Why the Female Leaders of Designer Brands are Concerned About Work-Life Balance for Employees

Every day in June, FN is showcasing female leaders across the industry for our Women in Power series.

For Designer Brands (the company that now encompasses DSW, Camuto Group and The Shoe Company), female representation at the top has been a growing priority. Women now make up 45% of its board of directors, and the Ohio-based firm also counts two very accomplished women among its management team.

Debbie Ferrée was named president of Designer Brands (then DSW Inc.) in January 2019, but has been helping to shape the company’s trajectory for more than 20 years in various roles. Meanwhile, Mary Turner joined the organization in 2018 after two decades with Hudson’s Bay Co., and is now leading Designer Brands’ Canadian chain, The Shoe Company.

Here, the inspiring retail veterans share their thoughts on the progress that’s been made for women, and why work/life balance needs to be addressed.

Debbie Ferree
Vice Chairman & President, Designer Brands

What is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the fashion and footwear industries?
“There is a shortage of mentors and role models for women; leaders that they can look up to and model their careers on. This lack of representation exists all the way up the corporate ladder, but most especially at the top rungs. We’re quite blessed to have exceptional female representation on the Designer Brands board, but overall there simply aren’t enough women on public boards or in the C-suite. In my role as vice chair of the Two Ten Foundation’s Board of Directors, I have developed a great respect for the value of groups like WIFI [Women in the Footwear Industry], which strives to support and inspire footwear’s most influential women and its next generation of leaders.”

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
“Work/life balance; trying to juggle household responsibilities and parenthood if they choose it. Multitasking can be a real challenge, especially for dual-income families.”

What are you doing to support the next generation?
“It’s essential to offer developmental opportunities to high-potential women associates. As a female leader, I believe we have a responsibility to aid in mentoring and developing other women. I participate in several ‘mentoring partnerships’ with female leaders at other companies in our industry and find that both sides of these relationships benefit — mentor and mentee.”

What is the best professional decision you’ve ever made?
“I made the decision to change jobs at one point in my career because of how much I felt I could learn from the person to whom I’d be reporting. Making that move gave me the most fantastic foundational knowledge about my field and I draw on it to this day. I think making a career decision based on new knowledge or skills you’ll acquire is one of the best reasons to make a professional change.”

Mary Turner
President, The Shoe Company 

What is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the fashion and footwear industries?
“Our industry has fewer barriers than most when it comes to female leadership. However, there is still a subtle gender bias that permeates our industry by virtue of leadership generally having a strong historic tie to masculinity. We need to continue to work at changing our paradigms around the concepts of leadership.”

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
“The struggle to have work/life balance whilst still moving ahead. Although we are moving towards equal partnership in family caregiver roles, the scale still tips towards women having significant accountability, with raising children or caring for aging parents.”

What are you doing to support the next generation?
“As the first female president of our Canadian operation here at Designer Brands, I feel a strong sense of duty to be a role model for both our internal teams and the broader community. I am also incredibly proud that five of our 11 board members are women, and that we are industry leaders in that regard.”

What is a powerful leadership moment you’ve experienced?
“Reporting to a truly visionary leader — Bonnie Brooks, then of Hudson’s Bay Co. She taught me the importance of vision — and clear articulation of the vision and the priorities supporting it. At Designer Brands, I feel that same sense of vision from our CEO, Roger Rawlins. Last year we made the difficult decision to close the Town Shoes banner. Through that process, I learned the extreme importance of transparency — both as it related to sharing business decisions, but also sharing the deep sadness and disappointment that I personally felt as a leader.”

What advice do you have for women negotiating a salary increase, promotion or other challenging issue at work?
“Historically women have been less inclined to ask for what they want compared to their male counterparts. We are seeing this changing in today’s workforce, and women are becoming strong negotiators, even more so than their male counterparts in many cases. My advice is to be direct, keep it factual, grounded in the business and not in the personal. The key is to provide a strong basis for your point of view, whether for a salary increase, a promotion or overcoming other work challenges.”

How has #MeToo changed the professional landscape?
“In the #MeToo movement we’ve seen powerful women stand up and speak out, and it has changed the vocabulary in the workplace. This forces us to stop and think about what passes as acceptable workplace practice and culture. At Designer Brands, for example, we brought our head office team together for a panel discussion, where I and other female executives shared our leadership journeys and the challenges we had to overcome. We hoped that by sharing our stories it would provide inspiration to our team as a whole.”

What is the best professional decision you’ve ever made?
“My worst professional decision was accepting a role outside the industry earlier in my career because I was seduced by title and remuneration. My best decision was almost immediately realizing what a mistake it was, and then being prepared to take a step back in order to return to and move forward in the industry that has always been my passion. Too often people are afraid of taking what they perceive is a step backward. If it is consistent with your longer-term goals, broadens your scope or positions you for the key next step, no move is a backward step.”

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