Increased Commitment to Ensuring Gender Equity Within Workforce Critical to Growth and Success of the Canadian Retail Industry [Feature]

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Gender inequality. It’s an issue that’s plagued societies all over the world for millennia, and one that continues to challenge the ethics and morality of our time. It’s a flaw in our thinking as people that results only in the denial of opportunity and marginalization of voices within our communities, limiting our progress as a species. The disparate treatment of men and women within the business world poses the same adverse impact on companies and brands which, through this obtuse way of thinking, diminishes their understanding and perspective of the market, inhibiting the growth and success of their organizations.

Though progress has been made through the years, largely by way of the passionate and courageous work undertaken by groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association, the Women’s Liberation Movement and a multitude of others that continue the fight today, there is still much improvement required if people and businesses are to fulfill their true potential. It’s a fact that Diane J. Brisebois, President and CEO of Retail Council of Canada, says is a simple one to grasp, but one which can yield a constraining and suppressing effect on the companies that are unable to take it to heart.

“It goes without saying that women bring different perspectives and experiences to the table,” she asserts. “They have very strong IQs as well as EQs and are often able to see the grey rather than simply the black or white within certain situations. Women are also extremely effective leaders who don’t shy away from confrontation and are great at team building and bringing people together in pursuit of a common goal or objective. It’s not to suggest that men don’t possess these qualities and characteristics. But they are certainly qualities and characteristics that many women have also brought to the retail C-suite throughout my career within the industry. Beyond these intangibles, however, 50 percent of the world’s population is female. If an organization does not include women throughout its enterprise, not just in the C-suite, they’re cutting off access to half of the labour pool, much of which is top talent that can help their brands move forward and grow. As a result, it’s fundamental for companies to make the necessary investments in order to ensure that diversity. And if they don’t, they’re poorer for it.”

Gender equality is good for business

Natasha Koifman, President and Founder of one of the country’s leading public relations agencies, NKPR

Brisebois, who’s been leading Canada’s national retail association for more than a quarter century, has personally witnessed much of the recent advancements toward gender equality within the workforce. She points to the growth potential for brands that ensure diversity throughout their ranks, adding that the impact of a collective industry effort to achieve equity could have a profound impact on the overall economy. In fact, according to a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) titled The Power of Parity, a globally comparable advancement of women’s equality in which women match men’s participation in the workforce, their sector mix, and their full-time mix of jobs, the global GDP could rise by an astronomical $28 trillion by 2025, representing a mammoth increase of 26 percent over current levels. It’s an opportunity that’s recognized by Natasha Koifman, President and Founder of one of the country’s leading public relations agencies, NKPR, who suggests that it’s a result that’s inevitable for organization’s that make an earnest commitment toward including female representation at the top.

“It’s important to have all genders, and ethnicities, represented at the table because different perspectives are what create progressive outcomes,” she states. “Research shows that Fortune 500 companies that had more women on their boards financially outperformed companies with less women – meaning more women in executive seats literally translates to increased economic margins. Similar studies show that gender balance in the workplace influences positive job satisfaction and wellness, which also leads to increased employee retention.”

Extending beyond financial performance

Sarah Jordan
Sarah Jordan, CEO of Mastermind Toys

Although the financial outcomes are critical to retailers and their continued success across the country, monetary gain is not the only benefit available to companies who achieve relative equity throughout their operations. In fact, according to Sarah Jordan, CEO of Mastermind Toys, the positive ramifications that can come about as a consequence to proactively ensuring equality throughout an organization are far-reaching and have the potential to facilitate inventiveness, productivity and the creation of a constructive environment.

“Diversity is important and critical for business – and that goes beyond financial performance,” she says. “Having female representation at the table sparks innovation and growth, which has been especially important for retailers navigating new challenges throughout the pandemic. Mixed-gender teams allow for diverse perspectives and thinking when solving problems and more accurately reflects the experiences of the customers you’re serving. Companies with diversity in gender among managers are linked to innovation and can better manage group conflict. I’m proud to say women represent over 65 percent of Mastermind Toys’ leadership roles, with the majority having P&L responsibility, and are key contributors to our brand transformation.”

Barriers to success

Despite Jordan’s rise to a leadership position within the industry, which is undoubtedly credited to her strong work ethic and determination, she understands that these qualities are sometimes unfortunately not enough to ensure success within an organization. She believes that there are still barriers that exist for women looking to progress within their careers which result in undue limitations on their capabilities and realization of personal and professional achievements.

“We know that women face a number of barriers that can impact their rise through the corporate ranks, from experiencing microaggressions in the workplace due to unconscious biases, to spending disproportionately more time dedicated to caregiving responsibilities,” she says. “As a leader, I’m interested in how we can take action to support female talent and not only recognize that these barriers exist. I’ve been lucky to have sponsors in my life who have pounded the pavement for my growth and who have helped me seize my potential to get me to where I am today. Now being in a leadership role, I believe I have a responsibility to advocate for other women to help reduce the barriers in their path and create an inclusive environment that makes their growth achievable. My advice for leaders is to ask yourself: who are you sponsoring? Who are you inviting to the table? And who are you creating growth opportunities for?”

