While women drive the majority of purchasing decisions in America, most retailers — like most companies — have male executives at the helm.
Today, though, the balance of power may be shifting, albeit very slowly, toward a new guard of female leaders, including Mimi Eckel Vaughn at Genesco Inc. — parent to teen mall chain Journeys and shoe brands Johnston & Murphy and Schuh — who will take over as president and CEO in February; Michelle Gass at Kohl’s, who was promoted to the top slot in May 2018; and Jill Soltau at J.C. Penney Co., who was brought on to help steer the struggling retailer last October.
According to a Bloomberg analysis of Russell 3000 companies, retail leads other large sectors in terms of gender parity in the C-suite, though there’s still far to go: About 7% of retail CEOs are women, compared with about 5% in the overall index. Among the largest consumer companies, the share of women in senior roles — those who might ultimately be considered for a chief executive position — increased 17% between 2014 and 2018. As of last year, women held 16% of these top roles, a marked improvement, but hardly enough to guarantee a solid pipeline for competitive leadership positions that have historically been held mostly by men.
Bloomberg’s findings build on a 2018 analysis by Pew Research Center, which looked at the C-suites of all U.S. companies in the Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 index for 2016-17, and found that female executives accounted for only 651, or 11.5%, of nearly 5,700 top positions. According to the report, specialty retail came out ahead of all other industries on the index in terms of both female CEOs (employing eight of the 77 in the broader index) and female executives (with 49 women in senior roles), despite the sector’s leadership remaining overwhelmingly male. It helped that there wasn’t much competition: Nearly half of the 67 industries that comprised the index had no female CEOs at all.
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Even with the recent gains, women seeking leadership roles face the additional hurdle of the “glass cliff,” a phenomenon in which female executives are elevated to positions of power when a company is facing — or about to face — significant challenges. Soltau, for instance, is J.C. Penney’s fourth CEO in eight years, and is now tasked with saving a department store chain in decline, overcoming not just industry-wide headwinds but also the missteps of her predecessors.
The year 2019 has seen a staggering number of C-suite shake-ups, with a record 1,480 CEOs leaving their posts between January and November, according to executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Now, what remains to be seen is whether the upheaval in the industry ultimately helps women secure a place on top for the long term.