very sharply,” she told the Retail Gazette.

“The numbers in retail are very similarly reflected.”

This week British heritage retailer John Lewis appointed its first female managing director in 152 years. Despite this milestone, Davis said the UK stands fifth in the world for equality in the boardroom. But Chande — arguably one of the UK’s most senior and most experienced business executives — said we “still have a lot of work to do in championing more women in the boardroom”.

“Today, just over a quarter of UK board members at listed companies are women, but what worries me is that there has been a decline in new appointments over the past six months, and only seven of these women are also CEOs,” Chande said.

“This is especially true in the retail sector, where well over half the workforce, and in most cases the majority of the customers, are female.”

READ MORE: John Lewis promotes Paula Nickolds as its first female Managing Director

According to Debenhams group trading director Suzanne Harlow, an estimated 60 per cent of UK retail workforce are female and they account for 80 per cent of purchasing decisions. 

However, the proportion of gender balance in the boardroom becomes distorted with each step up the corporate ladder.

“The UK’s retail sector contributes £339 billion to the UK economy and employs 2.8 million people,” Harlow told the Retail Gazette.

“Yet only 10 per cent of executive boards in retail are female.

“If the stats read like this for a female-dominated workforce, what must they be like in careers where the majority of the work force are male?”

Some would argue these figures simply reflect a gender-centric interest in these roles. Statistics indicate that one in five graduates of business and finance, or sciences and engineering, are female.

Meanwhile, four per cent of British women are engaged in entrepreneurial activity, compared to nine per cent of men.

“I absolutely reject the notion that women are in any way less interested in, or capable of, starting or leading bu

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