A Gender Gap: Why Do Men Rule The Fashion World?

Just off the phone call with my girlfriend — a talented designer in the process of launching her label with her female co-founder. We started our casual call discussing their business progress, we ended up sharing homeschooling challenges and how significantly less time we can spend on building-nourishing our professional lives. "I postponed all my non-essential calls and projects, for the foreseeable future… and I shall go back to what I do best — making breakfast", I concluded with a giggle before going off to make breakfast for my family. And thinking, alas, what exactly is "non-essential"?

According to McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2020 report, as much as 30% of working mothers are considering leaving the workforce, which could throw gender equality for women back 10–20 years. Women are leaving the workforce; female-entrepreneurs are raising fewer investor dollars. Even if investors and entrepreneurs can't tell precisely if the decline in funding for female-led startups is entirely due to Covid-19, the Crunchbase data shows that 800 female-founded startups on their database have received a total of $4.9 billion in venture funding in 2020, a 27% decrease from the same period last year. That is 2% of all investor money invested in 2020. According to Crunchbase, the global proportion of dollars to female-founded and female/male-founded companies in 2020 was 2% and 9% respectively. Having invested in two all-female-founded startups in 2020, I have proudly contributed to the petty change female entrepreneurs received from investors last year.

This data is not industry-specific and, arguably, not entirely Covid-19 impacted. Research by French collective SISTA and BCG analyses historic data from 2008–2020. They have been looking at the proportion of female-founded startups that received funding. After analysing 15679 startups, they concluded that only 1 in 20 funded startups were founded by a 100% female team who received between 4–8% of investor money. Although there is no specific data analysis on the gender-related capital distribution in the fashion startup ecosystem, our industry is part of this 1 in 20 ratio. There is, fortunately, plentiful data on workforce distribution across the fashion industry. And unless you have been living on another planet, it will not come as a surprise that ladies/gals/women/womxn are not the ones who rule (the fashion) world.

Even to me, who has been diving into data and literature on the gender gap, the fact that there are fewer women CEOs in Fashion than in the Aerospace or Finance industries came as a shock, given that more than 85% majors from top fashion schools (2018 US study) are female. On the other hand, the fact that just around 14% of Top 50 major fashion brands are run by women (this data is five years old) doesn't come as a surprise. In short, more girls are running the shop floor or a design studio than running for the top roles.

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 "The Glass Runway," a 2018 study by CFDA, Glamour and McKinsey & Company, among other studies on gender bias, tried to define the tendencies and obstacles for women to climb the career ladder by interviewing the fashion industry. The findings are somewhat cliche: family, sexism, lack of mentorship and confidence, less aggressive pursuit of promotion, like in many other sectors. 50% of women in fashion at the vice president level who had children said they believed motherhood had been an obstacle to their career advancement. In fact, they were right; even HR managers interviewed admitted that they would prioritise a man, a young unmarried female or an older woman for hire or promotion against a woman of the age having children. Alongside the promotion gap, there are also other reasons for the gender gap, such as disillusion. Glamour interviewed 535 fashion industry professionals; 100% of women interviewed said they believed there is gender inequality in career progression, while only 50% of their male colleagues agreed. One starts to wonder whether the rest of 50% would do anything about it?

Will anyone do anything about it? We live in a world where women prioritise family, naturally, and if men do so, they are headline-worthy. I often remember last December's headlines about the Zalando's Co-CEO Rubin Ritter's decision to leave the company. Media was rather surprised (excited?) about Ritter's motivation for doing so. Headlines across the world implied gender inequality: "Zalando boss to quit 'to prioritise wife's career.". Would this make a headline the other way round?

I want to see the headlines celebrating female CEOs, designers, entrepreneurs, investors. Just because there is less of us, we need to be seen more as leaders and less as supporters (caregivers, mothers, wives). And I believe there is a way. In recent years, we have witnessed some female-founded startups such as Rent The Runway, Reformation, Stitch Fix, TheRealReal and some others disrupt, define and lead the industry, despite all the odds against them. This brings us back to where we started — female founders.

Amongst all, investing in female-founded startups, merely including it in the investment strategy, is a perfectly viable solution. I make it my priority. For this, we need not just more female-founders but also more female investors or female-friendly investors. Typically, what goes around, comes around — successful female CEOs will become investors who support other female-led ventures. Another solution is to consciously include females in the career progression programs, making it part of the HR strategy. Finally, as I said above, share the spotlight with the female, how about including Ritter's wife's name in the article where she's part of the headline?

I am not building a case against male founders; I support and find support in so many of them. However, I am making a case against a gender gap in the fashion industry, the industry that is overwhelmingly "consumed" by women and often described as "feminine". Let us celebrate female designers, leaders, innovators and change-makers alongside their male counterparts. In the end, it is all about diversity.

An edited version of this Opinion Piece was published on Not Just A Label on 30 March 2021. You can find this version HERE