As a woman who has worked in retail for over 20 years, from sales to the boardroom, I’ve come to realise I’ve been subject to gender bias. I’ve been treated differently – whether consciously or unconsciously – because of my gender. I’ve been overlooked for roles because I was a woman. I know for sure that, in the past, I was not paid the same as my male counterparts, despite delivering better results.
This felt normal back when I was starting my career, and I’m sure for many, still feels almost normal today. Personally, any frustration I have felt about gender bias in the past just fuels the fire within me for action. I want to ensure that in my role as a leader, mentor and CEO of The Iconic, I can help to break the bias.
Whether unconscious or not, there is still a perception (and perhaps even a reality) that women, more than men, have conflicting priorities – juggling caring responsibilities with the ever-increasing demands of the workplace. This has become even more prominent during Covid-19 when women took on the lion’s share of unpaid work during lockdowns.
I’m conscious that this conversation often focuses on parental responsibilities, and not every woman has children or wants to have children. I’m mindful not to articulate gender balance, bias, and diversity as only being about work/family balance. It’s about so much more than that. Additionally, women without children face a double-edged sword in pay inequity. There can be a perception they don’t deserve as much as male counterparts because they don’t have a family to feed. Unbelievable, right? But I know this, because I have personally experienced it. I wasn’t always an executive and a mother of three.
Let’s look at the bigger picture. ARA data shows that retail is an industry of choice for women, who represent nearly 60 per cent of the overall workforce and around 70 per cent of part-time and casual roles. Despite this, only 17 per cent of retail CEOs are women. It’s clear that women make up the majority of employees in retail, yet they drop off significantly when it’s time to enter the executive suite.
What do these statistics tell us? We need to ensure there are defined pathways for those on the shop floor, in sales, in buying, in the warehouse, in customer service, to progress and impact the future direction of the industry.
As leaders in the retail industry, we need to listen to our employees, of whom the majority are women. What can they teach us about the customer? How might they positively impact the future direction of business? How can we elevate their voices and create more pathways for progression?
Regardless of your gender, we all need to think about whether we are demonstrating unconscious bias. It’s not easy to admit to yourself that you might hold bias, but think about it this way: society is basically set up around men succeeding and being in leadership positions.
Even as a woman, you can easily have an unconscious bias towards women if left unchecked. It is human nature to accept the status. So, don’t beat yourself up for recognising you might have an unconscious bias – beat yourself up if you do nothing about it.
The Iconic has always led from the front. The business lives the proverb ‘actions speak louder than words’, as I was hired as CEO when I was five months pregnant with my third child. Creating an environment that is supportive of women is key to breaking down bias, which is why we offer policies that allow our employees greater flexibility, along with training and mentorship at all levels.
Mentorship is important. Continuing to talk about the challenges women face at work is how we start addressing them. I’ve worked closely with an organisation called Mentor Walks for a number of years and we’ve just signed up as a Conversation Series and Sydney Partner. Mentor Walks is effective because it’s a simple idea that’s well executed. Emerging female leaders have a one-hour walk with an exceptional female leader, where they can talk about anything. It runs across Australia and I am proud to be a mentor alongside some of our nation’s best female leaders.
Throughout my career, I’ve noticed there is a particular risk of gender bias when women are on, or about to go on, maternity leave. How do you continue to recognise them from a reward and remuneration perspective? How do you ensure that their career maintains momentum if they take time off? How do you allow them to feel positive about taking that time off? And how do you bring them back into the business?
The Iconic answers these questions – and more – by creating policies that allow our employees greater flexibility to mix work and personal responsibilities. Our hybrid and flexible working policy is designed not only for women coming back from maternity leave, but for all parents, carers of elderly relatives or partners, and any employee with personal responsibilities. The Iconic offers personalised start and finish times, along with ongoing hybrid working solutions. Additionally, parents who work for The Iconic are entitled to a day of leave to support their kids with those first-day jitters and back-to-school transitions.
Overcoming bias makes good business sense
Our industry has evolved considerably and it’s exciting to see so much talent rising up the ranks. That said, there is still a way to go – especially for women of colour and, in particular, First Nations women. My hope is that continued education, training, and mentorship will be key drivers to understanding and breaking bias of all kinds, because ultimately, real diversity leads to stronger customer relationships and a better business.
I am optimistic about the future this International Women’s Day. Taking action and nurturing the skills required to #breakthebias brings us closer to my deepest wish. I want actions to replace the words, so that we no longer have to even talk about gender equality and gender bias. My hope? That gender equality becomes so normalised it’s no longer a conversation topic.
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