It has been decades in the making, but company boards are finally getting a diversity makeover.
While there are nuances across each industry, new research shows there has been an unprecedented consensus and shared effort toward diversity in the upper ranks of corporate America. Shoe companies are following suit — and in some cases, they’re leading the herd.
In early 2016, 130-year-old footwear powerhouse Caleres announced it had been recognized by the Women’s Forum of New York for its gender-diverse group of directors. At that time, Caleres had 20 percent female board representation. But recent appointments have now bumped that share up to 40 percent.
“Most successful companies are always looking at the makeup of their board and asking how they can be more reflective of their customers,” said Caleres Chairman, President and CEO Diane Sullivan. “It is the right and smart thing to do. You make sure you have all the competencies represented, providing the right insight to support the emerging capabilities in the industry.”
Coach Inc., which also owns the Stuart Weitzman brand, boasts a corporate board that approaches gender parity at 44 percent female. Meanwhile, Foot Locker Inc. and Wolverine World Wide Inc. outperform many of their peers with a corporate board made up of 30 percent women.
A handful of fashion companies have made even bigger statements with their diversity efforts.
Multichannel retailer HSN Inc. — which sells several popular shoe brands including Donald J Pliner, Jessica Simpson and Vince Camuto — this year joined a short list of corporations with a board that is half female, as well as having a female CEO, Mindy Grossman. Only 13 other firms in the U.S. have boards with women filling 50 percent or more of the seats, according to the national campaign 2020 Women on Boards. “Having a diverse group of people is unequivocally linked to business success and drives innovation,” Grossman said. “At HSN, we strive to cultivate an environment full of diverse, talented and creative people who are passionate about what they do.”
Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks Running, said he has pushed for a company board that reflects the brand’s customers. He sees a wave of change catching on throughout the industry.
“Anyone who’s developing exciting, compelling product and a relevant brand while managing and growing a successful business knows how critical it is to have a team of people with [different] skills, experiences and perspectives,” Weber said, noting that his firm’s board is made up of two women and three men.
“[Our inclusive board has been] a significant factor in developing and influencing our brand and culture so that it resonates across genders, ethnicities, ages, mindsets, abilities [and so on].”
However, hurdles remain.
Longtime corporate-diversity champion Nike Inc. has a board that is just 23 percent female. While that is a decent ratio by many standards, some experts have criticized Nike — and many of its peers — for having higher levels of gender and racial diversity in its lower ranks that appears to wane at higher levels. (In Nike’s 2014-15 sustainability report, its ratio of female to male people managers held steady at 41 percent to 59 percent, respectively.)
In another example, nine of Under Armour’s 10 board members are men.
The Bigger Picture
Research from the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation suggests that gender inclusion has become a leading concern for many firms. Even so, Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, notes that there are other factors to be considered.
“Diversity should definitely be a priority, but you have to look at it in a broader sense,” Priest said, noting that board members should possess different kinds of experience and range in age.
Nike, for example, recently announced that it had made Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, who had been on the firm’s board since 2005, its lead independent director. Meanwhile, Wolverine Worldwide’s board includes a former Kellogg Co. executive and the GM of Unilever U.K./Ireland. A former head of operations for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts sits on the board of Dick’s Sporting Goods.
When it comes to ethnic diversity at footwear firms — and in the retail industry at large — barriers may prove even harder to overcome.
“When you think of the term ‘shoe dog,’ it doesn’t make you [envision] an African-American woman or a Latino woman,” Priest said. “We have a very diverse country, and being effective in the marketplace requires thinking through the needs of a diverse consumer base.”