Women on top

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Opportunities for women in the workplace continue to diversify, but challenges remain. To coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, Retail World asked four successful women to reflect on their experiences in the retail/FMCG industry.

Ros White

White’s IGA Group Proprietor

I kind of fell into the industry when my then fiance´. (now husband) Michael and I took our first wobbly steps into the world of retail, fresh from a banking career. It took me several years to love this new industry and I found the transition from a corporate environment to being in a small business challenging. However, the more I embraced the industry, the more people I met and the more excited I became about what we did.

Over the years, my passion and engagement in retail have flourished. Twenty-three years on and I love travelling across the globe gaining whatever insights I can to adopt the best ideas and incorporate them into our model.

My biggest achievements include building sufficient knowledge, understanding and passion (from someone who was largely disengaged and extremely ‘green’ to becoming an industry leader and multi-national award winning retailer) andbeing appointed to the Queensland IGA State Retail Board as Chair – the first female to hold this position across the Australian IGA network.

To say there were some challenges along the way would be an understatement. While I don’t wish to dwell on some of these learning experiences, I have listened to the words of the song ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba (“I get knocked down, but I get up again”) and reflected on how they resonate.

More importantly, though, I’m very mindful and most grateful for the wonderful opportunities we’ve been given. We’ve been able to execute a robust growth strategy through the support of a great team and local community.

I think the retail industry is diversifying globally. There’s a world shift to ‘lifestyle status’, which is evident even at a local level.

Customers expect top service, great value and to be enticed and excited. Even satisfied customers can stop shopping with us. We have to reach further than this now to stay competitive.

There are many talented women involved in the grocery sector at many levels. There are many women in management within the industry. There are competent leaders and shining stars. What I don’t see enough of, is women in senior leadership, women at the highest executive level, CEOs, board members, etc – but that’s not limited to this industry.

The number of women in leadership is increasing, but it’s still on the lower scale of participation. I believe this boggles the mind of many industries.

Having identified this as a fact, I still don’t believe in gender quotas. I do see value in achieving a balance of perspectives in meaningful discussion. We’re an equal opportunity employer and base our policies on credibility, not gender.

Alison Watkins

Coca-Cola Amatil Group Managing Director

My ambition when I was at school was to marry a farmer and live on a farm in Tasmania. I was quite specific. This was because of what I knew and what I loved. I was a product of my experience.

I grew up on a farm, a tomboy, and loved nothing more than working in the shed and driving the tractor. My 12th birthday present was a shotgun. And at school I wasn’t really encouraged to think beyond this. Life for me at that stage was running to a somewhat comfortable and predetermined formula.

But then I met Rod, who is now my husband. No moleskins, no tractor, just a battered yellow Mazda station wagon. And worst of all, he was heading to the ‘mainland’ to study economics.

So I turned down a perfectly good job offer of becoming a cost accountant at the local Cadbury plant and headed to Sydney with Rod.

Since then I’ve worked at some great organisations: McKinsey, ANZ, Berri, GrainCorp and now Coca-Cola Amatil.

My first FMCG role was with Berri, Australia’s leading juice business, which gave me a great opportunity to continue to develop P&L experience. I also began my journey into the world of non-executive directorship when I was asked to join the board of fashion retailer Just Group, which was about to list.

From there to GrainCorp. When I first heard about the GrainCorp CEO role I didn’t rate my chances. A female CEO could very easily have been a bridge too far for an organisation that, up to that point, hadn’t even had a female non executive director. But I underestimated the GrainCorp board and went on to spend four wonderful years there.

Without the accumulation of these experiences, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity, nor the skills and experience, to lead Coca-Cola Amatil – Australia’s largest bottler and one of the top five Coca-Cola bottlers worldwide.

Is the industry diversifying? Speaking directly for Amatil, we have an eight-person group leadership team of whom three are women: me, Libbi Wilson, our Group HR Director, and Betty Ivanoff, Group General Counsel – so three out of eight at that level. Across the company more broadly, the proportion of women in leadership is between 30 and 50 per cent, depending on the role.

