Agents of change wanted

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Agents of change wanted

By Sandy Kennedy - 06/14/2018
Sandy Kennedy is president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

During a 25 year career as a female executive in the retail industry I have seen firsthand the strides made to attract, retain and promote women and people of color. Now, as I look ahead to the coming decades, there are two words that come to mind about the business imperative of diversity and inclusion: “be better.”

As the nation’s largest private sector employer, the retail industry supports over 42 million American jobs. From our supply chain, to store, to c-suite, retail’s reach is wide and our impact broad. Retailers take pride in fostering career training, wage growth, workforce development, and innovation for employees of all ages, genders and backgrounds. We truly are an industry of opportunity where the barrier to entry is low and the opportunity of success is high. While we have made great investments in our people, retail must do more — we must be better — to further the representation of women and people of color at the highest levels.

The 21st century workforce is evolving and so too are the customers we serve. Diversity and inclusiveness are essential to moving retail into the future. Women make up half the U.S. population and according to a 2018 report by the global nonprofit Catalyst, “by 2044, non-Hispanic whites will constitute less than 50% of the total population.” It is imperative that our workforce and our leadership reflect the changing face of our country.

Women are the driving force in retail. They have long been the decision-makers when it comes to household spending, are the majority of retail’s customers — over 85%, and make up half of the retail workforce. Yet, women are underrepresented in the retail boardroom. While the industry has made strides in first and mid-level management (women account for 42 percent at S&P 500 retail companies), only 37 percent of women occupy executive positions. Less than 6 percent of retail CEOs are women. That last statistic is sobering. If women are the retail customer, who better to lead the industry than those who know the retail customer?

What’s more, a study commissioned by the Network of Executive Women (NEW), Mercer, and Accenture found that women’s turnover rates in the industry are “far higher than those of their male counterparts” and that women at all levels are “exiting retail and consumer goods companies at higher rates than men.” This shows that while retail opens doors for women, the industry must do a better job of welcoming them inside.

There are, however, bright spots within the industry. In a testimony before Congress last year, Gap executive Debbie Maples shared her success story and the story of her company’s commitment to promoting women within their ranks. More than 47 percent of Gap’s CEO executive leadership team and 68 percent of store managers are women. This past year Target announced that over half of its stores are women-led and women make up 36% of their board and 45% of the executive level. I am also encouraged to see women increasingly leading the way in retail operations. At the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s (RILA) annual Retail Law Conference, this past October, I was pleased by the number of women general and deputy general counsel in attendance and am thrilled to see our “Women in Supply Chain” executive group continue to grow.

Research has shown us that companies that invest in gender and racial diversity outperform those that maintain the status quo. Diversity in the c-suite is key to understanding and serving the retail customer. As the industry continues to focus on innovating the customer experience, so too should industry focus on diversifying the retail workforce.

In January, upon becoming chairman of the RILA board of Directors, Target CEO Brian Cornell challenged RILA to tackle diversity and inclusion in the retail industry, saying “As retailers, we know how important it is for our teams to reflect the people who shop with us — from diversity in gender, ethnicity and race to including a broad range of cultural perspectives. Building the next generation of leaders in retail, from store teams to CEOs and everyone in between, will be an important step in ensuring the nimbleness and vitality of our industry now and in the future.”

That is why RILA is working with retail leaders to define common diversity and inclusion metrics, identify industry needs, and promote opportunities for advancing women and people of color throughout the retail ecosystem. The effort will engage some of retail’s top CEOs to oversee the development and adoption of the initiative while retail CHROs and D&I executives will provide deeper substantive insights and guidance towards implementation. 

As we work to move the industry forward, we welcome engagement from all retail executives. Together, we can further retail’s work in creating cultures of inclusion and a workforce that is truly reflective of industry and the customers we serve. I challenge you to commit to the mission and together, retail will “be better.”  RL