Where is the female voice at the top of the fashion industry?

Despite the fashion industry being predominantly marketed to, worked for and kept afloat by women there is a distinct lack of them at the top of the industry pyramid. While spending three times as much as men on clothing, and graduates from top fashion schools being around 80% women the gender balance is severely skewed.

Women at work in the fashion industry

It is at all senior levels of the fashion industry across design, management, high end and mass production that male colleagues seem to leap above their female counterparts and attain top jobs. Only 12.5 percent of the apparel companies on the Fortune 1000 list are led by women. This is not for lack of aspiration as at the beginnings of their careers 17% more women than men want to get to the top.

It is not getting entry level positions that pose the problem, as this is already dominated by women. It is the gap, between middle management and the rise to CEO, that women cannot seem to bridge. Bias definitely plays a part in this imbalance of gender. Perception being the key. While 100% of women in a recent study recognised that there was a gender-inequality problem, under half of the men asked, agreed. The adage that if there is no problem, there is no need for a fix continues to perpetuate the imbalance.

Although, there are other industry-wide issues that seem to perpetuate the imbalance. A lack of championing by CEOs for inclusivity and diversity at senior levels contributes to the lacklustre enthusiasm for gender-equality. HR departments can put in as many safeguards and directives for the company but without true understanding or motivation from senior executives these will fall by the waste side and women will be stopped by the glass ceiling once again.

As a result of systemic gender gaps there are also less women in a position to take these jobs when they arise. The Gucci Group, LVMH and Dior are three of the biggest high end umbrella brands in the world and have never had a CEO that wasn’t male. Dior only just hired their first female head designer in 2016, and Givenchy their first in 2017. If talent is not given the space to develop and thrive it will die and unfortunately, without support, a lot of women find themselves unable to get beyond the middle tier.

There have been top brands led by women, Burberry CEO from 1997-2006 Rosie Marie Bravo, was one of a handful of women at the top of her profession. By getting the job, and demonstrating her extreme capabilities at it, she was able to confront perceived notions of what women in power are like. She was able to promote women into positions of power such as her C.F.O as well as nominate a women as her successor. Alongside other female CEOs Karis Durmer, of Altuzzurra, and Shirley Cook then CEO of Proenza Schouler she was able to give a visual to what female led companies should and could look like.

The truth is the fashion industry is a trillion dollar business that continues to grow. However there is an ever more pressing need for change that the industry seems reluctant to address. Environmental action and demands for workers rights has made headlines around the world and it is women who may provide a solution to these growing factors of instability. A recent study by the University of Arizona discovered that profitability is boosted by 15 percent when a company increases female leadership by 30 percent, but even more importantly, those companies also tend to be more innovative, producing an average of 20 percent more patents.

Family planning is still one of the greatest obstacles for women in the modern-age. Choosing between family and career seems inevitable. And most women take on the majority of this burden. The fashion industry is global and often requires more and more travel, evening events and weekends; not conducive to family life. This overburdening of women, who do take on the majority of childcare responsibilities, often leads to burnout as well as unexpressed biases by recruiters to expect women to not be as focused or driven as their male colleagues because they have a family.

There are greater numbers of women applying for higher education globally than at any other time in history and that means more highly educated motivated women entering into the industry and challenging for top jobs. There are many demands being made on the fashion industry in recent years; fair labour wages and standards, the environmental impact of fast fashion, size-ism. However, they like to view themselves as forward-thinking now is the time to initiate changes that make women stay and excel in the industry. Create calendars that work for parents, mentorship schemes for women coming through the company and most of all recognise that there is a problem with a gender imbalance. And that it can be solved through meaningful and supported changes.