We have good ethnic diversity in our company as a whole, which is appropriate given our geographic reach in Indonesia and the south Pacific. This includes the senior leadership in those territories.

We need more ethnic diversity in our senior leadership in Australia. I think ethnic and gender diversity are really critical in bringing different perspectives to decision-making. If you get those inputs right, you make the entire business stronger.

Dominique Lamb

National Retail Association CEO and practising lawyer

While ‘equity’ is a word that means different things to different people, to my mother and I it simply means ‘fairness’: fairness of opportunity, but also of capacity.

My mother forged a career in her own retail business before working as a sales representative, merchandiser and manager, so I’ve absorbed a great deal about gender inequity in the workplace.

My mum worked long hours and always had to push for equal pay. But while women’s roles in the workplace have evolved dramatically, their roles at home have sometimes been a little slower to adapt, meaning women, just like my mum, have had to balance their career goals with school pick-ups and ferrying kids to music lessons.

While times have changed since the 1980s and it’s become the norm for men in the workplace to share the care of children and the domestic arrangements, the retail industry, by its very nature, is a very gendered industry and faces distinct equity challenges.

There are several factors at play here, but with very flexible hours and more shifts to choose from than a traditional corporate environment, retail is an attractive option for women who are balancing family and career needs, whether that be by choice or default – for example, single parents, those with schoolaged children, or those returning to work after a lengthy break to raise children.

Industries such as retail can be heavily populated by women whose roles can be relegated to being a secondary, supplementary option – to be structured around family commitments.

Unfortunately, this also means that in the retail industry, women’s career progression can stall dramatically, as they sacrifice lucrative job opportunities, resist management roles or avoid up-skilling opportunities while raising children.

If a relationship breaks down, this gap in career progression can become far more pronounced for those women who take on the role of primary caregiver. (This can be an even greater challenge for men in this situation, as they must also defy deeply ingrained stereotypes about their roles as primary breadwinners. Norway, for example, has turned this on its head – it’s had paid parental leave since 1936, but after expanding it to incorporate fathers specifically, the rate at which men accessed this leave rose from four per cent to 70 per cent.)

Examining the career progression of coupled and single parents, it’s easy to see how having ‘equal opportunity’ doesn’t necessarily equate to having ‘equal capacity’ to actually take up those opportunities, which can lead to significant disparity in superannuation at retirement age.

The Grattan Institute has argued that removing disincentives for women to enter the workforce should be an economic-reform priority. It has found that increasing female workforce participation by just six per cent has the potential to add $25 billion each year to the Australian economy. About 58 per cent of Australia’s university graduates are women, but only 67 per cent of working-age women are currently in paid work, compared with 78 per cent of men, which suggests Australia is failing to capture the substantial economic contribution tertiary educated women offer.

Gender equality is no longer just a social issue, it’s a business one. So, rather than sitting by while so few of the 55-per-cent-female retail workforce makes it to the executive or to the top, our team (made up mostly of women, coincidentally, from all walks of life, age groups and backgrounds) has embraced former sex-discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s blueprint for gender equity.

Corporate sustainability goes hand in hand with us – our membership demands it, so at the NRA we’re working hard with our members to find the best ways to support all working parents to reach for the top without compromising their family lives. This can only come from the creation of true flexibility, reducing the gender pay gap, educating staff about gender equity, and promoting diversity on all rungs of the ladder, all the way to the top.

I believe the retail industry carries great responsibility, not just in creating opportunity, but also in building real and tangible capacity for its workers, and I’ve never come across a more giving industry that’s so driven to supporting its communities to produce better outcomes for all.

By balancing the scales of equality, women and men will have an equal chance to contribute both at home and in the workplace, thereby enhancing their individual wellbeing and that of society.

