CEO Letter | International Women’s Day

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to be invited by Astley Clarke CEO, Scott Thompson, to a Theirworld #changetheculture breakfast, hosted by Theirworld founder Sarah Brown, in celebration of International Women’s Day.

Around the table, the talk was not only of the inspiring, life-changing work of Theirworld, but also of the encouraging momentum gathering around movements like Time’s Up, and around gender equality. The focus was on what we all could do, as individuals and as leaders of organisations, to help make workplace culture an equal place for all.

Nearly fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, and a hundred years after the Representation of the People Act gave women over thirty the vote for the first time, it is sobering to think that 50% of the UK population is still unable to access 50% of its opportunities. We know there are irrefutable business reasons for companies to have a leadership team that better reflects society – the customer – as a whole; recent McKinsey research suggests that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians. Yet as the deadline approaches for companies in Great Britain with more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap, early results show that the playing field is very far from a level one.  Legislation can, it seems, only goes so far to redress an ingrained gender imbalance; we need to push for a radical shift in the culture, and with these issues in the spotlight, should the British luxury sector also check to see that its own house is in order and, as a dynamic, entrepreneurial industry sector, make sure that it is providing opportunities for all?

I’m not about to suggest that luxury has its own #metoo moment, or that we should all wear black at the next Walpole British Luxury Awards, but anecdotally, luxury has its own challenges when it comes to diversity. Before I joined Walpole, my sense was that luxury was a very female friendly sector – our diversity issues were primarily of race and class, rather than gender. Yet at the European Excellence Summit in Berlin last summer, which gathered 200 luxury CEOs from luxury brands across the UK and the Continent, I had something of a road to Damascus moment; as I looked over the lectern to give my talk to the delegates, I realised I was in a tiny minority. I checked the guest list: women made up fewer than 10% of those in the room. Later last year, at the Walpole British Luxury Awards, Justine Picardie, there to pick up her Lifetime Achievement Award, turned to me and said ‘Where are the women?’  – yet again, when the most senior people in the luxury sector were gathered together, women appeared not to be as well represented.

Is this simply a legacy issue, or are there structural or workplace culture issues which prevent a more diverse top layer? Are my perceptions of luxury as a sector with its own glass ceiling unfounded, or is there an issue that requires action? On Thursday 8th March – International Women’s Day – Walpole will launch its first survey of the luxury workplace. The study will be completely anonymous, so there are no prizes for completing it, I’m afraid, but it seems to me, incredibly important that as many people in the Walpole membership as possible participate in the survey: only by gathering robust data will we know if there’s an issue to address. Under Meribeth Parker’s able leadership as Chair of Walpole’s Women in Luxury network, Walpole will make sure that its commitment to developing people and nurturing talent extends to all in luxury, and looks toward the future to do all we can to maximise the success of our sector.

On Thursday, I will join my alma mater, Harper’s Bazaar, for a lunch to mark International Women’s Day – I’m delighted to hear that Bazaar, a magazine that has supported and feted talented women throughout its 150 year history, has recorded a market-beating ABC in the latest figures of 115,742, up 4% year on year and 4% period on period. On 20th March, Walpole will host a Women in Luxury Network breakfast at Grace Belgravia, where I will be in conversation with Grace Belgravia founder, Kate Percival, to talk to her about her career and to invite her to share the secrets of her success in leadership.

If you are a Walpole member and would like to join the Women in Luxury group (not only for women, for all members who want to see a positive change in the luxury workplace), please send your details to Celandine.wade@thewalpole.co.uk