Retail is often a first and safe stop for women entering or returning to the workforce because there is normally a low barrier to entry, flexible hours and, in some cases, a discount or service benefit for employees in addition to salary.

The problem is that advancement within the space can be challenging for a variety of reasons. Here are some ways to overcome those challenges and help more women grow into leaders.

The research

The studies and data summarized in this Harvard Business Review article make the case for more female leaders in retail and illustrate the efforts by large chains to reach gender parity across levels within their organizations. The authors summarize the 12 steps they show are critical to supporting the space, growth and development of women leaders in retail.

The practical challenge for smaller retail organization is finding a way to implement the extensive plan. In such cases where the lack of resources or simple size make the approach prohibitive, focusing on the three concepts can help.

Specifically, the authors recommend the following:

  • Establish clear leadership commitment and accountability for gender equity.
  • Implement employee-focused policies, benefits, and supports that advance gender equity.
  • Provide structured career development for women.

The plan

By taking a more general approach to start, retailers of any size can begin to map out practical ways to help support the growth of women leaders within their organization.

For example, while creating a diversity task force may not be a practical first step for a smaller organization, simply committing to being held accountable for equity starts the conversation. Talking to employees about what that means to them or how it looks can result in a more responsive approach and a concrete first step.

Similarly, while it may be too expensive right now to implement a paid leave program, exploring the benefits provided by the employee assistance program and ensuring policies are updated and supported by all local and national leave laws are great, basic ways to start moving the organization in the right direction.

Finally, providing structured career development for women is critical to their growth across industries. Doing so in a small retail environment can again prove challenging because of a lack of resources (which could include a lack of time, money or even women to support).

In this case, it is critical to look at the challenges that prevent the organization from formally supporting its female employees. By understanding those limitations, we can look at addressing a specific problem and continue to make steps in the right direction.

The bottom line is that perfect cannot be the enemy of good. We can all agree that supporting women leaders in retail is good for everyone. We can likely agree, too, that the 12 steps articulated in the research are the way to make it happen.

However, smaller retail organizations are often challenged by fundamental issues like not having the internal resources or structure to implement the steps or even enough female employees to support. Instead of letting those obstacles stop great ideas from ever starting, take a step back and address the fundamentals that will give the organization the foundation to grow more supportive programs.