Women still tend to be the exception in management roles within the retail industry. Oliver Wyman recently interviewed with Ana Maria Jaime, Head of Sustainability at MediaMarktSaturn and Melanie Reimann, Head of Merchandise Flow Management at Coop and Co-founder of the WiR - Women in Retail & Consumer Goods network, to discuss the challenges and opportunities in achieving greater gender diversity in the industry. The conversation was conducted by Oliver Wyman Partner Rainer Münch and Principal Vanessa Seip-Greithaner.
Q: Gender diversity is on everyone's lips. How does championing this issue benefit companies?
Ana Maria: First and foremost, it changes the way teams collaborate. The greater the diversity within a team, the more different ideas come together. This brings progress and alters the DNA of teams, including those in top management. The emphasis shifts to "we" and silos are broken down. In diverse teams, there is much more open communication.
Melanie: Communication is an important keyword. With greater gender diversity, communication becomes a bit more empathetic, both internally and externally. This increases the chances of really connecting with people. Another advantage, which should not be underestimated is that women bring different criteria and perspectives to decisions. This is also what makes gender diversity so incredibly valuable for companies.
Q: If that’s the case, why are management structures in retail still male-dominated?
Melanie: Change takes time. And we mustn't forget that retail is one of the more conservative sectors in terms of its structures, and therefore tends to be slower in adopting social change compared to other industries.
Ana Maria: There is another factor, especially in sales. Many retailers expect their floor managers to be present from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. This model no longer aligns with today's environment. The more we move away from such expectations and embrace flexibility as a standard, even in managerial positions, the greater the opportunities for women to advance.
Melanie: Great point! In general, we in the retail industry need to make it easier for women — and men, too — to succeed in their careers and to balance family responsibilities. Flexible models, including at top management levels, can be a lever here. At the same time, we need to reconsider our approach to nurturing female talent. The notion of providing continued support to women after they become mothers is far from universally accepted in the retail sector, as in many other sectors.
Q: Do the discussed targets for the numbers of gender diversity hires help at this point?
Ana Maria: Absolutely. And for one simple reason: targets encourage companies to look at both male and female candidates for every open position. Some may worry that these targets will lead companies choosing a less-qualified woman. But that is unfounded! Targets ensure that equally or better-qualified women get their chance in a world still predominantly dominated by men. However, even with targets, progress is slow, as changes only take effect when positions become vacant. Nonetheless, we can observe that things are moving forward in a positive direction.
Q: Despite the targets, are there still reservations about women in management positions?
Ana Maria: Where should I begin? I am a woman, a mother, originally from South America, and I have a strong personality. Especially at the beginning of my career, it wasn't easy. I worked in purchasing for a long time, and still remember an important negotiation with a major supplier. I was the last to enter the room, and the supplier's representatives — all men — had already taken their seats. Before I could even introduce myself, they gave me their coffee orders. My team was shocked, but I simply fulfilled their requests. When the situation resolved itself, they wanted to sink into the ground. The subsequent negotiation was then a piece of cake.
Melanie: The reservations are diminishing, but they still persist. This not only applies to our industry but extends far beyond. Let me give an example, since we already touched on the subject of targets. When women are promoted, people still tend to talk about the “target woman” in public. It may be meant as a joke, but unfortunately, I´m afraid there´s often more to it. Clearly, it will take time before women are regarded as being just as natural in top positions as men.
Q: What can companies do to shorten this time?
Melanie: Many companies are now rising to the challenge by, for example, utilizing sponsorship models to promote female talent in a targeted manner. Executives know well from personal conversations or collaborations what such talents are capable of and what goals they are pursuing and nominate them for vacancies or projects. I myself was unaware of the importance of sponsors for a long time, but I am now certain that such sponsors have opened doors for me as well.
Q: So, are sponsors key to professional success?
Melanie: That would be overstating it. Professional success primarily hinges on performance. However, when it comes to performance, sponsors play a vital role.
Ana Maria: Sponsors can indeed pave the way and open doors. But ultimately, everyone must be convinced of the person’s performance. Women can greatly benefit from sponsors who understand what their counterpart is capable of and has achieved personally to provide effective support.
Q: What role do networks play?
Ana Maria: There is a saying: "Men take care of their careers, women take care of their loved ones." Women too often neglect going out to lunch with others, having a coffee, or even spending an evening together. Sure, they often have to go home because they have private obligations. But careers do not work without networking. And it shouldn't just be women's networks. Especially in an industry as male dominated as retail, personal interactions with colleagues, superiors, employees, and like-minded people from other companies are essential.
Melanie: Networks are indispensable for a career. It is important to talk to the right person at the right time and in the right place. But that is not all: networks also foster personal development, by allowing individuals to look beyond the confines of their own company. This gives rise to action, helping individuals to move forward. And this is precisely why we founded the Women in Retail & Consumer Goods (WiR) network two years ago.
Q: What is the aim of WiR?
Melanie: WiR is a network that focuses on a specific industry, and thus facilitates the exchange of experiences on related topics within in a similar environment and framework. In WiR, women support each other in advancing their careers and driving positive change within their respective companies.
Ana Maria: Networks like WiR offer an additional advantage: they boost women's self-confidence. The more contact they have with other career-oriented women, the less they feel like outsiders.
Q: Do you have any additional advice on how women can use their own initiative to increase gender diversity in management?
Melanie: Show more self-confidence. Women should step out of their comfort zones and clearly articulate what they want. As a result of their upbringing, many tend to hold back and wait for others to approach them, but that's not how it works. Women must express what they want and demand the opportunity to show it.
Q: Have you ever implemented this approach yourself?
Melanie: Honestly, not until later in my career. It was a personal liberation for me. And the person I spoke to also reacted positively, because he understood my expectations better and was able to respond to them accordingly. Incidentally, such conversations cannot be planned, which is why everyone should be clear about their own goals as early as possible and support them with compelling arguments so that they can pull them out when needed.
Q: Ana Maria, what advice would you give?
Ana Maria: Embrace being a woman! We have different abilities and strengths than men, and we should leverage them. While appearances do play a role, inner confidence is much more important. I should never doubt my role as a boss and expert — and certainly not in a room full of men.
Q: Despite progress, there are still these “rooms full of men”. How do you envision it will look like in 10 years in retail?
Ana Maria: Things have started to change, and there is no turning back. Gender diversity in retail will continue to increase, opening up new opportunities for us and benefitting companies.
Melanie: I share the same perspective. My hope is that in 10 or 15 years, the next generation won't even need to have these kinds of conversations, because gender diversity will be a given at all levels of the industry.