The lack of female leadership at food retailers and consumer goods companies has been a prominent issue for years. This lack of diversity could very well impact bottom lines.
This was the key message during a packed-house discussion at the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference that included representatives from Ahold Delhaize, the Western Association of Food Chains, the Network of Executive Women and Accenture. The issue, which has gained momentum as the #MeToo movement has swept the country and as the topics of harassment and compensation for women have gained increasing public attention, is one that must be addressed now, panelists said.
"Urgent action is needed to change these trends," Beth Marrion, managing director for retail with Accenture said.
According to research Accenture carried out in partnership with the Network for Executive Women (NEW), there will be 70% fewer women in industry leadership roles in a decade than there currently are, given current attrition rates.
Gender disparity in upper management cuts across many different industries, but according to NEW, the retail and consumer goods sector is one of the worst offenders. All told, women occupy less than 30% of senior leadership roles, and only 13% of c-suite executive roles — less than any other industry, according to NEW.
Although hiring and opportunities are relatively equal for men and women at the bottom of the organizational ladder, panelists at the FMI Midwinter conference said, various obstacles are preventing women from advancing in the industry. This includes a lack of flexibility around maternity care and other life events, work/life balance issues, a lack of institutional support, and unconscious bias.
These issues also cause women who do achieve leadership roles to drop out at rates higher than those seen with men who occupy similar positions. Marrion along with Sarah Alter, president and CEO of NEW, also explained that isolation — being one of just a few at the top level — can also cause women to leave leadership roles.
According to the panelists, issues like work/life balance and a lack of institutional support affect men, as well. But women, they said, still bear the brunt of significant family and life changes, like having a baby or caring for an elderly family member. Women in the retail and consumer goods industries leave upper management at twice the rate of men, according to the research presented during the panel — 30% versus 14% — and at the c-suite level leave their jobs at a rate of 34%, five times that of men.
The issue isn't one of political correctness, panelists emphasized. It's also about inviting new perspectives and having a corporate diversity that reflects customer diversity — issues that can be reflected in sales performance. Subarna Malakar, vice president of global diversity and inclusion with Ahold Delhaize, noted that 75% of the retailer's shoppers are women.
"Our workforce should reflect the community we serve," he said during the discussion.
Ahold Delhaize's plan
Ahold Delhaize has a goal of achieving 50/50 gender parity between men and women in leadership roles by 2025. To get there, the company is examining its hiring and promotional practices, Malakar said. It's also trying provide increased flexibility around so called "pivotal points" in workers' lives that oftentimes cause them to leave, like having a child.
In an interview with Food Dive, Malakar went into more detail on this point: "If a person goes on maternity leave and wants to come back part-time, that's a pivotal point for them and for us," he said. "As an organization, do you embrace that or do you say no, we need someone full-time?"
Ahold Delhaize, he said, is experimenting with policies that offer increased flexibility — like a part-time work option — around those life events. It's also putting together a sponsorship program that creates a network of female leaders within the company, and addressing unconscious bias through targeted training.
"Everybody is doing unconscious bias training, but you have to do it at critical stages like before a talent review," Malakar told Food Dive. "You'll never get rid of your unconscious bias, but you can at least be aware of it."
Other panelists echoed Malakar's points, noting that, overall, workplace cultures need to be disrupted in order to break what's become a recurring cycle of women leaders leaving the workforce.
"What has always been the norm, what has always been the way you do things, needs to be challenged," said Carole Christianson, chief operating officer with the Western Association of Food Chains, whose members include grocers like Albertsons, Bashas' and Bristol Farms.
"Our workforce should reflect the community we serve."
vice president of global diversity and inclusion, Ahold Delhaize
However, company leaders often start at the store manager level, where it can be difficult to implement these changes. Store managers often have to work weekends, late nights and long hours by necessity. Disrupting that schedule means an employee may not gain the necessary experience to succeed, while the retailer misses out on valuable labor and expertise.
Still, Malakar said he's focused on finding more flexible solutions at that store level.
"That's where we grow our talent," he told Food Dive. "So if we're not seeing gender diversity there, it's not going to be reflected higher up in the organization."
Ahold Delhaize, he said, recently piloted a job-sharing program that appointed two store managers rather than one, meaning both were able to work fewer hours. Although the test took place at just two stores, it boosted productivity at those locations, and employees enjoyed the new system, he said.
Ahold Delhaize isn't the only company trying to introduce gender parity into its workforce. Brian Cornell and Indra Nooyi, CEOs of Target and Pepsi, respectively, started a Future Fund back in 2016 aimed at bankrolling research and pilot programs focused on gender equality, with the goal of eventually reaching 50/50 parity in leadership roles. In the U.K., the British Retail Consortium launched an initiative last fall aimed at boosting the number of women in executive roles.
Ultimately, the FMI panelists said, women in the retail and CPG industries need support and increased flexibility from their companies. They also need the support of men, who also stand to benefit from organizational changes.
"We need to get men involved," said Malakar. "Gender diversity isn't just a women's issue."