Every day in June, FN is showcasing female leaders across the industry for our Women in Power series.
Alex Proelss has succeeded in rising through the ranks in the footwear retail world — as well as the tech industry, which she describes as being “arguably even more male-dominated” that the shoe business. Here, the SVP of brand marketing and business development at Boston-based Shoes.com, shares her thoughts on how the industries are improving in their support of female leaders, and how women can advocate more for themselves.
How well is the shoe industry doing at recognizing and encouraging female leaders?
“I think that they’re doing a much better job. There is an overall movement taking place right now within the business world that is recognizing how important diversity in the workplace is to enhance results, perspective and business performance, and at the top of that list is women and their contributions to business. One of the things that’s really unique about Shoes.com is that we are 65% female on the leadership team, compared to [the industry average of] 25%. So from where I sit, [empowering women] is very encouraged and a part of our success map. I think that the industry is coming along nicely, both in recognizing women who are in leadership or supporting those people who are coming up the ranks and providing them opportunities, whether that be mentoring or unique and different experiences.”
What is the biggest barrier to female leadership — in the tech and shoe industries?
“The tech industry is arguably even more male-dominated, but I believe things are beginning to change due to so many initiatives around STEM and getting women into that profession and opening people’s eyes to opportunities there. But the biggest barrier there is support and access to the same experiences. Getting into the industry begins as early as working in a retail store as a teenager or interning in college, and being able to find those opportunities and find a mentor who can show you the way [is important] — I was very fortunate to have that. And as you get older and into you career, now I am a working mom and my balancing act is very different than my male counterparts, because I do believe the burden still falls on the woman when it comes to organizing and running the household. I have a phenomenal husband and we share the work and we’re teammates, but even for me, my work-life balance is different.”
How do you think the industry can overcome these barriers?
“There are already things that are being done — Two Ten’s WIFI [Women in the Footwear Industry] group is a great example. Providing both mentor programs and unique opportunities to learn and shadow are really important. The other thing is that company culture is a huge piece of what will allow women and other people to be successful. We’re living in new times now where you don’t have to sit at a desk from 9 to 5 to be effective at your job. So having flexibility and allowing people to balance their lives is really important. And I think that flexibility is one of the key things as you ascend in your career.”
Do you have any advice for women on what to do — or not do — when asking for a pay increase or promotion?
“This is a really dear subject to my heart, because I’ve just gone through something relative to this. I went through some of Korn Ferry’s tests on leadership skills and scored very well, but the one they said I needed to work on is assertiveness. I was shocked because I consider myself assertive. It had me thinking: What are the behavioral things that I do that might make my assertiveness less in certain circumstances? My advice [to other women is]: Be straightforward. Don’t be afraid to say what is on your mind and what you think. You are the only person who can truly advocate for yourself. You might have others who help you, but at the end of the day, it’s just you. If you don’t speak up, you’ll miss chances. And it’s very rare in instances of asking for a raise or a promotion that you’ll be told no when you have a good reason. So the second part of that is to prepare and practice, whether that’s with a confidant or even in the mirror. Because coming across with confidence is the No. 1 thing that you need to do, and confidence is created after comfort and practice.”
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