PARIS, France — Boardroom culture. We all know the cliché. A group of white, aging men who don’t see their families much. Women make the coffee and run their diaries. Sadly, the cliché often reflects reality. In October 2014, just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs, while only 19 percent of board members at these companies were women.
In fashion, more women rise to leadership positions — but not by much. Across 50 major fashion brands studied by BoF, only seven (or 14 percent) are run by women, and about 25 percent of board members of publicly-traded fashion and luxury companies are women. In a sector in which 85 percent of the customer base is composed of women, this seems disproportionately low.
Indeed, pervasive gender stereotypes still hinder women’s progress to the top of many industries. This, despite evidence which shows that companies with more gender diversity and more women in senior leadership roles generate greater revenues and profits. A 2014 report by the Anita Borg Institute found that Fortune 500 companies with three or more female directors saw at least 66 percent greater return on invested capital (ROIC) and at least 42 percent greater sales versus companies with fewer women directors.
“We are developing and creating dreams, very often dreams for women,” said Chantal Gaemperlé, executive vice president of human resources and synergies of LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate.
In 2009, an internal study at LVMH revealed that while a majority of its workforce was composed of women, they often had trouble ascending the ranks and were seriously under-represented in senior management positions, meaning the company was failing to adequately harness the kind of female talent which could give it a competitive advantage.
“The talent pool in luxury is key because you don’t do business without the right people. [They] are the key asset for us, so the question was, ‘Who are those people in our talent pool?’ Answer — a majority of women. Then, the question was how to encourage, develop, grow, retain, attract talents — and in our case, and mostly in the luxury industry, women,” Gaemperlé explained.
In response, Gaemperlé launched ‘EllesVMH,’ an initiative which began with an exhibition to celebrate women employees, staged on International Women’s Day, and has since evolved into a multipronged programme to ensure high potential women advance to senior leadership positions.
As the scheme progressed, LVMH focused on its brands, or maisons, and set a clear target: 40 percent of those on brand executive committees should be women by 2015 (in 2010, it was 26 percent). To get there, the conglomerate put into place a series of clear actions.
First of all, LVMH established regional networks in key markets to cultivate a sense of community amongst women in senior positions.
“They organise local, cross-maison development events such as speed networking with senior executives, lunches with female presidents and workshops on specific topics,” said Gaemperlé. “In China last year 135 female managers participated in a forum on female leadership with panellists of presidents.” Similar events took place in other key regions.
The group also began identifying high potential women and inviting external experts to coach them on how to overcome four key career obstacles that many women face. “The four areas that the women’s coaching focused on were: ambition — openly expressing career goals and pursuing them; work-life balance — including family demands; self marketing — building networks to promote herself with influential others; and geographical exposure — managing international mobility for herself — and, if relevant, for dual career couples,” Gaemperlé explained.
Rigorous analysis of women’s advancement was also added into the annual reviews of each brand. “We specifically ask the presidents of maisons to report on the number of women with high potential. We ask them their next steps and ask if there are specific actions that we can take to help them get there. If we’ve identified X number of high potential women, we then ask what is happening to them — why have you not developed ‘Mary’? Why can she not be considered?”
What’s more, headhunters working with the group were required to put forward at least one female candidate for every senior role they were hired to fill. “We also give clear mandates... that for any position they had to provide us with CVs of women.”
Of course, EllesVMH is also a savvy public relations move. “It improves our reputation as a brand. HR is about marketing too,” said Gaemperlé. “People are interested in what kind of culture they are going to join. They think, ‘How am I going to find my way in such an organisation?’ ‘Is it sensitive to addressing particular hurdles in my career?’”
So is it working?
Thus far, EllesVMH is having a positive impact, especially at the maison level. Thirty- eight percent of executive committee members in the Group’s brands are now women, up from 26 percent in 2010, and close to the initiative’s stated goal of 40 percent by 2015.
Yet across the group, there remains much work to be done, especially in the group’s most senior roles. Of twelve members on the group executive committee of LVMH, Gaemperlé is the only woman, and only four of LVMH’s seventeen board members are women. At the fourteen fashion and leather goods brands owned by the conglomerate, only three have female CEOs:
Furthermore, the group has yet to focus its efforts on gender imbalance within its creative leadership. Today, there are only two female creative directors at LVMH-owned fashion brands — Carol Lim, co-creative director of Kenzo, and Phoebe Philo of Céline.
Is this because of the specific nature of creative work? Gaemperlé thinks not. “Creative directors and business [leaders] – the patterns – it’s the same. People need to be stimulated by the right environment, have fun, be reassured,” said Gaemperlé. “Have we addressed them as a specific community? Not yet. Would we do it in the future? Why not?”
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a consortium of investors which has a minority stake in The Business of Fashion.
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market. Join the discussion on BoF Voices, a new platform where the global fashion community can come together to express and exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today.