business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Between my wife, my daughter, mother, two sisters and loads of other female relatives I can proudly say that I am a veteran participant in the battle of the sexes. Yet, even with all that experience I’m always learning. A week ago I ended up in separate discussions about Manolo Blahnik shoes and the proper use of bath beads and in both cases I proved that I am basically clueless.

(To be fair, I do admit my failings. While I can’t fathom the value of a $600 pair of Blahniks, I also can’t logically explain why I own a $500 driver that I use to hit errant golf shots.)

The issues of the sexes, sadly, go much, much further causing unnecessary drag on business as we underutilize the potential power of a very important part of the work force. These points were made in a panel discussion on Women in Leadership at the FMI Human Resources/Training and Development conference last week. (Full disclosure time: I continue to do planning work for FMI—though not on this conference—and I was moderator of the panel.)

The participants: Suzanne Gaker of Kroger; Chris Booher of Busch’s and Christine Hartman from St. Joseph’s University made clear that greater growth for women would seem essential in an industry whose main customers are almost all women. But the issues won’t go away. Including:

• Old biases die hard: Women still lag in the bedrock areas of the industry, such as logistics, merchandising and operations. And while more women are making it to the upper ranks of management, the percentage is shockingly lower than the percentage of women in the population or the work force.

• Old issues die hard: Women still face treatment and conditions that can be detrimental throughout their careers. The situation is better, but far from perfect.

• Old issues live on in new ways: With the industry profoundly worried about attracting the next generation of leaders, how can companies create work environments that are increasingly friendly to women, young people, people of color, etc… Stated even simpler: How can the industry NOT do this?

There isn’t a single simple answer in the pack. Dr. Hartman explained that even young boys and girls perceive the world and their places very differently. She cited a study in which boys and girls were asked if they saw themselves as leaders. More than half the boys said yes, while only 16 percent of the girls agreed. The problem, Dr. Hartman said, is that girls perceive leadership as “being bossy”; a label they wish to avoid.

The communication issues go on. Women, according to all three panelists, have lots to learn about networking and mentoring, even with other women. Many talked about the benefits of the Network of Executive Women ( for more information) as a wonderful resource for information and contacts. Some explained their pride at their company’s support for NEW as a sign of sensitivity on the issue.

The single issue that won’t go away is the most profound: How much difference could women make throughout the industry if they were given the chance? Would stores and, more importantly, would the interaction with women shoppers change too?

The questions raised are all worthy of consideration. Answers won’t come easily and won’t come simply, but nothing complex is ever solved that way. The only simple statement is this: Plenty of work remains.
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