International Women’s Day: How can retailers avoid tokenism?

Many retailers are coming out in full force to celebrate women for this year’s International Women's Day, But do they really incorporate those values in practice when it comes to female empowerment in the boardroom?

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International Women's Day
This International Women's Day, Retail Gazette looks at whether retailers are being genuine or tokenistic in their campaigning.

When a new study by the UN Development Programme discovered that nine out of 10 people globally are still biased against women, marking International Women’s Day (IWD) this year on March 8 became even more important.

With the likes of #MeToo and Time’s Up movements showing the effectiveness and viability of social activism, it’s no surprise that retailers are presenting IWD campaigns to demonstrate an awareness. But this raises one question: how tokenistic are these gestures?

As many retailers are finding out, consumers are adept at spotting the difference between genuine and tokenistic campaigns, with many taking to social media to call them out.

Yet while many consumers urge them to spend more time taking action on issues like the gender pay gap and female representation in retail boardrooms, retailers have continued to launch ranges or marketing campaigns dedicated to IWD.

“Retailers should recognise women all year round, although having a day to focus around can be a useful way to raise awareness and build momentum,” said Sarah Moloney, UK managing director of brand strategy agency KWT.

While analysts agree that retailers should be acknowledging IWD throughout the year instead of just one day, it might be challenging considering that commercialised days such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day aren’t celebrated year-round either.

“Retailers should recognise women all year round”

Paul Hitchens, a brand specialist at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, suggested that it makes more sense for “already-campaigning” retailers to use the date to elevate and extend, purpose-led campaigns.

He said consumers would be better able to grasp campaigns from retailers such as The Body Shop, which has long been recognised for its sustainable and ethical values.

“Retailers must tread carefully,” he told Retail Gazette.

“The negative consequences of manipulating their association with IWD far outweigh any short-term opportunity to increase brand salience.”

Some of the retailers to join in IWD campaigning this year include Net-a-Porter, which launched an exclusive 22-piece t-shirt collection, of which 100 per cent profits will be donated to charity.

L’Occitane will also be donating 100 per cent of the profits it makes from its limited edition Solidarity Balm to the L’Occitane Foundation which, in turn, supports NGO projects that promote women’s leadership in Burkina Faso.

Meanwhile, cosmetics retailer Bobbi Brown will be selling a make-up bag with 100 per cent of proceeds donated to the Smart Works charity.

In fact, retailers seem to be offering customers what they want. GlobalData‘s recent findings revealed that 34.6 per cent of the 81.6 per cent of women surveyed in the UK preferred retailers to give a portion of their sales to charity, compared with 16.6 per cent who said they would like to see retailers launch a product collection in honour of IWD.


Meanwhile, some retailers are raising the game by investing in women rather than just focusing on selling a product.

Health and beauty giant Boots said it would support women this IWD by launching a new section on its website entirely dedicated to brands founded and grown by women – in a bid to raise their brands’ awareness. It’s also hosting a day of panel discussions, workshops and 1-2-1 sessions across UK stores to attract customers.

Ali Hanan, founder of diversity and inclusion organisation Creative Equals, told Retail Gazette that equality was not just about “flag-waving” but also about investing in female founders and buying their lines and products.

“Only 2.2 per cent of startups receiving venture capital are given to women. Stocking products by women founders, year round is how real commercial equality happens, year round. That’s investing in women,” Hanan said.

Another retailer that’s focusing on women is Benefit, which is teaming up with LinkedIn to offer free headshots at its boutiques in London and Glasgow to encourage women to give their LinkedIn profiles a professional makeover.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Elsa Bernadotte, chief operating officer of food waste app Karma.

“There’s a big difference between saying women are important and taking real action”

“Instead of using these events to appear like they support gender diversity, retailers need to take practical steps to highlight and support women who are fighting for rights but also showcase women achieving great things in all walks of life.

“It’s a shame when retailers use these days just to boost sales. There’s a big difference between saying women are important and taking real action to improve gender diversity.

“For IWD campaigns to be effective, they need to be authentic.”

Fashion brand consultant Elizabeth Stiles said in order for retailers to avoid appearing tokenistic around IWD, they should tell “genuine stories about women” rather than sell products. She said one way they can achieve this is through social media.

“This IWD, & Other Stories is working with female photographers under the hashtag #HerImageHerStory celebrating self expression,” she explained.

“A donation of £1 will be made for every post under that hashtag during the month of March to women in poverty organisation Care.

“This work because it is a separate project to the clothes themselves so you’re not having to purchase something to know that a good deed is being done.”

Nicky Little, director of leadership consultancy Cirrus, said IWD campaigns were useful for promoting initiatives, raising awareness and getting people on board. But for most retailers, addressing gender imbalance is about real cultural change, which takes time.

For retailers to avoid appearing tokenistic in their gestures, they need to focus on making a “cultural change”. Little added that mentoring programmes and networking opportunities can help to encourage women to aim for leadership positions.

International Women's Day
Analysts say retailers should launch campaigns that encourage women to take up leadership roles.

“Many big retailers have made pledges to improve gender equality, particularly at board level. Like campaigns and other initiatives, pledges can be useful,” Little told Retail Gazette.

“However, they are not enough to change a retailer’s culture. Cultural change requires a consistent focus. It needs to come from senior leaders.”

Historically, retailers have been leveraging IWD as an opportunity to not only mass-produce new products, but show them off through bombastic campaigns.

Arguably, the lack of direct profit for some retailers might be a way for them to escape the “tokenistic” label. Regardless of the donation, retailers might have to consider both the ethical and sustainable impact and the conditions of the (largely female) workforce who make their products.

This IWD, showing change and support through supportive window displays and billboard advertising might not make the cut, mainly because consumers now have a bigger voice, whether that’s through social media or social activism. And that voice is urging retailers to bring about practical, impactful change – rather than be tokenistic.

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