Minding the gender GAP

What's really behind the scarcity of women in retail leadership positions?
By Ann Meyer

"When you look for the best talent, diversity just happens."

– Jewel Hunt,


"When your employee base represents your consumer base, there's a better chance you're going to satisfy your consumers."

– Katherine Giscombe,


"Have you created a culture that's more conducive to males [so] that women don't even want to apply?"

– Linda Stokes,

Prism International Inc.

Safeway works at "identifying high-potential individuals across all teams and all businesses."

– Traci Adams,


Ambitious even as a young adult, Jewel Hunt remembers asking her Safeway managers for more responsibility.

"I kept asking, 'What do I need to do? What do I need to learn?'" recalls Hunt, who started as a bakery sales clerk and part-time checker 30 years ago and now serves as group vice president for pharmacy, health & wellness at the Pleasanton, Calif.-based retailer.

Hunt is among the growing number of women in high-level retail management, where women account for 18 percent of executive officers, according to statistics from Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business. That's a smaller gender gap than in business as a whole, where women account for just 14 percent of executive officers. Still, the retail management figures are far short of expectations in an industry where females make up half the workforce. And given that experts estimate women account for the lion's share of grocery spending, some say the discrepancy is even more glaring in the grocery industry than in business as a whole.

"Although we have shown some gains in certain metrics, I don't believe the CPG/retail industry has been head and shoulders above other industries in terms of its leaders reflecting its customer base," says Joan Toth, president and chief executive officer of the Network for Executive Women, a nonprofit formed a decade ago to attract women and advance their careers in the retail and CPG industries.

Companies with more women in top executive positions tend to be more profitable than companies with less diversity, research suggests.

"If women are making the decisions about what to buy, it will help to have women in key positions in your organization," adds Katherine Giscombe, vice president, diverse women & inclusion at Catalyst. "When your employee base represents your consumer base, there's a better chance you're going to satisfy your consumers."

Walmart's discrimination case

The lack of women and minorities in leadership positions at many companies has been an especially hot topic since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the Dukes v. Walmart gender discrimination case that included as many as 1.5 million current and former workers, on the basis that the complaints were individual in nature and lacked the commonality required for class action. The Supreme Court didn't rule out bias against female employees–the case simply didn't get that far. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a dissenting opinion that the plaintiffs' statistics showing that women held 70 percent of hourly jobs but only 33 percent of management roles suggest "gender bias suffused Walmart's corporate culture."

Senior managers at Walmart called female associates "little Janie Qs," and one manager told a worker, "[m]en are here to make a career and women aren't," Ginsburg pointed out. "Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware," she wrote in the dissent.

But while a federal court in San Francisco hears a discrimination case filed by a smaller class of 45,000 employees who have worked in California Walmart stores, the company already has vowed to make changes, pledging to provide more than $100 million in grant money for programs supporting women's advancement. For example, Walmart plans to purchase $20 billion in goods and services from women-owned businesses in the United States during the next five years and provide training for 200,000 women from low-income households to develop job skills.

The distaff advantage

The Network for Executive Women, which now has more than 4,000 members, most of whom are female, also is optimistic about adding to the ranks of top-level women in retailing. "We helped get diversity on the agenda," Toth said at a recent industry event. Companies have started to pay more attention to diversity, she says, because they understand it can provide a competitive advantage. Those with diverse workforces "are able to attract and retain the best talent, tap into diverse experiences to better satisfy a diverse customer base, and are stronger in a global marketplace," Toth says.

At retail, women and minority customers want to see people who look like them, says Mauricio Velasquez, president and CEO of Diversity Training Group in Herndon, Va. "The more diverse your staff, the more welcome your diverse customers will feel in your retail environment," he says. Some supermarkets have learned the hard way about the importance of diversity when an ethnic market opens nearby and attracts the established market's customers, he points out.

Companies also benefit from diversity of thought when they employ or do business with women and minorities. Diverse suppliers often bring innovative ideas to large corporations and can act on them more quickly.

"A woman-owned or minority-owned business is often on the front line of emerging customer demands and emerging markets, and CPG/retail companies doing business with them benefit from that 'first in market' position and identification of opportunities before competitors who don't have access to that experience and expertise," Toth says.

Training and promotion

Eliminating the glass ceiling requires a deliberate approach to cross-training and promoting women and minorities. It starts with identifying gaps in your workforce, and then determining the best way to close them, says Linda Stokes, president and CEO of Prism International Inc., a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Orlando, Fla. Develop a diversity and inclusion program as if it were any other organizational process by putting systems in place, Stokes says. For example, ensure that women are part of the candidate slates that review applicants for new positions, and come up with a process for retaining diverse employees and training them for positions of advancement.

At Safeway, that means "identifying high-potential individuals across all teams and all businesses," says Traci Adams, vice president of corporate floral at Safeway, who started as a courtesy clerk more than 30 years ago. Safeway uses an internal review process to assess whether its operations are achieving diversity goals. Safeway's commitment to diversity starts with hiring women and minorities. "We look for the best talent. When you look for the best talent, diversity just happens," says Hunt. "It represents the people who shop at the store."

Safeway encourages store managers and merchandisers to recommend products at the store level that meet the specific needs of their customer base. In general, retailers with women and minorities in management roles are more likely to understand their target markets, experts say.

Helping hands

Safeway also pushes mentoring as a way to help women and minorities move up the corporate ladder. "There's nothing more rewarding than helping someone else advance their career," Hunt says. And increasingly, formalized sponsorships–where leaders don't just mentor employees but advocate for their advancement–are proving to be highly effective, notes Catalyst's Giscombe.

Employee resource groups or affinity networks formed around gender or ethnicity are gaining ground too. These groups can provide information about other cultures that can help a company better position its products and services, experts say. And the groups often have connections to alternative recruiting avenues for minority candidates that company recruiters aren't familiar with.

At Kimberly-Clark, where 85 percent of the company's customers are women, members of the Women's Interactive Network provide insights useful for marketing and innovation, says Sue Dodsworth, the company's global diversity officer. "They help us really understand our consumer," she says. The network also offers programming designed to help women advance to senior positions. "The more senior you are, the more impact you've got," Dodsworth says.

Taking it from the top

For diversity efforts to be effective, top leadership has to commit to them or they will ring hollow. Sometimes the best way to change a culture that hasn't been inclusive is to examine why, Stokes says. "Let's get clear about what our reluctance is," she says.

Often, leaders don't realize they filter information through personal biases. Leaders also have to consider the interpersonal aspects of diversity and inclusion, or how they make decisions and interact with others, as well as the systems that the organization has in place that may support the status quo and make it difficult for women and minorities to advance, Stokes says.

"Look at the environment. Is it an environment that women frankly don't want to work in? Or have you created a culture that's more conducive to males [so] that women don't even want to apply?" Stokes says.

"Leadership has to be supportive, committed [and] out in front" on diversity training.

– Mauricio Velasquez,

Diversity Training Group

At the same time, mandating diversity training out of a compliance need without adjusting the corporate culture can backfire, Velasquez says. "People see right through that," he says. "Leadership has to be supportive, committed [and] out in front."

Freelance journalist Ann Meyer is editor of and chief executive of L3C Chicago, L3C. Meyer formerly was a freelance small business columnist for the Chicago Tribune and has written for a variety of business publications, including BusinessWeekSmallBiz, Crain's Chicago Business, Specialty Coffee Retailer, Multichannel Merchant and Prepared Foods.