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Want to See More Gender Equality in Fashion? Here's What You Can Do

Whether you're managing people or at the bottom of the office food chain.
Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

On the consumer side, the fashion industry targets women more than it does men, but when you get to the top levels — think creative directors and C-suite executives — men far outnumber women. 

According to a recent survey entitled "The Glass Runway" conducted by McKinsey & Company in partnership with the CFDA and Glamour, only 14 percent of leading womenswear brands are run by a female CEO. And that's not due to a lack of female talent in the fashion pipeline, or a lack of ambition. On the contrary, the study, which was based on surveys of over 500 industry professionals and interviews with two dozen more, found that entry-level female fashion professionals actually report higher ambitions than their male counterparts. But by the time they reach the vice president level, men in the fashion industry receive promotions without asking for them three times as often as women do — and women only ask for promotions in the first place half as often as men. This isn't just a bad thing for individual women, it's a bad thing for companies, too, as McKinsey's own body of research has proven that gender diversity has a positive impact on businesses.

"You're more likely to have financial performance that outperforms your peers with more gender diversity," explained McKinsey partner Stacey Haas at a panel hosted by the CFDA and Glamour Wednesday morning in New York. "Higher revenue, higher profit, better culture."

So what can be done to address fashion's persisting gender equality gap? The panelists outlined a "Lean In"-like approach that has applications for everyone from the brand-new intern to the CEO of a company. As far as the panelists are concerned, it will take both individual women pursuing ambitious career tracks with confidence, and systemic change initiated by company leadership, for the fashion industry to evolve for the better.

On a company level, Haas asserted, it is necessary for leadership teams to understand and communicate the importance of gender equality. From there, the creation of female mentoring programs, comprehensive and fair maternity leave policies and the implementation of unconscious bias training for leaders will demonstrate real commitment to change.

Sarah Dunn, Global HR Officer of Tapestry (which owns Coach, Kate Spade and more), noted that seeing a healthy work-life balance modeled by Tapestry's male CEO Victor Luis has paved the way for a company culture that doesn't treat family and career as diametrically opposed. "There are times when you know Victor's not available because he's with his children, and that has made it possible for women just to say, 'Look, I need to go now,' or, 'I'm at my kid's school tomorrow,'" she said. 

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Considering that 30 percent of the women surveyed claimed that having young children had slowed their career advancement — as opposed to a mere 7 percent of men who faced the same obstacle — allowing employees the flexibility to be with their families without punishing them for it in the workplace is a significant step in closing the gender gap.

Another important element of increasing gender parity could come about by increasing access to mentoring, advice and transparency about career trajectories for women. "Women are disproportionately getting less guidance on how to move through their careers [than men]," Haas explained. "We can increase transparency and create more fairness in the path to the top. People have to be clear about how to get to the top so they can accomplish it."

While many of the problems with gender inequality need to be addressed by the managers and higher-ups in any company, the panelists also made clear that there are things any individual — even the most entry-level ones — can do for themselves. The biggest takeaway? Don't be scared to go after raises and promotions. Women are less likely to ask for them, but that doesn't have to be the case.

According to Glamour editor-in-chief Samantha Barry, it's important to advocate for yourself with confidence by explaining what you've already accomplished for the company, outlining your market value and laying out your vision for your own growth. And if you still don't get the raise or promotion you asked for?

"I remember being in a job and asking for a raise and not getting it, and being disappointed but not disheartened," Barry shared. "So I went back and I said, 'Ok... I want you to lay out the five things I need to do in the next six months that will get me to that level.'"

In sum: Don't give up.

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