Fashion wants to present a more feminist image.
Even Victoria’s Secret has undergone a makeover, as a new generation of consumers shaped by social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter rejected its portrayal of pin-up perfect “angels” as more objectifying than aspirational. The brand’s new front women include soccer star Megan Rapinoe, plus-size model Paloma Elsesser and actor and producer Priyanka Chopra.
But while fashion’s marketing is moving in lock-step with cultural currents, women working in the industry remain at a disadvantage, and brands are doing little to address the issue, according to a new report by nonprofit The World Benchmarking Alliance that measures progress towards gender equality at 35 of fashion’s most influential companies.
It’s an area where the industry has a particular responsibility because women represent such a core demographic. Chronically low wages and consistent labour abuses in fashion’s supply chain fall on a largely female workforce. Women dominate its poorly paid retail jobs and represent its largest consumer base. And women remain under-represented at the top of the industry.
According to the WBA’s Gender Benchmark, which evaluated companies on how they address gender inequality in their workplaces, supply chains, marketing and community initiatives, employers in the fashion industry are just beginning their journey towards gender parity, and in many cases sweeping, transformative change is needed. The average score across all companies was just 29 points out of 100.
Companies are performing worst on gender equality in their own workplaces, where the average score drops to just 26 points. The majority of companies still fail to deliver on executive representation, benefits such as parental leave and robust policies to protect against harassment. “I think we would have expected it to be lowest in the supply chain, but that is [not] what we found,” said Shamistha Selvaratnam, WBA’s gender lead.
Selvaratnam points to the historic scrutiny and criticism of labour practices in apparel factories, where brands have less direct influence and control, as a potential reason. To be sure, systemic issues such as labour and wage violations, gender-based discrimination, harassment and poor health and safety are persistent in supply chains — and exacerbated by the pandemic — but brands are also failing women in their own corporate operations, where they have far more potential to take direct action.
“In the supply chain, putting in place policies and processes like auditing is something that companies have been doing for many years, but what we expect of companies in the workplace is considerably more,” she said.
That translates to an industry that caters to women but does not do enough to support them.
“Even with an industry like fashion and retail, where women might be more largely represented in the total workforce, at the senior level it tends to still be white male-dominated,” said Kyle Rudy, a partner at executive search firm Kirk Palmer Associates. “The people who are making the decisions at the very top level have probably been in their career 30, 40, 50 years and the world has changed dramatically in that time.”
A lot of times women feel as if we’re stigmatised if we go into work and we say ... ‘I need to go and take care of my child.’
That lack of female representation at the helm of large fashion companies is a stark and visible symptom of persistent gender inequality in the industry. Only 20 percent of the companies assessed by the WBA’s gender benchmark have a senior executive team that is gender-balanced (made up of 40 to 60 percent women). That proportion drops to 14 percent at board level. Data, where it exists, suggests the fashion industry’s gender pay gap remains an issue.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated existing pressures, disproportionately affecting women in an economic downturn coined a “shecession” by the US think tank Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In the sales and service sectors, women have accounted for 62 percent of job losses despite making up just over half of the workforce, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation published earlier this month.
Many fashion brands don’t have policies in place to support employees with additional childcare responsibilities or health issues, according to the WBA’s Gender Benchmark. Half of the 35 companies assessed offered childcare support for employees, while only 34 percent provide additional family support such as paid time off to attend dependents’ medical appointments. Just 29 percent offer both.
Women “still bear the brunt of the responsibilities at home for caregiving, for raising our children, for taking care of the home,” said Theresa Watts, vice president of human resources at denim brand True Religion and an advocate for more inclusive workplaces. (True Religion was not included in WBA’s Gender Benchmark.) “A lot of times women feel as if we’re stigmatised if we go into work and we say ... ‘I need to go and take care of my child,’” she said.
At True Religion, Watts said she has encouraged her colleagues to work flexible schedules and even bring their children into the office if they are struggling to find childcare options.
As lockdown restrictions ease, moves to bring employees back into the office without accommodating caregiving responsibilities could further reinforce the glass ceiling for women, said Watts. “With men being more able to come into the workplace, there’s an opportunity to connect more with the decision-makers who could give you that promotion, who could give you that raise, [provide] clear criteria for success.”
Following a global crisis that has further deepened the gender gap, companies need to become more transparent and proactive about improving representation, pay and career progression for the women they employ.
Companies need to go beyond just having this ‘do no harm’ attitude, to ‘how can we have positive impacts on women?’
For Watts, that starts with hiring practices and ensuring that there is a gender balance in candidates being interviewed for any role — even if that means taking more time to reach out to relevant industry organisations or employee resource groups. “Regardless of how critical the need is, we follow the programme, we follow the process and we make sure that we have the appropriate candidate pool,” she said.
For women already on the payroll, companies need to address gender disparities in manager feedback, career advancement and mentorship opportunities. According to a 2018 “Glass Runway” survey by the CFDA, Glamour and McKinsey & Company, women are less likely to receive feedback on how to progress outside of formal review processes than men. This issue can be addressed by providing more concrete, measurable targets and criteria for success, targeted training conferences, and recognising the potential disadvantages of those still working remotely as offices reopen, said Watts.
Companies also need to provide more transparent data about performance indicators like pay gaps, employee turnover and promotion rates. “While numbers alone don’t solve gender inequalities, or fix anyone’s pay or break the glass ceiling, data is so necessary to shine a light on problems so that solutions can be identified,” said Selvaratnam.
Crucially, gender equality can’t be just a marketing tactic for fashion. Brands need to develop gender equality strategies that encompass the full value chain, from garment workers to consumers and the wider community, rather than “a sporadic approach based on what others are doing or topical issues,” said Selvaratnam.
“Companies need to go beyond just having this ‘do no harm’ attitude, to ‘how can we have positive impacts on women?’ That’s really the mindset shift that we need to see.”