On International Women’s Day, it’s time for fashion to take the lead

Headshot of Laura Winson, Zadeebe Agency

A report by Cranfield School of Management on behalf of the Female FTSE Board Report, released in November, describes a concerning lack of progress of women into executive senior board positions.  Only nine women hold chief executive roles with FTSE 100 companies.  Fashion is no exception to this rule.  To mark International Women’s Day, Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design asked our inaugural College Fellow, Laura Winson, founder of the Zebedee Talent Agency which specialises in “Championing Disabled, Visibly Different, Non-Binary, and Trans UK Models,” to have her say on the lack of representation of women at board level in the fashion industry.  

This is what she had to say.

Everything we do at Zebedee, is about representation.  That is to say, everything we do is about discrimination because labelling something as a “lack of representation,” is just a slightly cosier way of saying that people are being discriminated against.

So, when it comes to senior jobs in fashion (and let’s be fair, pretty much every other industry you could name), women are being discriminated against when it comes to jobs at the board level.  What sets fashion apart, is that it owes the majority of its livelihood to women, most of the people who work in it are women, and so are the people put forward to represent the products – i.e. the models and influencers.

The industry deserves enormous credit because it is very good when it comes to pointing out discrimination.  It has a history of being at the forefront of wider social change, but peep through the keyhole of fashion company boardrooms the world over, and the folk sitting around the big table will look remarkably similar to those you’d see in any other business sector.

So why might that be?

For an industry that thrives on change and innovation, the fashion world is immersed in tradition.  Many of our biggest brands have been around for decades, even centuries, and their cultures have developed and become embedded through extraordinary levels of experience, of trial and error, failure and success.  Changing such longstanding behaviours is neither quick nor easy – and don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of these businesses actively want to be more diverse in their boardrooms, they just haven’t quite worked out how to get there.

When my co-founder, Zoe Proctor, and I, set up Zebedee in 2017, we had no experience in fashion, no contacts books, and no idea, really, of how to bring this dream of a truly diverse agency to life.  We rang customer service to ask to speak to whoever booked the models – that’s how outside the loop we really were.  We learned one thing really quickly; if we waited for companies to ask for models who were different from their perceived norm, we would never get a booking for anyone.  So, we decided that if a brief called for a size eight, we would put forward our size eight models.  Just because the request didn’t specifically ask for someone visibly different, didn’t mean to us that our models would not be what was required.  At first, the people on the end of the phone didn’t get it, but now they do because they were open to the idea and we persisted.

Women going into the fashion industry need to have that mindset if they really have the ambition to get to the top.  Just because you’re not what they‘re asking for (i.e., a man), doesn’t mean you’re not what they need.  I know what imposter syndrome is like because I’ve experienced it myself.  “I’m a social worker.  What do I know about running a modelling agency or any other kind of business?”  It’s important to realise that those thoughts are reflections of what we’re used to.  If we only see men on boards, we will only believe men can be on boards.  I recently heard someone on TV say that their child, after the Queen’s death, had expressed confusion at the idea that King Charles would succeed to the throne, as they’d assumed that the job could only be done by a woman, having never seen anyone else do it.

The same applies in reverse.  The people (i.e., predominately men) who decide who should make it onto boards do so from a background of having largely worked for and with other men.  When they look for another chap to fill the role, they’re doing so because it’s what they’re used to, not because of some deep-seated desire to keep women out.

Part of the point in setting up Zebedee was that we realised companies were missing out on so much.  The images they used did not speak to people who are different.  It’s all very well seeing someone wear something that looks amazing, but if the person themselves, the model, looks so very different from oneself, where is the encouragement to think the product is one to buy?  Similarly, women in boardrooms bring different experiences, different personalities, and different strengths.  Our customers often tell us the people we send to model their products are, “really nice.”  There’s a good reason for that. We have an active policy of only employing or representing people who are, “really nice.”  Firstly, because we like working with nice people, but secondly because being good to have around makes it far more likely they’ll be booked a second time.  It’s not rocket science, but it’s what would traditionally have been perceived as quite a female perspective.  I’m not saying that such traits are unique to women, but our sexes and genders often encourage particular personalities and attitudes.  If your boardroom is lacking the insight of people who know what it’s like to be a woman, it will struggle to appeal to that half of the population as well as it otherwise would.  And it’s these kinds of arguments which have the most impact.  There’s a lightbulb moment where our clients realise that having diverse models, broadens the appeal of their products and makes them more profitable.  The same is true of diversity of management.  You’re not recruiting women for top jobs to fill a quota or to do the right thing, you’re doing so because to do otherwise makes no commercial sense.

We’re living through a time when companies are coming under more scrutiny than ever before.  Customers want to know not just what you sell, but also who you are.  Look at the lengths brands will go to, to emphasise their sustainability credentials.  A few years ago they wouldn’t have thought it necessary, but social media and the ability of customers to share knowledge and experience of a brand have changed all that.

So, I finish with two bits of advice; one for the industry, and one for customers.

Directors; if you want more diverse representation among your senior colleagues, don’t wait for the perfect individuals to just magically turn up, go out and look for people, specifically women, who already have that potential but have been ignored.  Nurture them, identify their skill sets, and see what they can bring to your boardroom table.  And customers; if the company that wants your cash doesn’t have people like you running the show, ask them why not… and keep asking until they realise they’re missing out.

And that’s the point.  Businesses in any sector that ignore diversity aren’t necessarily old-fashioned or prejudiced, but they are missing out on maximising their own potential.