Just 37 women sit at the helm of Fortune 500 companies — that’s less than 8 percent representation.
And of the 29 fashion companies that make that list, seven of their chief executive officers are women, which makes for an improved — albeit still insufficient — 24 percent representation.
There’s little question as to whether there’s work to be done in improving gender parity across the industry, but one answer may lie in a new roadmap for fashion.
Ralph Lauren and Parity.org, a nonprofit dedicated to gender parity in business leadership — along with PVH Corp., Lacoste, Tiffany & Co. and Movado Group Inc. — on Thursday unveiled a new path for achieving that purpose. And for ensuring pay equity, too.
The idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — as in, fashion working as a collective to tackle gender inequality will be greater than each company’s respective efforts, however welcome.
“There has to be a unified approach to gender parity in the industry — particularly in an industry where women make up a large majority of the workforce and the purchasing decisions in the household,” Ralph Lauren chief people officer Roseann Lynch told WWD. “A single philosophy that allows our industry to accelerate towards much-needed progress for women felt like an important thing to do.”
It also felt like a timely thing to do, according to Lynch, given all that has helped to put women generally, and women of color specifically, at a greater disadvantage in 2020.
Outlined in a paper titled “Unlocking Gender Parity in Fashion,” the introduction to the roadmap cites some startling facts from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in September: women left the workforce at a rate four times that of men, in many cases, to take care of family responsibilities arising in the midst of the pandemic, like caregiving and homeschooling.
“The construct that women are working in tends to be a construct for a male-dominated workforce,” Lynch said. “This is not just about pay equality — which is important — this is about creating the conditions in the workplace that allow women to thrive, that take into consideration the needs of women at work and the multiroles that women play in society, at home and at work.”
With the new roadmap, which uses The Parity Model developed by Parity.org as its framework, there’s a focus on three pillars: representation, equality and inclusion. It says women should have equal representation in governance and executive leadership, as well as vertical and horizontal integration. It calls for equality in pay, recruitment/hiring, benefits and executive preparation, whether through training, mentorship or sponsorship. And it defines inclusion as the elimination of microaggressions, discrimination and harassment.
These may resemble notes in corporate gender and diversity training videos, but where the roadmap goes a step further is with a five-point action plan that includes making a public commitment on gender-parity, outlining an executive recruitment strategy, committing to executive preparedness for women, establishing benefits and policies that improve on work-life balance for women and, of course, ensuring sustained pay parity.
“If we all take these actions together, we have a better chance of making much more significant progress now. And we need it now,” Lynch said. “We see how through the pandemic, how many women have been impacted by the pandemic and are actually opting out. And that’s what we need to avoid. We need to keep women in the workforce, we need to keep them growing and thriving.”
Recognizing that given the manifold challenges for fashion this year, companies may not “have extra dollars to put toward extra initiatives” — as Parity.org founder and ceo Cathrin Stickney put it — the roadmap is laid out by the cost of the effort to allow room for companies’ varied resources and budgets.
“A lot of the things in here are low to no cost to do, it’s just simply changing the way you do things in your company,” Stickney said. “But, yes, there are some expensive things and maybe you map those out for 2022.”
With change being the mammoth task that it can be for many, gender parity in fashion certainly won’t happen overnight.
“The World Economic Forum says it will take 250 years to reach economic gender parity in the world, and when I started this three years ago it was 163 years. So I’m really sorry to say it’s actually going backwards,” Stickney said wryly. “But I’m happy to say that the companies we’ve been working with, we’ve seen a lot of progress. It’s not taking 250 years, it’s taking two to three years.”
But for companies to get there within that two to three-year timeline, it’s going to take intentionality, she said. It’s going to take measuring where the organization is now, making the public commitment on where it wants to be, and being transparent about the path to getting there. It’s also going to take the ceo and the executive team leading the charge, discussing the efforts and commitments to all facets of diversity, both internally and publicly.
“It cannot start at the D&I committee. It cannot start at the bottom of the company—you can’t look to, ‘oh we have 73 percent women in our company.’ Yes, but they’re all below the manager level, so it has to start with that ceo,” Stickney said.
It may even take some more targeted measures to ensure accountability.
“You can really have some power and some movement in this when you hold department heads accountable and make it part of their performance review. Maybe even make part of their variable pay dependent on this, on success or steps toward success, progress,” Stickney said. “So there are a number of things companies can do to make this happen and change the culture and that’s what this roadmap does.”
For Ralph Lauren’s Lynch, the gender parity roadmap should be a collective step in the right direction. Already, there’s interest in supporting the roadmap from companies beyond those already on board, and the aim is to get more of fashion’s leaders to join the cause.
“To make progress on diversity, equity and inclusion, there needs to be action across the industry. It’s impossible for one company to make the difference that needs to be made for women,” she said. “It’s just the beginning, there’s so much to do.”
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