Editor’s Note: Mary Beth Laughton is president and CEO of Athleta. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
When I started my career in the late 1990s, only six women had ever broken the proverbial glass ceiling to become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. This small but mighty group was an inspiration to young women like me just starting their careers, especially considering the uphill battle we faced when it came to gender equality (at the time, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by men).
Last year, the number of women running businesses on the Fortune 500 hit a record of 41. And while I’m proud to be one of the women who lead billion-dollar brands, there still aren’t enough of us. The tide has turned, but we still have a long way to go.
Businesses can play a key role in supporting women, and some have already taken action to create a culture and business that prioritizes them. Now, it’s time for all companies to work on leveraging these opportunities (and finding new ones) to be a catalyst for change.
Establish equal pay for women
You’ve likely heard the statistics before, but the pill never gets easier to swallow: Today, on average women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. The wage gap is even greater for some, especially mothers and women of color.
Paying women in the workplace fairly shouldn’t be an innovative approach to doing business. It must be basic table stakes for any company.
While independent data validation helps ensure transparency and unbiased results, companies of any size can institute an internal assessment that determines pay equity, helping build inclusive workplaces where everyone is given an equal opportunity to succeed.
Create equitable supply chains
About 190 million women work in the global supply chain industry. Many women garment workers live and work in countries that have constrained social safety nets in place, which often means limited access to education and health care — both of which play key roles in enabling upward personal and professional mobility. While there has been enormous focus in the apparel sector on this topic over the last decade, there remains significant work to be done.
For the past 15 years, Gap Inc. has combatted this disparity head-on through its Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) program, which provides women in the global apparel industry and surrounding communities with foundational life skills, technical training and support to advance in their personal and professional lives. Since the program was established, more than 35 partners have rolled out P.A.C.E. to their own supply chains, including PVH Corp., Hasbro and New Balance. More than 1 million women and girls have participated in Gap Inc.’s program across 17 countries where our clothes are made, giving women a voice and an opportunity to positively change the trajectory of their lives and their family’s lives.
Companies must invest in evaluating their suppliers and establish a clear methodology to assess how they treat and promote women. For instance, a company could require their factories to achieve gender parity at supervisor levels by a certain year. They could also work with community-based organizations that seek to address root causes of gender inequities. A comprehensive, holistic approach to women’s empowerment — one that includes aligning a company’s values with its sourcing decisions — can meaningfully move the needle on systemic gender-based issues that are prevalent in global supply chains.
Elevate women-owned brands
According to the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), 42% of all businesses in the US are women-owned. But they don’t see the same revenue or investments that businesses owned by men do.
Retailers have a unique opportunity to increase the visibility of women-owned brands by intentionally sourcing and promoting them.
For instance, clean-beauty retailer Credo recognized the significant gender gap that exists in beauty brands’ leadership teams. To bring attention to this disparity, Credo publicly shares the percentage of women-owned products it carries.
Today, 90% of the brands Credo carries are from companies led by women founders or CEOs, compared with only 29% at conventional beauty stores. The female-founded company also recently announced the launch of its Credo for Change Workshop, which works to advance BIPOC-led (Black, indigenous and people of color) clean beauty brands with education, mentorship and funding opportunities to take their business to the next level.
Major retailers are showing support, too. Kroger, Walgreens and Walmart showcase items from women-owned brands on their websites, and Target is displaying a digital badge alongside products that have been certified by the WBENC as at least 51% owned, operated and controlled by women.
Seek partnerships that support women
Selecting the right partners is key to making sure that a company’s mission and values are carried out. And when that mission is centered around women, those long-term meaningful relationships will not only push the business to do better, but it will make significant strides in ensuring women are supported and have the same opportunities as men.
As part of Athleta’s growth strategy, it has partnered with Allyson Felix, Simone Biles and Alicia Keys to not only collaborate on traditional product offerings, but also advise on and amplify initiatives like the Power of She Fund, which was established in 2020 to provide grants aimed at recognizing female empowerment. In partnership with Allyson, Simone and Alicia, the Fund has collectively awarded more than $1.4 million to more than 50 organizations to date, positively impacting more than 10,000 women and girls.
Now more than ever, women are leading the charge in economic and social issues, and the business community’s commitment to empowering women remains vital to closing the gender equity gap.
Brands must use their platform and scale to support programming and strategies that help women thrive. All women deserve to reach their full potential and feel empowered to use their voice for good. Strategically investing in women is not only good for their personal and professional growth, it’s also good for business.
Ensuring pay equity, creating equitable supply chains, prioritizing female representation across female-driven industries — particularly in management — and seeking strategic partnerships that support women will help create a new cycle of lifting other women as we climb. All leaders — CEOs, managers, small business owners and beyond — must invest in the financial, physical, mental and emotional well-being of women.
Investing in women is an investment for all, because when a woman is empowered, she lifts up other women, their families and their communities to build a more equitable and just world.