We Should Celebrate International Women’s Day — but We Shouldn’t Be Satisfied

This International Women’s Day, as people across the world reflect on and honor the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, the fashion industry has good reason to celebrate.

In the past year alone, dozens of footwear and apparel sellers — including Nike, Reebok, Famous Footwear, Walmart, JCPenney, Hudson’s Bay and LVMH — have hired female leaders to high-ranking posts.

Walmart in July appointed Janey Whiteside to the newly created role of EVP and chief customer officer and also named Barbara Messing its new SVP and chief marketing officer. Neiman Marcus Group in June appointed Darcy Penick president 
of Bergdorf Goodman, and fashion conglomerate LVMH recently hired and promoted a string of female leaders, including naming Louis Vuitton’s communications and events director Jenny Galimberti to the post of CEO of Jonathan Anderson in September.

On the footwear side, Famous Footwear tapped former Walt Disney Co. exec Molly Adams as its new president last year — following the retirement of longtime leader Rick Ausik. Meanwhile, Saucony in May named industry veteran Anne Cavassa its new president, and Reebok in June appointed former Cast Collective executive Karen Reuther as its global creative director. Former Crayola executive Melanie Boulden became the Adidas-owned brand’s VP of marketing in April.

As the #MeToo movement continues to embolden more women 
to speak out about instances of mistreatment at work while pushing corporate leadership to promote and pay female workers more fairly, many fashion firms have moved the advancement of women — and other minorities — to the top of their priority list.

Still, a quick glance at the current statistics — related to the advancement of women in an array of global industries — is an easy reminder of the work that remains.

“Across a wide range of topics and indicators, we have seen promising progress for women on political participation, earnings, health, educational attainment and business ownership,” explained Jennifer Clark, director of communications for Institute for Women’s Policy Research, adding that the organization has tracked the status of women nationally and in every state since 1996. “But unfortunately, there are still concerning disparities between men and women on things like the gender wage gap, poverty and caregiving responsibilities, along with troubling data on violence and safety.”

Last year, women held just 24 spots 
on the 2018 Fortune 500 list of CEOs, down 25 percent from 2017’s record-breaking 32 spots. (Fortune’s list referenced data as of May 2018.) Meanwhile, according to research firm Catalyst, women held only 24 CEO positions (4.8 percent) at S&P 500 firms in 2018 — another notable drop from the 27 spots they held in the year prior.

Meanwhile, in 2018, Equal Pay Day — which marks how far into the current year women have to work to earn what the average white man earned in the year prior — fell on April 10. (On average, according to data by the Economic Policy Institute, women still earn 80 cents to men’s dollar.)

For African-American women, the day landed several additional months into the year, on Aug. 7, and they earn just 63 cents to every dollar earned by white men. Even more harrowing, for Latina women, the occasion was observed 305 days into 2018 — on Nov. 1 — and brings to light the mere 53 cents they earn to every dollar earned by white non-Hispanic men.

Not only do such statistics illustrate the disturbing financial reality for many women in America, they are significant because the implications of children and families living on lower incomes are wide-ranging.

According to research from the Office of Policy Development and Research and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, low-income people as well as racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by violent crimes. Meanwhile, factors such as viable job opportunities (think livable wages) are associated with lower crime rates.

While movements like #MeToo have brought many of these facts to the forefront of public discourse, according to Bridget Brennan, CEO of Female Factor and author of “Winning Her Business: How to Transform the Customer Experience for the World’s Most Powerful Consumers,” when it comes to women’s advancement in the workforce, there is a persistent gap between awareness and action.

MeToo Women's March
A #MeToo Women’s March in Los Angeles in November.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

“One of the reasons I was inspired to start my company back in 2006 was because I saw how often women’s perspective were missing inside of the businesses that depended on marketing and selling to them effectively,” said Brennan, who also authored “Why She Buys.” “Here we are in 2019, and there is a lot of awareness. But the action hasn’t really manifested itself as quickly as I might have predicted maybe a decade ago.”

Perhaps not enough companies are recognizing the crucial role they play in advancing women’s economic security, noted IWPR’s Clark.

“Guaranteeing access to paid family leave to all employees and being transparent in pay, promotions, and hiring are ways businesses can foster greater gender equity,” Clark said. “This is especially important for fields like fashion that have many women workers.”

Not to mention: Recent data has indicated that there are key benefits to having women in key executive roles.

Firms with female leadership have experienced marked success per a 2015 Gallup study that found employees who work for a female manager are 6 percentage points more engaged, on average, than those who work for a male manager. Another study, by the Harvard Business Review in 2012, determined that at all levels, women rank higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that contribute to outstanding leadership.

And on the consumer side, women are equally critical to firms: The group has been reported to influence between 70 to 80 percent of purchasing decisions.

“Women are a compass for how the market is changing,” noted Brennan. “If you want to know how the market is changing, follow where women are leading. The companies that do an excellent job are the ones that get very close to understanding their customers’ life experiences. The closer you get to your customers’ life experiences, the closer you’ll be to finding solutions.”

As the value of women to all aspects of society is recognized today, perhaps it is equally important that those observing the occasion be mindful of the fine line between celebration and complacency.

“We still need to be cognizant of the fact that true equality has yet to be achieved,” noted fashion law attorney and brand consultant Elizabeth Kurpis. “We must remain vigilant and take every opportunity to support and uplift women in all stages of their careers in order to continue down the path of righting all such wrongs.”

As Brennan put it: “[For an organization], hosting an event for International Women’s Day is laudable, and it’s important, but it’s not a substitute for a long-term strategy … [these issues need] to be addressed systemically and as a long-term initiative.”

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