women in retail


In honour of International Women’s Day earlier this month, Zip Co’s Fran Ereira shares four key leadership lessons for women in retail.

Why is it that while women make up roughly 60 per cent of the workforce, they only account for 10 per cent of executive board roles?

Fewer large Australian companies are run by women than are run by men named John…Or Peter…Or David…There are only nine female CEOs and 10 women chairing boards in the ASX 200. Gender imbalance at the management level is prevalent across all industries, not just retail, and is costing companies billions.

My career path has seen me move from one male-dominated industry to another. Being on the frontline has made me face some hard truths, both about this situation and also about myself. These hard truths, however, are ultimately not negative; they have delivered practical and positive outcomes that have transformed my experience and career as a woman in management.

While my learning curve has been steep, winding and at times even counterintuitive, I have distilled four key takeaways that I hope will bring value to other women.

Speak your mind

While in a previous senior management role I learnt the hard way that passion and emotion aren’t intertwined. You can show passion while keeping your emotions in check; it just takes a little practice.

I learnt this life lesson after a particularly difficult management meeting, which ended with me walking out of the room. My ideas were being shut down, I felt I wasn’t being listened to and I was getting very frustrated with the opinionated male founder and surrounding team.

The CFO took me aside and told me something that has actually changed my life. He said that while he had absolute trust in me and my grand plans for change, I was never going to get very far presenting my case when I already had my back up. I was doomed to fail.

He suggested I go in differently: present the facts without emotion, talk dollars and explain my thought process. If the leadership team didn’t agree, he suggested I simply document my proposed course of action in an email after the meeting. The passion was still there, but it was now built into the ideas and the overall approach, not the delivery.

The result astounded me. Not only was I listened to, but when my ideas weren’t accepted (as they often weren’t—although later proved right) there was a newfound accountability and recognition that gave me strength and momentum. That was five years ago and I have never looked back.

Find your tribe

I would never have learnt to separate passion and emotion if I didn’t have a strong male mentor in the CFO. I frequently turn to him to this day, usually as a sounding board or as a translator of sorts. We need to be realistic and recognise that there are gender norms that must be navigated (the old nutshell of men are from Mars, women are from Venus…) and a male mentor can help you do this.

Understanding how men perceive women in a management context can help you bridge any differences and become a champion of the open dialogue that can make companies great. Similarly, if male-led companies are truly trying to incorporate more women into their leadership teams, they should find female mentors.

A strong female mentor will help you achieve balance, give you the courage to step up and help you realise when you’re ready for your next adventure. Mine is the former CEO of a global brand. Her insight has given me clarity and her achievements are a constant inspiration to me.

Different people look through different lenses. The more lenses you can experience, the better, and this starts with your choice of mentors.

Bury the battle of the sexes for good

It may seem like a contradiction to recognise the gender differences at a management level and call for an end to a battle of the sexes, but I don’t think it is. The battle of the sexes is a mindset, after all, and it hasn’t served us very well.

It has helped to entrench ways of interacting that can be self-defeating, because it emphasises a contest between male and female, which inherently means that one wins out over the other. This is the exact opposite of what should happen. Robust discussions, powerful insights and impact come from an active, mindful engagement between co-workers that harnesses the differences and fashions harmony out of them.

Champion other women

It might seem unbelievable given the great odds against women in management, but there’s a sad question each one of us needs to ask: why do so many women pull other women down when they reach the top?

I’ve seen it time and time again—a woman makes history by arriving at the helm of a major company and then proceeds to cull female leadership and surround herself with men. By no means am I arguing that women should preference women, but actions like these put both men and women back a step.

Women need to champion other women in leadership without fear, while simultaneously championing the right person for the job. There’s nothing worse than seeing women work so hard for equality and then destroying the fruits of it by their own actions.

Make no mistake—we’ve got a long way to go. Without diversity, progress is slow, initiatives stagnate, and important new ideas are never conceived. You find yourself doing the same thing and making the same mistakes, year in, year out. Women as individuals have incredible power to improve things and they are doing it every day. How do we break into that top-tier? How do we bring that ladder a little closer and not push it farther away? We do it through engagement and by proving that a company without women at the top is a company destined for the bottom.

Fran Ereira is the general manager, sales and solution delivery at Zip Co.


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