Does the Fashion Industry Hold the Key to Helping Women Get Ahead in a COVID-19 World?

A turbulent year for fashion has shaken up its executive suites, and female leaders are increasingly taking the top roles.

Jimmy Choo, Tapestry, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gap and J.Crew are among the dozens of companies that are now being helmed by women as they navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, even as female representation improves among chief executives, it’s impossible to ignore the millions of women on the industry’s lower rungs — garment workers, store associates, laid-off corporate employees — who continue to bear the brunt of the crisis.

This bifurcation is a common story during the pandemic, but it’s especially important to the future of gender equity in fashion and retail, where the vast majority of lower-level workers are women. While companies may be making progress at the top, can the same be said of the rest of their organizations?

“While, yes, more women are being considered for C-suite roles, on the other side, more women are also losing their jobs or their ability to work because they still carry more of burden at home,” said Karen Harvey, chief executive officer of The Karen Harvey Companies, an advisory services firm.

Family responsibilities aren’t the only thing pushing women out of the industry, either: layoffs, bankruptcies, salary reductions, and safety concerns among store and warehouse workers have also contributed to the attrition. According to a January Pew Research Center survey of unemployed, furloughed or temporarily laid-off U.S. workers, two-thirds said they have seriously considered changing their occupation or field of work.

Even with signs of recovery ahead for retail and fashion — the vaccine rollout is well underway in the U.S. and footwear and apparel sales are gradually on the rebound — will these workers return to the industry? After so much upheaval, are there still opportunities for women to get ahead?

Strength in numbers

According to a recent report from Nextail, a merchandising software company, 2020 saw more than 100 CEO turnovers in fashion and retail, and in 40.2% of those cases, a woman stepped into the top role. While still not quite on par with their male counterparts, that share is up from 31.8% in 2019 and is nearly double the 20.6% of outgoing chief executives that women accounted for this year.

This trend can be explained in part by looking at the pool of candidates today, said Paula Reid, president of Reid & Co. Executive Search. “Women have been moving up the ranks consistently, and so you’re seeing more availability at the tier down from the C-suite.”

Companies also recognize the value of diverse leadership, which studies have shown is linked with better financial performance, said Reid.

Perhaps just as importantly, the pandemic seems to have been a wake-up call for professionals throughout the industry to create their own networks, find mentorship opportunities, and even strike out on their own.

“There have been so many shifts and retailers that have closed that people have realized, ‘Crap, I need a network. I don’t know what could happen to my job tomorrow,’” said April Sabral, founder and CEO of Retailu, an online leadership development company. Whereas before the crisis, retail leaders mostly stayed within the walls of their own brand, today, she said, “people are actually reaching out and saying, ‘I have this decision to make, what are you doing about it? How can I leverage your experience?’”

This new, collaborative attitude is a boon to women, said Sandra Campos, CEO of Project Verte and founder of Fashion Launchpad, an online continuing-education platform set to launch this year. Campos spent her career working her way up from the sales floor through corporate retail to eventually become CEO of Diane von Furstenberg (a position from which she resigned last June), and she said traditionally, there was a lot more competition among women vying for executive roles.

“Right now, it’s a much more supportive environment,” she said. “I feel that a lot has changed in the last handful of years, and I love that because I think it really bodes well for more women having the ability to rise through the ranks and be able to create that career path that they want.”

Chasing balance and opportunities

The disruptions of the past year have helped fuel the growth of online industry networking groups such as The Co-Lab started by executive recruiter and HR consultant Kristy Hurt, as well as industry-specific training and education programs like those started by Campos and Sabral.

As the industry moves into recovery mode, said Sabral, “I think there’s going to be a push to focus on culture and people, and that’s where women can make a really big difference.” Retailers will have to re-engage the workforce at all levels, she said, pointing to Lululemon’s wellness-first culture, with its employee fitness stipend, as one example to follow.

For professionals who temporarily leave the workforce to raise a family — of whom women still account for an overwhelming majority — continuing education can be an invaluable resource for staying connected to one’s colleagues, learning fresh skills, and keeping up-to-date with new technologies, says Campos. And for any industry, supporting working mothers is key to improving gender equity.

While the normalization of remote work — or at least more flexibility toward it — is one component of this, the past year has made it clear that Zoom meetings aren’t a panacea for working moms.

“It’s hard to work from home, especially if you have young kids,” said Hurt, who left LVMH and started her own consulting business in 2009, shortly after having twins. “If you don’t really have space, what are you going to do? Kick your kids out of the house every day so that you can work quietly in your house?”

Companies have to recognize that employees can only perform at their best when they also have the space to take care of their home lives, said Harvey. “The first thing that companies need to do is work internally — at the highest levels — is brainstorming strategies that enable their highly-valued workforce to address their family needs while also doing their jobs.”

Minding the glass cliff

Taking the reins of a company during a pandemic is a significant challenge for any executive, especially in one of the economy’s hardest-hit sectors.

For some of the recent crop of female CEOs, there’s also the potential concern of the “glass cliff” — a well-documented phenomenon in which women are hired to lead companies only when those businesses are in crisis mode.

“The reality is that women historically have had to take riskier assignments in their careers in order to get ahead,” said Reid. “And so they tend to perhaps be more comfortable with that because they’ve always done it, or they’ve done it on enough occasions and succeeded.”

In cases where new leaders are brought in for a turnaround, according to Harvey, it’s imperative that they are given enough time to do so and that there are milestone metrics to gauge success along the way. “The nature of our industry — just the product lifecycle alone — makes it extremely difficult to turn businesses around quickly,” she said, adding that it is CEOs who will be held accountable either way.

If these executives are given sufficient support and resources, though, this could also be a chance for major victories, said Reid. The pandemic has given brands and retailers permission to make changes they may have shied away from a year ago, she explained. Now, many of them are rethinking everything from their brick-and-mortar strategies to their seasonal deliveries to their marketing goals.

“You have an opportunity right now to scrap what you were doing, to some degree, and think about it from a new perspective,” she said. “And that’s a fantastic opportunity.”

For the right leader, there might be no better time to leave their mark.

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