Deb Schubert

POPlever Shopper Marketing Consultant

I  got into the retail/FMCG industry in New Zealand as a Nestlé graduate in the confectionery division. Back then, product and advertising development was homegrown from concept to execution. There was always a buzz in the office around NPD and delivering the right executions for the shopper, giving me plenty of hands-on experience.

I found I had a passion for FMCG. I loved talking data, asking ‘So what?’ and then creating the vision to fill the gap in the marketplace. This passion has sustained me for my entire career. From there I moved to Caxton Printing Works where I learnt about the printing and converting industry from the entrepreneurial Spencer brothers. I moved to Australia and worked in FMCG, across most categories and across all retail FMCG channels.

Each of these roles in the industry, as well giving me knowledge of paper and printing and point of sale, stood me in good stead when I was elected by the wider POS industry as a board member and then as the first female chair of the not-for-profit POS industry organisation for Australia and New Zealand, now called SHOP.

It’s easy to get caught up in your main career and forget about forging relationships across other businesses. Even though this takes precious family time, as most of this type of work is volunteer based, the learning and the networks are invaluable. Now that I’m working in the consultant space, the relationships I’ve forged over the years across different streams of business have provided the key to success and business growth.

The biggest achievement in my career was being selected from PepsiCo’s worldwide talent pool to be part of PepsiCorps, a small immersion team working with underprivileged communities.

Sending in the request to be considered for this role was the first major hurdle. There would be a lot of applicants, the workload would be high, there would be no contact with friends or family for five to six weeks, and I had to consider carefully the unknown of working with an underprivileged community. There were five rounds of interviews.

Getting through each gate was a major achievement. When I was told I was accepted, you could hear my ‘woop’ of joy through the floor. I was the first person to be accepted from this region: a huge achievement.

PepsiCorps’ objective was to provide underprivileged communities a diverse SWOT team of experts as business consultants, creating a roadmap on how to build sustainable business streams that the communities could run and earn money from once the PepsiCorps team had left.

It was like being on ‘The Apprentice’, with tears, anxiety and, some days, just wanting to pack your bags and hop on a plane home. It forced me to look at my work constructively, stand on my own feet as an expert in my field, learn new information fast and, most importantly, the value of working as a team of experts. I took away why diversity, trust and relationship building is important for any successful team. I reflect on this daily and try to bring this lesson to the table on any consultancy work I do with clients.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced was the juggle between working full time and being present for my family as they grew up. I decided when I was in my 30s that I wanted a career and a family. When I made this decision, there was no maternity leave in the company I worked in, nor was it the norm.

There was no paid parental leave, government support or expectation from the business leadership team that you would return to work.

I was the first one to ask for maternity leave and the first one to do it twice. To make it work, I negotiated three months’ leave of absence for each child. I returned to full-time work, as part time was not an option. What made it work was having a husband who stepped up. He took an equal parenting role despite also having a career.

We also made the smart move of investing in a variety of hybrid child care – part-time nannies as well as long daycare, as we had no family in the country.

Providing supportive policies to allow women to remain in the industry is essential to keep the ‘smarts’ in FMCG. The diversity it gives teams provides a richness of thought leadership and a talent stream for the future. It’s not easy, but children are adaptable as long as they’re secure in their family nucleus and you manage the work life balance well.

Women are women’s toughest critics. We want to have it all and there are compromises we have to accept to make it work. Women who are high achievers in the workplace tend to have high expectations at home.

Trying to juggle both is difficult. School requirements, extra curricular activities, child illnesses and demanding deadlines mean many mums burn the candle at both ends. Flexibility from employers is what most women who want a career and a family are seeking.

However, the reality of supporting this choice and maintaining a fluid work stream is difficult and requires innovative thinking.

Breaking down the walls of bricks-and-mortar offices and working-hours expectations by allowing virtual offices and dropbox-style document file sharing – anywhere, anytime – will be part of the journey that will allow this work-family balance to be successful.

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