To mark International Women’s Day, Alexandra Leonards spoke to a group of women leading the way in retail about the hurdles they have faced, their career highlights, and asked them what advice they’d give to future generations of women.
Bridget Lea, managing director of commercial at BT and EE
It was a combination of her passion for creating customer experiences and motivation from her daughters that drove Bridget Lea to climb the ranks from a part-time filing job at The Co-operative Group’s head office in Manchester to where she is today.
Early on in her retail career, Lea decided that a degree was necessary to take her to the next level – so she worked two jobs while at university, all whilst bringing up two girls as a young mum. After completing her IT studies, she landed herself a graduate position with Marks and Spencer.
“Now 25 years into working in the industry, I am driven by the pace of change in a sector that uses connectivity to shape the future and improve customers’ lives,” says Lea. “Bringing innovative and inspiring products and services to customers and ensuring that the benefits of technology are available and accessible to all is an exciting place to be.”
She says that retail is a great place to start a career because it teaches people about quality, the importance of developing trusted customer experiences, how to lead and motivate teams, and ultimately how to deliver strong commercial results.
However, her admiration for the retail industry doesn’t mean Lea hasn’t faced challenges as a woman in the sector.
“As a Black person living in the UK, race is much more of an issue, but in my corporate life gender has been the bigger challenge,” explains Lea. “I truly believe that there won’t be an even playing field in these industries until there are more women in senior positions who are able to create a culture that is inclusive for everyone.”
She says that while many people are aware of the more extreme – and luckily less common – incidences of gender discrimination that might hit the UK headlines, what most if not all women experience is the small, everyday things that constantly remind them they have to make more effort to be included by the men around the table.
“Men have a big role to play as allies to make this happen and women must be brave, speak up and support each other,” Lea says, adding that while she never wants to make people feel uncomfortable, she will always – with care – call it out when people get things wrong.
She also highlights the importance of building diverse teams, because they help to create a culture of innovation and forward thinking. This has been a big focus for Lea in her role at BT and EE, where she initiated a partnership between the companies and 10,000 Black interns last summer. She later launched a pilot for eight interns to join her commercial team.
She explains that while she doesn’t put herself on a pedestal, she understands that as a senior Black woman she is often seen as a role model.
“It's a privilege and I take it incredibly seriously,” she says.
Lea says that for young women joining the industry it can often feel easier to maintain the status quo and try to adapt both their style and views to mirror the majority.
“But it’s very important not to do that if it means you’re not being authentic,” she continues, suggesting by incorporating different perspectives into the culture, products and services being sold, being yourself can change the status quo.
Lea believes there is still a long way to go before the industry is in a place where all people get an equal chance, explaining that having the right balance of diverse leadership is an essential first step.
“I hope for a future where we have a working environment that’s brilliant for everyone, regardless of gender,” she says.
Dr Anjali Subburaj, former program architect at The Very Group and MACH Alliance ambassador
When Dr Anjali Subburaj began her career journey, she never really planned to join the retail sector. In fact, her doctorate from Mumbai University was in physics. But after completing several technology architect certifications, in recent years she has found herself supporting the digital transformation initiatives of a number of large retail enterprises – including Mars, and most recently, The Very Group.
“Because the retail sector is creative, fast-paced and innovative, I found this work really rewarding,” says Subburaj, who decided to stick with the industry and become a retail technology expert.
While her experience in both the retail industry and technology sector have been invaluable, it’s not always been smooth sailing.
“Some of the barriers that I’ve personally encountered as a woman working in a technical role include gender biases and a lack of sponsorship among male senior managers, which meant that I was not able to progress in my career as quickly as I could have,” she explains. “I’ve also experienced a lack of support when moving into new roles, which has made things uncomfortable and undermined confidence.”
Subburaj warns that a lack of female role models can also create a sense of isolation for a woman working in a technology leadership position.
