Fashion’s Woman Problem

Posted May 18, 2018 9:30 p.m. EDT

On Monday, just days after its graduation ceremony, Parsons School of Design will hold a gala benefit, complete with Solange Knowles, a student fashion show, prizes — and a room filled with women.

Eighty-five percent of the graduating class of fashion majors is female, just as it is at the other major New York fashion schools: the Fashion Institute of Technology, where 86 percent of the graduating class is female, and Pratt, where 54 of the 58 graduating fashion majors are women.

They are all poised to head off into entry-level positions at companies big and small. They will begin with grand ambitions and dreams of the C suite. And then, somewhere between their climb from middle management to the top, the gender balance will shift.

And their male colleagues, few and far between though they are in the beginning, will take over. Because fashion, an industry dominated by women’s wear and buoyed by female dollars, with an image sold by women to women, is still largely run by men.

The gender inequality at the top of the fashion pyramid is the subject of “The Glass Runway,” a new study that will be released this week by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Glamour and McKinsey & Co.

Citing statistics like “only 14 percent of major brands are run by a female executive” (this from a 2015 Business of Fashion survey of 50 global brands), it looks at the reasons for the discrepancy in the American fashion industry and tries to come up with an action plan for change. More of a representative sampling, with anecdotes, than a comprehensive survey, it is nevertheless a warning flag and a call to action.

And a reminder that though there has been much talk about fashion’s size-ism problem, and its diversity problem, it has a gender problem too.

“We don’t talk about it as much, because there’s a feeling everyone knows,” said Diane von Furstenberg, chairman of the CFDA. “But sometimes you have to say something so people can’t pretend it’s not true.”

The Perception Gap

One hundred percent of the women interviewed in the report said there was an inequality problem in fashion; less than half the men did. On the other hand, only 17 percent of women believed that “managers at my company address gender-biased language,” while 37 percent of men did.

“There’s a big perception gap,” said Stacey Haas, the partner at McKinsey who steered the study.

This is, to be sure, not only an American problem. When British companies were forced to reveal their salary data recently, and it became glaringly clear that women were paid less than men, Burberry and other companies blamed the gap on the fact that most of their C suite executives were men. And given that C suite salaries are the highest — well, the math makes sense. The French brand Dior appointed its first female designer only in 2016; Givenchy in 2017.

But it is interesting, given that such a large portion of the original wave of American designers and founders were women: Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Anne Klein, Liz Claiborne. Especially because there are currently no barriers to entry for women and, Haas said, “there is no aspiration gap.” At the beginning of their careers, the study found that women were 17 percent more likely than men to want to get to the top. The problems come later.

The idea for the survey originated with the CFDA around the time of the women’s march in 2017, when a number of its members headed down to Washington. Cindi Leive, then the editor of Glamour, signed on, and McKinsey created a 100 question survey for both men and women at all stages of their careers and developed the protocol for the study.

A list of companies was compiled that included mass and designer fashion, retail and production, and 191 agreed to participate. The companies disseminated the survey, which was anonymous, to employees as they chose, and 535 people responded; 20 in-depth interviews were also held.

But the end product doesn’t distinguish between responses on the creative, corporate or retail side, or the mass market versus the designer sector, which logic dictates have some different structural challenges. And “a few very big companies that are important in the industry declined to participate,” said Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the CFDA, who declined to name them.

“I don’t know if they got tangled up in HR, or there was a legal reason, or if they were just concerned about what they would find out,” Kolb said.

Still, the findings were so “consistent” that, according to Haas, “they are a really solid starting point.”

Such as the information that while 71 percent of survey participants reported having a female supervisor before the vice president level (which is considered entry level to management), that number had shrunk to 52 percent by the next stage.

“That’s what we really wanted to dig into,” said Samantha Barry, the current editor of Glamour, which will publish the report in its June/July issue. What happens in that mysterious middle?

The Sticking Point

The answers the study came up with are not unexpected: family, sexism, lack of mentorship and confidence, less aggressive pursuit of promotion. Fifty percent of women at the vice president level who had children said they believed motherhood had been an obstacle to their career advancement.

One of the inescapable conclusions of reading the study is just how old-fashioned the attitudes are in the fashion industry, which likes to consider itself forward-thinking when it comes to social issues. Barry reported that one manager said he was less likely to give women critical feedback because he was worried they might “cry.”

“It reflects the way the business has been run for a long time,” said Burak Cakmak, the dean of fashion at Parsons, who also believes that change is about to become crucial, “because of the pace of technology, which demands innovation. That necessitates a more collective approach, which should by definition be more inclusive.”

It is probably not coincidental that the area of the industry that seems to have a significant number of female power players is the digital frontier, where Rent the Runway, Moda Operandi, Glossier and the RealReal (to name a few) were all created, and run, by women. And to be fair, there are many well-respected smaller American brands founded by women, including Rachel Comey, Maria Cornejo and Rosie Assoulin. But the story changes with the bigger heritage names.

“When I was coming up, there were very few women rising to the higher ranks,” said Rose Marie Bravo, who became the chief executive of Burberry in 1997, and who made an effort during her time at the company to promote women to positions of leadership. While her creative directors were men, her head of North America was a woman, so was her CFO, so was her head of Europe. And when she left, she recommended a woman, Angela Ahrendts, to take her place.

“You need visuals,” Bravo said. “You need to be able to think, ‘If she did it, maybe I can, too.'”

For Karis Durmer, the chief executive of Altuzarra, who was recommended for the job by her friend Shirley Cook (then the chief executive of Proenza Schouler), the family issue is key. “You can’t really detach this conversation from the conversation about family planning,” she said.

Indeed, the requirements of globalization, including store openings and fashion shows held around the world as well as a calendar that demands the vacation months of August and December be devoted to creating a collection, may seem to force a choice between building a family and building a career. And all of it is exacerbated by the myth of the creative personality that prioritized 24/7 devotion to the process.

Designing a Solution

Which leaves us where, exactly? The study makes basic recommendations, including offering clear criteria for advancement and building flexibility into the work schedule, But above all, von Furstenberg said, “the point was to raise awareness that there is a problem, and put HR departments on notice, so we can begin to have the conversation.”

Barry, however, thinks there is another, perhaps more immediate, solution. “Right now consumers put their fashion dollars behind companies that are sustainable,” she said. “Why not do the same for companies that are run by women? That way female-led brands benefit, and other brands will be encouraged to follow their lead.”

Hit ‘em where it counts. Literally.