Unraveling the fabric ceiling

Tracking female leadership in the apparel industry

The lack of female leadership in the C-suite is not news to anyone, yet the problem persists. Although women comprise half the workforce in the United States, they remain vastly underrepresented at the highest executive levels: A scant 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Only 12.5% of apparel and retail apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 are led by women. The lack of female executives is particularly troubling, given that women enter the apparel industry in droves early in their careers.

So why are women not more prevalent in leadership roles - especially in an industry such as apparel where both employees and customers are overwhelming women?

Industry experts on diversity and inclusion point to 4 key barriers of advancement:

1. Lack of CEO championship
2. Unconscious bias
3. Fewer women in the pipeline
4. Societal constraints

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Bumping up against the fabric ceiling

Industry leaders speak up

We interviewed current and former apparel CEOs, sought input from diversity and inclusion experts, and analyzed a variety of data and insights – including CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). Although solving complex, deep-rooted, systemic challenges takes time, our hope is to advance the conversation about the evolving role of women in corporate leadership.

Gender diversity grows in importance

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"Technology enables, but it’s really about leadership and culture."

- Lizanne Kindler

CEO of Talbots

Unraveling the fabric ceiling: What can companies do?

So how can businesses turn good intentions into practical progress? We’ve identified eight key foundations for effective change:

Evangelize the CEO

There’s no substitute for the tide-changing influence of a committed CEO. A coalition of nearly 600 CEOs working to accelerate progress on diversity via CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, have pledged to make the workplace safe for difficult conversations, promote unconscious bias training, and share best practices with each other.

Check unconscious bias

Training to counter blind spots or decisions made by the unconscious mind allows us to challenge assumptions, enhance objectivity and overcome stereotypes. Rather than looking for the right fit — someone that reflects one’s own background and experience — a trained mind looks for the best candidate.

End opportunity discrimination

Women may not always receive the same opportunities as men in equal measure, leading to opportunity discrimination. Stem this tide by reviewing current recruitment and hiring policies and committing to gender diversity in hiring, succession planning and promotions.

Measure results

Accelerate the pace of change by replacing good intentions and vague goals with structural support that includes specific goals and diversity targets at every level. Give teeth to targets by holding leaders accountable for achieving gender equity goals.

Investigate anomalies

Are women leaving at a higher rate than men? Are they not being promoted in similar numbers? If so, there are probably underlying reasons. Employee surveys, confidential individual interviews, focus groups and exit interviews are all ways to learn where you’re falling short.

Balance the board

Almost half of directors ranked gender diversity a very important attribute in PwC’s Annual Corporate Directors Survey, up from 25% in 2012. As Diane Ellis, CEO of DME Advisory Group, Director at Stage Stores, former CEO of The Limited and former President of Chico’s, says, “The more women you get on boards, the more women you’ll get in the C-Suite.”

Support nonlinear career progression

Flexible work arrangements and nontraditional career paths without repercussions or stigma — including adjusting workloads, paring down travel and scaling back responsibilities — can help address attrition as women juggle career and family. Diversified roles provide much-needed grooming for executive roles.

Encourage male participation in family-friendly policies

When men avail themselves of options such as family leave and flexible work arrangements, negative perceptions that these policies are designed solely to accommodate women no longer prevail.

"Gender balance is not a matter of excluding men; it's a matter of including more women. I don't want them to go to 48%. I just want it to be 50-50.”

Amy Shecter,CEO of Glamsquad

Contact us

Carrie Duarte Steele

Partner, Deals Transformation, PwC US

Tyson Cornell

PwC US Advisory Leader, PwC US

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