Women, especially mothers, are experiencing discrimination and inequality within fashion.
While the topic of gender inequality is a defining point of discussion for many leaders – with more than 75 percent of CEOs prioritising the issue on their agendas and forging substantial initiatives to tackle it – the problem remains persistent. The disparity between genders in the boardroom is notable with men dominating high-powered positions across all aspects of business and primary decision-making processes.
In 2016, a special report published by McKinsey & Co – a global management consulting firm – outlined that women comprise of only 32% of organisational boards listed in economic markets within Europe. Despite the predictable financial benefits affiliated with gender diversity, such as the opportunity to contribute $12 trillion (£9.6 trillion) to the global GDP by 2025, women still remain on the fringes of underrepresentation within senior management roles and are subject to inadequate remuneration for their work.
The perception that a highly feminised industry such as fashion would depict a much favourable illustration of what gender balancing ‘looks and feels like,’ within a workplace is understandable – and in most cases, expected – but nevertheless deceptive.
Indeed, the fashion workforce is predominantly comprised of more female than male. According to a recent study presented by Allyson Stokes, entitled Fashioning Gender: the gendered organisation of cultural work, women outnumber men in design, manufacturing, marketing, retail and media. Mirroring the 70 to 85 percent of female students graduating from fashion institutes each year. Furthermore, fashion is defined by a strong female consumer base of around 75 percent. Contributing to an estimated market value of 1.9 trillion pounds for the global industry in 2016. (McKinsey Global Fashion Index).
It is with such data, that a sector like fashion would represent an inherent, more sustainable breeding ground for impartiality between sexes and the nurturing of women to get to the ‘top.’ And yet what is noticeable – if a little fascinating – is how women disproportionately fill low-ranking and mid-skilled roles. Often staying at the bottom (or middle) of corporate ladders with scarcity in leadership positions. As noted by Stokes, “just six women rank among the sixty-seven highest paid executives of publicly traded fashion companies.” With a “$40 million (£32.20million) pay gap between the top-earning male and female fashion executives.”
“just six women rank among the sixty-seven highest paid executives of publicly traded fashion companies.”
Of course, it goes without saying that efforts are being implemented to eradicate the effects of gender imbalance within the industry. With a current fragmented global economy as a result of – Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, a volatile Chinese stock market, plummeting oil rates and changing buying behaviours among consumers – brands are recognising that actively supporting women in career advancement is not only necessary for their wellbeing [the women] and enhances the company’s social responsibility, but is good for business.
Women influence 70-80% of all consumer purchasing decisions in households. Therefore, any organisation that wants to increase profitability and maintain a competitive advantage – especially during these uncertain times – needs to integrate female workers in authoritative positions, that empower them to engage in productive dialogues with female consumers. Ultimately, setting the tone for a healthy bottom line.
Examples of such changes can be observed in the recent appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri. The first-ever female artistic director of the seventy-year-old fashion house, Dior. And in 2007, LVMH – a luxury goods conglomerate – launched the ‘EllesVMH’ scheme with the sole purpose of “supporting the professional development of women in all positions and at every level.”
Meanwhile, powerful designers like Diane von Fürstenberg and Tory Burch actively lend their voices on matters of women empowerment. Dishing out invaluable advice on how women can ‘make it’ in fashion, by developing skills of self-promotion, pay negotiation and preserving a work-life balance. Nonetheless, substantial work still needs to be done.
According to Stokes – who conducted the study on “how the social organisation of fashion work contributes to gender inequality” with 62 male and female interviewees – women experience frequent discrimination and judgement from industry peers, endure work-life conflicts and have constrained choices in relation to having children. Leading some, to put off having children or forego the entire process altogether.
” women experience frequent discrimination and judgement from industry peers…...”
“Women often referenced issues around parental leave or the need for flexible work arrangements and felt they could lose their jobs and job prospects if motherhood was seen to interfere with work,” states the report. “You would think that for an industry that hires 90 percent women, it would be better. When I told the owner that I was pregnant, his response was, “Oh, you, too?” expresses one of the participants named Lilah, a 38-year-old communications specialist. “When one of my co-workers was on maternity leave, we were talking and she said: “the moment I told my boss, who was a woman, that I was pregnant, she stopped talking to me and started treating me like shit.”
Indeed, unlike men who shared similar issues as their female counterparts on matters of stress, anxiety, burnouts – due to the fast-paced nature of the industry, taxing social events and blurred lines between private and work life – women added ‘motherhood’ as a significant contributing feature to some of the inequalities they endured within the industry.
Motherhood seems to activate the notion that women become less committed to their jobs and ‘don’t know what is going on.’ With an industry that demands hundred percent, 24/7 dedication – constant networking, keeping up with trends and documenting everyday life on social media – this can often result in women being deemed incompetent within their peer groups if they are seen to be not keeping up with the industry’s expectations. As a consequence, they are held to higher standards and offered fewer leadership opportunities. “With the arrival of children, I’ve noticed the subtle sexism in my industry,” confirms Felicia, another woman interviewed during the study with 20 years of experience.
“With the arrival of children, I’ve noticed the subtle sexism in my industry….Men get treated better than women, they get better jobs, they get better hours, they get better pay”
“Men rise above and are allowed downtime or private lives, flexible hours, to make more money. They seem to have more opportunity, more freedom to be driven with something they love, not to mention better bargaining power. Factor that, they don’t have kids or pressure to make them, and I think you have a very different headspace for ambition and focus. Men get treated better than women, they get better jobs, they get better hours, they get better pay. In my office right now, the people with the flexible working conditions are men who don’t have children,” she adds.
The winning formula for tackling the multitude of complexities associated with gender parity within fashion may not be fully established nor clear. However, addressing the topic of motherhood, in its entirety and accommodating what comes with it, in a much healthier, inclusive and non-discriminatory manner is essential in creating an environment for success and accelerating productivity levels.The industry must recognise adequate and more effective ways of creating a harmonious relationship between parenthood and the fast paced nature of fashion while maintaining minimal conflict between the two worlds.
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