Closing the gender gap

Shannon Stewart, EVP, Chief Product Officer at Harry Rosen

Though ongoing MGI research related to gender inequality indicates that meaningful progress has largely not been made over the course of the past five years, there have been significant improvements in mindset among CEOs in North America during this time. According to its data, 87 percent of the continent’s companies today report that gender diversity is a top priority, compared with 74 percent in 2015. Regardless of this philosophical shift, however, MGI research also indicates that action is required on the part of organizations in order to really move the needle forward concerning the issue. In fact, representation of women in the C-suite in North America is a paltry 21 percent. It’s clear that there remains a chasmic gap in participation between the genders when it comes to leadership positions. And, as Shannon Stewart, EVP, Chief Product Officer at Harry Rosen, acknowledges, it’s a gap that needs closing in order for organizations to broaden their accessibility to the markets they serve.

“In many cases women are the decision-makers when it comes to purchasing, so it is important that we understand the impact that has on our business,” she says. “Our stores need to be a place anyone feels welcome in, including women. Any team, including an executive team, benefits from a balanced approach to decision-making. Having women present at the table ensures all aspects of a business problem are explored, including numbers-driven results as well as empathy towards those people driving the business.”

Leading by example

Trinh Tham, Chief Marketing Officer, EVP Marketing & eCommerce · Harry Rosen

Stewart’s colleague at Harry Rosen, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, EVP Marketing & E-Commerce, Trinh Tham, agrees, adding that there are opportunities for women currently in leadership positions within the industry to inspire younger generations. And, this, she says, can be easily achieved through the sharing of experiences, providing some guidance and direction for young women to follow.

“Female leaders are leading by example to show that women can strive to reach more senior positions within their companies and be recognized for their contributions,” she explains. “I think it’s important for women who have achieved success in their careers to share their stories and how they navigated challenges and opportunities to help others sort through theirs.  I also think there is a positive impact to be gained when younger generations share their perspectives with female leaders as this helps everyone learn and grow.”

Mentoring talent

Tham goes on to explain that to nurture that inspiration and properly support the development of young female talent within the industry, retail organizations have got to place far greater emphasis on the creation of mentorship opportunities. Not only does the development of meaningful and effective mentorship benefit the talent that’s being developed, she says, they also provide incredible learning moments for the entire organization.

“I would suggest that recognizing female talent and actively providing mentorship is an opportunity for both men and women leaders to reward and develop female high performers,” she says. “One of the challenges within the industry is in achieving longevity of these mentorships and maintaining the relationship over time and at different career and life phases. This requires effort from both parties involved. But, from my perspective, this is where senior executives need to put in a bit of extra effort in order to set a strong example with respect to what’s possible and to realize how rewarding this type of experience can be for everyone involved. I have been very fortunate to have enjoyed long-standing relationships with mentors, both male and female, and relationships with female mentees who I continue to learn so much from.”

Framework and structure

Mona Kennedy, Chief Financial Officer at Roots

It’s generally observed that a genuine recognition of the issue of gender inequality, intentions to lead by example and the development of strong mentorship opportunities are all fantastic steps toward addressing the shortcomings of businesses everywhere. In isolation, however, each are somewhat ineffective. To help ensure that proper progress is made concerning the issue, Mona Kennedy, Chief Financial Officer at Roots, suggests the provision of a strong framework and structure within which each initiative and effort can be highlighted, tracked and managed accordingly.

“Nurturing diverse talent is a business imperative,” she says. “We focus a lot of time and attention here at Roots on skill and being planful in our hiring practices, introducing case studies into our hiring practices and bringing in support to actively broaden the candidate pool when hiring. In addition, what gets measured gets managed. You need to have data to see where you are and target where you are going. We conducted a diversity, equity and inclusion engagement survey across all of our locations, including head office, distribution centres, retail stores and leather factory, to inform our plans, enable our team to play an active role in our diversity, equity and inclusion strategy and initiatives, and set a baseline against which we can measure our progress.”

Outcomes and accountability

Kennedy goes on to explain that by measuring and tracking outcomes, organizations are afforded a full view into the progress of their initiatives. In addition, she says that as a result of the transparency, those responsible for the outcomes are accountable for them, ensuring commitment and dedication toward achieving the organizations diversity, equity and inclusion goals and objectives.

“Taking an outcome-focused approach by creating defined objectives, and by holding people accountable for the outcomes, empowers employees to determine how to do their jobs in a way that positions them for the greatest success,” she says. “At Roots, we have a cross-functional diversity, equity and inclusion Council. We have also established a formal platform, ‘Together at Roots’, and have created a new diversity, equity and inclusion Specialist role. We also consistently review our related initiatives and provide updates directly to our board of directors. In the end, diversity is good for the business, and you have to manage it rigorously like any business opportunity.”

Further progress and improvement

Though the issue of gender inequality remains a societal issue that requires attention, the intentions of leaders within the retail industry to eradicate the scourge are increasing. It’s representative of a shift in philosophy that Brisebois believes has been accelerated by impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic, compelling people the world over to reassess their values and understand with greater clarity the things that matter most to them in their lives. The same has been true for CEOs of retail companies and brands operating across the country, she says, adding that the crisis that we’re all collectively facing may, in fact, serve to advance issues around equality and help the industry’s leaders realize just how great retail can be.

“Leaders within our industry, across the country, have an incredible opportunity in front of them to leverage the crisis that we’re currently living through and to take on some of the biggest challenges that retailers everywhere are facing. It’s providing them with a chance to take a closer look at their organizations, the weaknesses within them and the areas of opportunity for improvement. Going forward, addressing these concerns, and making positive progress around these kinds of societal issues, is going to be key in rallying teams together in order to make everyone better. In this way, retail leaders have the opportunity to advance their diversity initiatives and enrich the lives of their employees, customers and all other stakeholders involved.”

Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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