Episode 32: How unconscious biases could be holding your business back
International Women’s day, Biases, Breaking the bias, supply chain, Australian fashion industry,
Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.
Hello, and welcome to episode 32 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. I've changed the location of my office, so hopefully the sound isn't too bad in this new space. But today's episode is a topic or discussion around something I've been examining a lot over the last few years and probably like a lot of our listeners the last few years have really made me step back and look at some of the systems and preconceived ideas around what people think is normal or a status quo. And even what kind of behaviours or decisions have led us to the climate crisis we are now having to deal with.
But before I get into that, I wanted to mention I send out a monthly newsletter full of inspiring articles or developments within the fashion and sustainability space. So if you're into that, which you might be considering or listening to this podcast, you can sign up to that belindahumphrey.com.
So onto today's topic, in honour of International Women's Day where this year's theme is #breakingthebias. I want to explore some of the biases that exist within the fashion industry. Like I said in recent years I have really been examining biases within systems and also examining some of my own biases.
First, let's look to the fashion supply chain and the role of some of the women within that. If you aren't familiar with the stages of the supply chain, there's a little freebie on the website shop called Map My Supply Chain to help you understand all the different levels or tiers in their supply chain, you can head to belindahumphrey.com and just go to the shop to get that little download.
But I guess the stage that immediately comes to mind when we often talk about women working within fashion and the supply chain is on the production lines, offshore in other countries, so we might start there. According to an article by Cleanclothes.org women make up the world's poor and are concentrated in the low paid lower power positions in the garment industry and are therefore in a particularly perilous situation. They go on to say that in Bangladesh, women make up the majority of the workforce at around 55 to 60% but they're rarely in positions of power. Some more research was done by Modern Slavery and Human Rights and there was also the issue of job security, where women workers were disproportionately targeted, with pregnant and older women having their contracts terminated first. In this article, a trade union leader reported that elderly female workers who had served more than five years were also sacked because they're entitled to service benefits. Now this is just one section of the supply chain in one country but you can already see how biases are at play. If women are being fired first, when a factory comes under financial stress, such as a pandemic, where Western companies are cancelling orders, it becomes harder to then be promoted through the ranks to factory manager and you'll see later that there are benefits to having women within management.
But let's now turn and look at the corporate world. The head offices and local warehouses and DC's are still part of the supply chain, but they can often be overlooked. According to a recent study from the Australian Fashion Council with Ernst and Young, locally in Australia, 77% of employees in the fashion industry are female compared to the national average of 47%. On face value, you might think that fashion is a great employer of women, but when you look at the areas this is broken down into the highest percentage at nearly 50% is retail. Now jobs are great, but it's common knowledge that retail like hospitality relies a lot on casual workers. So while it may be a great employer, many of the people in those positions may not have job security. And those roles would not be in positions of power or decision making. The report does state that 49% are full time 31% are casual and 11% are part time. But it doesn't give visibility on how that is split between men and women or how that 59% of full time people are distributed within the layers of management. And according to a 2021 McKinsey study called Women in the Workplace, where they examined the effects of the pandemic on working women in America. In spite of the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, women's representation improved across all levels of the corporate pipeline in 2020. They go on to say this is an encouraging sign and worth celebrating after an incredibly difficult year, but there are also persistent gaps. Promotions at the first step up to manager are not equitable, and women of colour lose ground in representation at every level.
In that same study, McKinsey reported that women are rising to the moment as stronger leaders and taking on the extra work that comes with this. Compared with men at the same level women are doing more to support their teams and advanced diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. They're also more likely to be allies to women of colour. Yet this critical work is going unrecognised and unrewarded by most companies and that has concerning implications. Companies risk losing the very leaders they need right now and it's hard to imagine organisations navigating the pandemic and building inclusive workplaces if this work isn't truly prioritised.
So it seems a perspective and unique lens that women offer and companies benefit from are not formally recognised, which seems to be highlighting a bias in what good leadership looks like. In their survey, female leaders are 12% more likely than men to provide emotional support 7% more likely to check in on overall well-being 6% more likely to make sure the workload was manageable, 5% more likely to navigate work life challenges, and 5% more likely to take actions to prevent or manage burnout.
Speaking from personal experience, the most supportive manager I had when I was working for other businesses was a woman. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly good and bad, but the good ones I remember and actually there was a couple now that I think of it were women, and for similar reasons to that survey in the McKinsey study.
Another interesting takeaway from that report was that similarly to the example in Bangladesh I gave, female jobs are 19% more at risk than male ones, simply because women are disproportionately represented in sectors negatively affected by the COVID crisis, places such as retail. It's a really eye opening report and to be honest, I'm not completely surprised by what was in there. I think it really confirmed a lot of things that I was thinking about what had been happening, but I'll put a link to it in the show notes on the website.
But they also show that at every step up the corporate ladder, women of colour lose ground to white women and men of colour. So you could assume that by the time we get tp the top of a business or organisation, you could have a very narrow homogenous group of people making the decisions for a company. And homogenous not only when it comes to sex or race, but also class and education and diversity needs to be with the decision makers are not just the creators.
Finally, I just want to take one step further and just look at the next layer above maybe corporate or head office roles. And I googled the richest people in fashion and all 15 Are men except for number three. Francoise Bettencourt Meyer's, I have probably pronounced that really badly! whose family owned 33% of the L'Oreal stock. But it says her family it's not her by herself, which is interesting. Number two is Amancio Ortega, the owner of Inditex group, they own the brands such as Zara or Massimo Dutti and number one is Benard, Arnault, Chairperson of the Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton group or the LVMH group. And just to put that in context, Mr. Arnaults net worth is estimated at $236 billion dollars Australian. Now you can call me a sceptic, but over recent years where I've been examining the systems and biases apply, not all of those richest people simply got their own hard work and being the best. Conscious and unconscious biases would have been at play.
So where to from here? This years theme, "Breaking the Bias" invites us to simply understand and become aware of what biases we might have ourselves so that we might change it. What are some biases you might have benefited from in your own business or career? Was it a bias that led you to start your own business as you didn't see the pathway in a former role? Or how are you looking to combat the bias in your supply chain?
I'd love to hear your experience or what that has looked like for you within the fashion industry. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_. Because another really important point made in that McKinsey article was that gender equality is good for the economy and society as well. When managers support employees well being which women are more likely to do, employees are happier, less burnt out and less likely to consider leaving.
Finally, a quick reminder to head to the website and sign up to the monthly newsletter if you're interested in fashion and sustainability, and you'll find the links to the articles I've mentioned in the podcast section on the website. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.