However, she feels that working in the retail sector has been more comfortable than the technology industry, as she’s been able to identify allies from different areas of the business.
While she celebrates more women landing senior positions in the industry, she warns that this should not become a “token gesture”.
“The pipeline of female talent should be healthy from end-to-end – starting from graduates joining organisations all the way up to becoming senior leaders,” continues Subburaj. “Women at all levels of the organisation need to feel that they genuinely deserve to be there and that they have got there on their own merit, rather than a company quota.”
Her advice to young women wanting to join the industry is to be strategic about their career choices and to invest in their own learning.
Mirroring Bridget Lea’s guidance, she says that women should be ‘authentic' in their work.
“Don’t just expect your work to speak for itself, sometimes you need to speak up and tell people, in clear business terms, about the value that you’re delivering,” she says.
Deann Evans, director of EMEA expansion and partnerships, Shopify
Retail has been a part of Deann Evans’ life since her very first job, having always had a passion for the industry. She describes her experience as a woman in the sector as “energising”.
“Retail is a field which is constantly innovating and changing and it’s important women play a big role in the future of the industry,” explains Evans.
Given women drive between 70 to 80 per cent of consumer purchasing decisions, she says, more women need to be encouraged to be a driving force in the industry too.
“Unfortunately, bias – whether unconscious or not – can exist, whether you work in retail, tech, or another industry,” she continues. “For instance, it could be unequal access to sponsorship or a lack of female role models.”
This, she explains, is why representation is so crucial and why she is proud to be in her current role.
And her advice for women thinking about joining the industry is simple – do it.
“Focus your search on companies that align with your values and are supporting women and working towards equity,” she concludes. “Also, find a mentor, reach out to senior women in the industry to create connections and gain support.”
Wizz Selvey, retail expert and former head of buying at Selfridges
Before e-commerce really took off in recent years, Wizz Selvey worked for over a decade in a buying office at Selfridges. Back then, the team was largely dominated by women. However, there was a big shift as the industry moved towards online retail, as digital teams attracted more men.
“Having a diverse team is really important, but difficult to orchestrate,” says Selvey, who was also previously director at both Cowshed Beauty and Soho Home.
Selvey got her first taste of the retail world when she studied textile design and retail management at university. While she was keen on design, what she really liked was how retail incorporated business skills.
“I looked into buying which combines the creative and commercial, but the recruitment consultants I spoke to told me I’d never get into a buying role because I had no experience,” she says.
Luckily, the negative feedback didn’t deter Selvey and she persevered; starting out in merchandising and moving quickly over to buying when the team she worked in was restructured.
Since then, she has become an expert in spotting trends, consumer behaviour, and being able to build disruptive brands.
“My advice to the young women wanting to join the retail industry is to try and do as much work experience as possible and talk to people who already work in retail,” she says. “There is such a diverse range of roles, from creative to working in the accounts team, working in STEM topics, product development, and designing, trading and commercial roles, digital – it’s complex, with a lot of teams and moving parts.”
Selvey is optimistic about how the importance of diversity and inclusion policies has grown over the past 10 years. This has forced business leaders to think about who they are recruiting and the mix of the team, from different skills sets to making sure it’s a diverse and inclusive group, she says.
The retail expert also champions networking opportunities like Women in eCommerce, a group which brings people together in a sector currently dominated by men and highlights the growing number of women in leadership events.
These events are not solely for women already leading, she explains, they’re also about passing the baton on to the next generation. This is a cause Selvey is extremely passionate about, as she feels this is particularly important when helping young women climb the ranks, especially given the impact of the pandemic and a shift to hybrid working.
“Many of us learned the foundations of our roles from being at work, listening to managers, phone calls, joining meetings and being in the office,” she warns. “I think it’s been very hard these past few years, where people are working from home, for future leaders to learn.”
With this in mind, she feels it’s the duty for current leaders to share their knowledge, experience, and the challenges that they have faced over the years to support younger people joining the sector.