For International Women’s Day, Drapers asks female figureheads for their best learnings from their careers.
This year’s International Women’s Day has a particular poignance. Following two global campaigns protesting sexual violence against women, #MeToo and #TimesUp, and coming a century after the Representation of the People Act first gave women over 30 the right to vote in 1918, 2018 has already been dubbed the year of the woman.
Meanwhile, gender pay gap reporting is exposing the inequality endemic in all business, including the fashion industry. In keeping with the theme #PressforProgress, Drapers asks some of fashion’s female trailblazers to share the lessons they have learned over the course of their careers.
Stephanie Phair, chief strategy officer, Farfetch
Work hard and be focused, but not so focused that you don’t look at opportunities that come out of the left field. Don’t be scared to change your path. When I was looking to leave Vogue [Phair worked at US Vogue from 2003 to 2005] I was in a relatively senior PR and marketing role, and most of the opportunities coming towards me were in similar roles. One of the jobs was an ecommerce start-up [Portero] but this was at a time no one was talking about start-ups and they definitely weren’t talking about ecommerce. It got me into this world I love so much today.
Your career won’t be linear. You will take a few steps back and a few steps forward and you can’t think of a traditional career ladder in the way people used to. It is about being brave and doing something that might fail. Think laterally, talk to as many people as you can who will introduce you to another two people, who will in turn introduce you to another two.
The roles for women in senior leadership are there. I have been lucky enough to work with some really amazing women throughout my career – some have been my bosses, some have been people I’ve worked alongside. But women sometimes second guess themselves when they should just go for it and work out the details later. That’s something men don’t suffer from. I’ve spoken to two people recently who at the time I didn’t even realise I was giving advice to. One was asking whether to take a job pregnant, which is something I did, and although that’s not for everyone I encouraged her to take the opportunity if she felt she could. The other felt she couldn’t go up for promotion, because of responsibilities at home. I urged her to just go for it and work out everything at home later; now she is leading a team of hundreds.
Miriam Lahage, CEO, Figleaves
Never take a job that you know you can easily do. Some women early in their career have an expectation that they must be perfect – that to be successful they need to have mastered all aspects of a role. Such thinking can keep a woman locked into their current job and from aspiring to challenging positions, roles where they can learn and stretch. The advice I give women is to look for roles where you will be a little uncomfortable and challenged – where you will need to be open to new ideas and new approaches. That stretch is where the magic of growth in one’s career happens.
Say yes. When I was in my twenties, I was a store manager at a TJX in Massachusetts in the US. The founder of TJX, Ben Cammarata, would regularly come to the store on the weekend and he and I would discuss the product assortment. One weekday he visited the store to ask me if I would be interested in becoming a buyer. I had never aspired to be a buyer and had no idea of what it might be like. He was convinced that I could be successful in that role and offered me an opportunity to make the move. While it was scary at the time, I finally said yes, with the proviso that if it didn’t work out I could go back to stores. Saying yes, while not knowing that I could do the job, was one of the most important decisions of my career.
Debbie Hewitt, non-executive chairman, Moss Bros Group
Look for influence, fun and learning. You don’t always get all three but at least two makes for good personal development. People tend to join organisations and leave bosses. No matter what stage you are at in your career, look for a boss who takes your personal development seriously. It makes a huge difference.
Fiona Firth, buying director, Mr Porter
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Throughout my career, which has predominately been spent working in menswear, I have never been conscious of being in a man’s world. Asking men for their apparel likes and dislikes and for their opinions on fit and comfort has developed my menswear knowledge and helped my understanding of the retail market. It might sound simple but try to consistently learn from the people you work with. Ask questions and listen. This will give you a broader outlook and strengthen your skills.
Emily Bendell, founder, Bluebella
Think big. There are a lot of studies that show, for whatever reason, women don’t set their sights on the biggest goal that they could. Be ambitious and do what you need to do to grow.
Ask for help. I have found that other female business leaders are incredibly generous with their time and are very supportive of each other. Women may be under-represented in business, but we can help each other get ahead.
Think creatively. Female founders tend to be more hesitant when it comes to seeking investment. If the first person you speak to doesn’t understand what you do and why they should invest, keep going and try to find your own route. Things are getting better for women in the investment world, but there are still issues. Most investors are still men, which inherently puts female-focused businesses at a disadvantage. More high net worth women need to invest in small and growing businesses.
Cecile Reinaud, founder and head designer, Séraphine
Believe in yourself and your ideas. To be a successful entrepreneur, you need that self-belief. I would also recommend that every woman read [Facebook’s chief operating officer] Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In for motivation.
Surround yourself with entrepreneurs within your circle of friends or join an entrepreneurs’ club. It is all about bringing like-minded people together to talk about problems and find inspiration. That’s been very important on my journey.
Recognise what you’re good at, what at you’re least good at and recruit where your weaknesses are.
Wendy Hallett, founder, Hallett Retail
Develop resilience. It is highly unlikely that throughout your career every decision will work out or that you won’t make any significant mistakes. The reason I set up my own business nearly 20 years ago was because I couldn’t find flexible working at the level I wanted it. It was extremely difficult to convince retail companies that senior roles could be done in a flexible way. The key is how you react to what happens and how you move on. There is no doubt that the attitude to women in leadership has improved from what I faced 20 years ago and things are moving in the right direction.
There are still not enough women CEOs and directors, and it is not good enough for companies to use the excuse of women don’t apply or they want to employ women into these positions but can’t find anyone suitable. It is key that all companies within the industry focus resources on development of their pipeline of women introducing not only policies to help women progress but a culture that sees flexible working as acceptable for both men and women.
Lizzie Dawson, womenswear and menswear design director, Urban Outfitters
Respect everyone’s opinion, no matter whose it is or from where they are giving it. Being respectful when listening to someone’s ideas or thoughts, regardless of what level of the business they are from, can often lead you to think of a project or idea in a completely different way. It can be exciting and fulfilling to think of things differently when pushed. Some of the most successful ideas have come when it has been a collaboration of thoughts.
Fashion's female leaders share their best advice