#RetailEXPOVC: Three ways retailers can encourage women to smash glass ceilings

Essential Retail organised its first Women in Retail event as part of the RetailEXPO Virtual Conference powered by Essential Retail. The event, sponsored by Publicis Sapient, was held on April 30 2020 and saw hundreds of people join the online debate live to listen to the experiences of three senior women working in retail. Editorial director of Essential Retail, Eleanor Dallaway moderated the conversation between Helen Galletley, service transformation manager at Tesco; Chloe Bebbington, social media marketing manager at River Island; and Eiko Kawano, group experience director at Publicis Sapient, which tackled topics including mentorship, maternity leave and Z, while celebrating diversity in the industry.

Rewatch the discussion on demand here

While our female panellists believe the sector is generally a positive place for women to grow and progress their careers, they concluded that there is still a long way to go before we achieve equality across the industry. Here, we share three areas where retailers can do more in order to encourage women to move up the career ladder, with fascinating insights from our panellists.

1. Give young women visibility

The panel were first asked whether they had felt challenges progressing in their roles because of their gender. All three women said they had indeed found being a women difficult at times, especially earlier on in their career.

Galletley notes how she struggled because when she was younger, she couldn’t see any women like herself in positions above her. “I feel role models are important and I wasn’t represented a number of years ago and I think that is why it took me longer to get to where I wanted to be.”

She says she never fitted the argumentative and bossy mould, which was all she could see. And while she notes this has improved, she insists the industry must continue to look for women and bring those forward who represent differences within a business. “But how do we identify those people and encourage them to stand forward?” she asks.

As a women working in retail technology, Kawano admits that equality and diversity does get “better every year”. But earlier in her career she felt that she had to prove herself. “And when I did speak, someone would speak over me,” she explains.

She says leaders should be on the look-out for people speaking over others. “We need to find the leaders of the future and give them visibility and show them who they can look up to in order to have the next generation feel comfortable stepping into those leadership roles.”

2. Flexibility

Flexibility is always high on the agenda of any empowering women event, especially figuring out solutions to the pressures facing women who want to raise a family and continue building their career.

The panel agreed that attitudes to family still remain a problem in some workplaces. Galletley says people often need to be reminded that all families are not the same. She pointed to some female role models who are successful, but also have a nanny, or a husband who didn’t work and could look after the children. “I never related particularly well to that. My wife also works full time, we have a child and we’ve never had that support network around us.”

Galletley says she was lucky to have a supportive company to help her fit her family around her work life, but this is not always the case in other areas of the industry.

But Bebbington suggests that lockdown may hopefully open colleagues’ eyes to how difficult it is to balance family and work. “During lockdown we’re all getting to know people within their home lives – whether it’s a cat walking across [your laptop] or a child screaming in the corner. It’s an amazing insight to seeing people in normal surroundings and giving them a human element, rather than sitting in a board room with someone much higher than you.”

She adds: “We’re creating those relationships with Zoom or whatever, but it’s really interesting seeing that shift and it will be interesting to see how we take that into the new normal.”

3. Encourage organic mentorship

When it comes to mentorship, Galletley notes that it is difficult to get right: “Forcing people together through mentor schemes can be really tricky,” she says, explaining how people need to find a mentor that they trust and that can’t always be demanded by a company programme.

Bebbington says formal mentorship schemes shouldn’t be all about climbing the career ladder, but should focus on broadening people’s horizons. “It’s a fine line and important to think that people are involved all need to be agreeable parties.”

Kawano agrees, saying “mentoring is most effective when it happens in an organic way”, but retailers need to encourage their leadership teams to be approachable and to spend time with people when they reach out and want to create those relationships. 

Kawano says her own mentor probably would never describe herself as such, while Galletley says her most successful mentorship started over a bottle of wine and they became good friends.

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