Moving past token NEDs, making role models more visible and calling on men to champion the cause will help open retail up to a new generation of entrepreneurial women
There is a huge amount of female talent out there that we are just not embracing. We're seeing hugely competent women leaving large corporations because they hit the glass ceiling and are not able to fulfil their potential. That's tragic, both for companies and the economy. The business case for better female representation on boards makes it a no-brainer: if you look at the figures, businesses that have more gender-diverse boards vastly outperform those that don't. In my 35-year-career, I've contributed £1.5bn to the UK economy and I am certain that there are many other women out there that would have a similar impact.
Retail can be better at embracing female talent than many industries. For example, Ronan Dunne, the CEO of Telefonica UK, is very supportive of women in business and smaller retailers like Jigsaw, the fashion retailer, do it very well. Small to mid-sized businesses that are very consumer-focused also tend to excel at this because they recognise that 70% of those we employ in retail and 70% of those making purchasing decisions are women. But, despite this, there are still many larger businesses in the retail space that are struggling with board equality and failing to recognise the amazing female talent they have in front of them.
So what can we do to change this? Often many businesses' strategy is to put a token female NED on a company's board but every woman I know wants to achieve her place on the board for her achievements and ability, not because of tokenism. Additionally, going down that road results in us ending up with these NED super-women who hop from one board to another. Instead, businesses should be focusing on organically growing talent and helping women ascend the ranks. If they really want to give women confidence, they need to create a culture that demonstrates they genuinely care about and recognise female talent.
But it's not only within the businesses themselves that progress can be made. Tackling social conditioning also plays a big part here. When my daughter was five, I took her to one of my speeches: I wanted her to see that this is normal and not just something that men do. It's imperative we have female representation up on stages, in politics, in the media and in all other important arenas. Because that is what makes up-and-coming women feel that there is an opportunity for their talent to be celebrated.
Lastly, we need men to be agents of change and to champion this. It isn't just a women's issue: it's an everyone issue. Fathers, more than anybody, need to be championing this change if they want their daughters to have the best start in life that they possibly can. I urge men to talk about the business case for embracing female talent and inspiring change with their own actions. That will go a long way to help change perceptions and start to address gender inequality.