Many of the boldface names in the retail and consumer products sectors belong to women.
Helena Foulkes is president of CVS/pharmacy, the drug chain where Judy Sansone is chief merchant. Kathee Tesija holds the latter position at Target, and Michelle Gloeckler runs Walmart’s consumables business and heads up the company’s U.S. Manufacturing initiative. Delhaize America last fall named Meg Ham president of its Food Lion supermarket chain.
Examples of women in high-level executive positions at prominent CPG companies also exist. PepsiCo chief executive officer Indra Nooyi, L’Oréal Paris president Karen Fondu and Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez International, are among those who come readily to mind.
When one reads about those individuals, it would be easy to assume that women have achieved parity with men in the retail and CPG industries. But appearances can be deceptive. During a presentation at the Food Marketing Institute’s Midwinter Executive Conference in Miami Beach last month, the Network of Executive Women (NEW) took stock of the situation and unveiled a campaign, “It’s Time,” designed to accelerate the move toward a more equitable workplace.
“A lot has changed since NEW got its start at FMI Midwinter 14 years ago,” said Joan Toth, the organization’s president and CEO. “But despite our best efforts — despite your best efforts — the number of women leaders in the industry has improved marginally, if at all. Women make up half of the retail industry’s workforce but less than one in five corporate officers and one in 20 CEOs.”
She asserted that those advocating a more prominent role for women in business need to alter their strategy if they want to achieve their objective.
“We have been focusing on the wrong issue,” Toth said. “We do not need to change women — we need to transform our organizations.
“When we try to make women conform to a male leadership style, we lose the benefits of women’s leadership — and we lose female talent. … Gender diversity does not mean switching from a male leadership culture to a female one. We need an inclusive culture that values the unique strengths of everyone to make our organizations strong.”
Leveraging the insights of female executives is particularly important for retailers and CPG suppliers, since, as Toth pointed out, women control 70% of household spending and make or influence 93% of food purchases. Just how far those companies still need to go is illuminated by the fact that 59% of women indicate that food marketers do not understand their needs.
Lisa Walsh, senior vice president of sales at PepsiCo and NEW marketing chair, spoke about the organization’s vision of “a workplace with no limits.”
“It’s time for a new leadership culture,” she said. “Less rigid and more flexible. Less authoritative and more collaborative. Less forced and more authentic.”
Walsh argued that realigning business along those lines would not only better suit the needs of female employees but also correspond with the preferences of the rising Millennial generation and many men.
“We all want it,” she said. “The workplace needs it. The times demand it.”
Amy Hahn, senior vice president of marketing at Ahold USA and a NEW board member, stressed the importance of inclusion in running a successful company in the 21st century.
“At Ahold we make three promises every day: First, be a better place to shop. Second, be a better place to work. And third, be a better neighbor everywhere we do business.
“Women’s leadership provides the talent, new ideas and customer connections we need to deliver on these promises. … [It’s] not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue.”
The bottom line for retailers and CPG companies is that they need to do what’s best for consumers. Since most of their customers are female, it should be self-evident that women should be involved in the decision-making process. When filling key roles, the objective should be finding the person best suited to the task at hand. In the end a company that shortchanges half the population because of gender winds up shortchanging itself.