More than one in five British retailers have no women on their boards

New diversity and inclusion charter aims to improve recruitment practices

An employee wearing a protective face mask and gloves hands a customer a branded shopping bag through a perspex screen inside a John Lewis Partnership Plc department store in London, U.K., on Thursday, July 23, 2020. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had resisted making masks mandatory until July 13, when his government announced that face coverings will be compulsory in stores as of July 24. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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More than one in five retailers have no women on their boards, a new study found as more than 50 leading retailers sign up to a Diversity and Inclusion charter to improve recruitment practice in the sector.

Only 33 per cent of retail boards include females, while less than 10 per cent of the industry’s chief executives are women, found a joint study by human resources consultancy The MBS Group, management consultancy PwC and the British Retail Consortium.

There are also very few black or ethnic minority leaders in retail, with only 4.5 per cent of boards, 5.8 per cent of executive committees and 6 per cent of direct reports to boards including that segment, the report found.

Meanwhile, John Lewis, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s and Asda are among retailers putting their name to the BRC-led charter, which pledges a series of actions, such as appointing D&I executives and improving recruitment methods.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said “more needs to be done” to help the trade body achieve its vision, set out five years ago, of boosting diversity levels across the sector.

“Retail revolves around the customer, and to serve the needs of a diverse country we need a diversity of ideas, experiences and backgrounds across our businesses,” she said.

“The first step to achieving change is acknowledgement and understanding of where the challenges lie. I am proud to see so many retailers pledge to better their businesses and create equal opportunities for all.”

Britain's retail sector has been hammered by the Covid-19 crisis, with retailers suffering their worst annual performance on record in 2020, as the cycle of lockdowns took its toll on fashion and homeware sales.

About 67,000 retail jobs were lost between December 2019 and December 2020, the Office for National Statistics said, with men losing 11,000 of those jobs and women 56,000. This discrepancy partly reflected the fact that lost roles were primarily on the shop floor, in positions typically held by women.

Elliot Goldstein, managing partner at The MBS Group, said while women make up to 80 per cent of purchasing decisions and account for about two thirds of retail employees, there is an “alarming gap” between entry-level roles on the shop floor and “those around the top table”.

Among the most powerful roles in Britain’s largest 200 retailers, Mr Goldstein said women

account for only 9.6 per cent of chief executives and 11.4 per cent of chief financial officers, while 4.3 per cent are chairwomen.

Two third of retailers have all-male leadership teams, he said, while "equally concerning is that one in five retailers have all male boards, and 15 per cent of retailers have no women on their executive committee".

The sector has very few black or ethnic minority leaders, with 81 per cent of retailers holding all-white boards, and 68 per cent all-white executive committees.

“While undoubtedly significant change has been driven in the last decade, there is still a long way to go,” he said.

While the majority of retailers say D&I is a priority for their business, less than half of retail employees agree that diversity or inclusion is sufficiently high on their employers’ agenda, the study found.

"There's a big gap there. It tells us that maybe there's lots going on around D&I but it's not filtering through to what people are hearing every day," said Katy Bennett, director of inclusion and diversity consulting at PwC UK.