I’ve spoken many times about what large organisations can learn from Silicon Valley when it comes to customer-led change, but what about what whole industries can learn? For the retail industry, that lesson is about a customer base that is ~85% women.

~85% of all retail purchases are made or influenced by women. Yet only 20% of retail executive teams are women.

Customer, who..?

These stats are not news to CEOs, but they still don’t seem to be taking responsibility for effecting any actual change. The number of retail female CEOs appointed actually went down last year. With the UK high street under shareholder and media scrutiny, there has never been a better time to ask some hard questions about gender balance in retail leadership.

That’s why, in partnership with Women in Retail, we have spoken to over 70 senior executives from 44 retailers over the last few months about the topic of gender diversity.

Download the full report: the commercial advantage of more women in the boardroom

I wanted to write this blog to also share my personal view as I strongly believe in the importance of this topic.

Across all industries, we need to get more women in executive leadership positions for 2 reasons: it’s morally right, and it’s also commercially right. It should be at the top of every retail CEO’s agenda for one very valid business reason: the customer.

The best companies in the world are the ones who listen to, and really understand their customers. These are the companies that are disrupting whole industries, and they are not relying on customer research alone to do it. They focus on customer experience and the voice of their customer is represented in their boardrooms. This has very powerful commercial results. Surely, incumbents should be doing everything they can to respond?

Retail CEOs who are not acting to address the gender imbalance between their customer and their boardroom are simply not taking responsibility for delivering maximum value to their shareholders.

But how do retailers change the way they engage with their customer?

Brands can better understand their customers in two distinct ways – through research and data, and from experience and testing. The retail industry tends to focus on the data, (and arguably led the way for other industries here). With the rapid emergence of the Chief Customer Officer, it seems the industry does acknowledge the need to do something more to understand their customer.

That something more is experience-based insight. Design thinking, rapid prototyping and simply hitting the streets to find out what your customers think. Testing that prototype with real customers provides a wealth of information that data just can’t give you.

And retailers don’t even need to go outside, they just need to listen to their own people – 60% of retail employees are women. And what better way to understand your customer (~85% women) than to have more female voices at the boardroom table?

Retail CEOs must address what is staring them in the face: the commercial advantage of more women in the boardroom.

We’ve all seen the stats, we all accept it… so let’s do something about it! Enough talk. The female talent pool exists, so that isn’t an excuse. Leaders must create the right environment – and it starts at the top. They simply cannot understand their customers (or employees) if they don’t reflect them.

We must stop being so politically correct about the whole thing and openly acknowledge the differences between women and men. Once you acknowledge this, it’s amazing how easy it becomes to create an environment in which all talent can flourish. It’s about the CEO’s mindset.

I had to take a long, hard look in the mirror at myself not so long ago. Elixirr is only 6 years old, but 2 years in it became clear that we’d unintentionally created a Boys Club. It was at that moment I made the conscious decision to have a gender-balanced leadership team. I still personally champion this – it’s really important to me, the business and its shareholders.

We’re not perfect and I recognise we have some way to go at the partner levels, but we have achieved gender balance across the rest of the firm by creating flexible working practices, encouraging all talent to embrace opportunity and removing unconscious bias from key decisions. My partners and I will continue to prioritise this.

I write this not to self-promote, but to advise other CEOs to do the same thing. Nothing will change unless you make it change. Acknowledging you have it wrong is the first step to positive change. This report calls for the industry to collaborate together to draw up a Charter. We make this call in the absence of widespread leadership on the issue. There’s been enough talk over the past few years, and there’s no more room for excuses. Retail CEOs must make the conscious decision to get more women on their executive teams.

My message to shareholders is simple:

Do not invest in companies that don’t have sufficient female representation on executive teams – your commercial returns will suffer.

My message to retail CEOs? Your business will only survive in the long-term if you understand your customer. If only 20% of your executive team are women, can you truly say that you do? Experience-based learning is how the world’s best companies disrupted entire industries. It is customer-led change that will help the incumbents fight back. And what is more obvious than letting the ‘customer’ (~85% women) lead the charge…?

Download the full report: the commercial advantage of more women in the boardroom

I would love to hear your views on this report and its recommendations – please do leave a comment below and let me know.

A big thank you to my team, the team Women in Retail and to all of our interviewees – this report has only been possible because of their support, candidness and passion. Here’s to making change happen.