Fashion: are there enough women at the top?

Mmm, it's a big question. Having worked in the fashion industry for over a decade, I can say without hesitation that I'm yet to encounter any sexual discrimination. Of course I haven't. I'm a journalist, a commentator; I work in that section of the fashion industry that is very kind to women. Being a female journalist is brilliant: your opinion is valued, most of your contemporaries are also women and you gifted quite a few free handbags. Some of the world's most inspiring and prolific fashion journalists - and all the ones that I've ever looked up to - are women.

Journalists like Brit, Suzy Menkes, who after 25 years of insightful and cutting opinions for The International Herald Tribune, was poached by Vogue to head up its online editorial, which is not too shabby a move. It's a similar story for American Cathy Horyn; ten years at The New York Times, and now she's critic-at-large at The Cut. Then there's Anna Wintour, Alexandra Shulman and Lisa Armstrong, whose influential positions and respected voices can quieten any fears that female fashion journalists are in any way badly represented.  There are an equally healthy number of women in top fashion PR positions.

But what about the nitty gritty end of the business? The business end of the business? And how about the designers too? You don't need to be a fashion expert to know that the majority of the people who decide what you'll be wearing next season - Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Raf Simmons, Tom Ford - are men.

Five years ago, LVMH set up an initiative to tackle this inherent imbalance within its group. That group includes, Dior, Emilio Pucci, Fendi, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Loewe and Marc Jacobs, which all have men at their creative helm. For the record, LVMH also owns Celine, designed by Phoebe Philo and Donna Karan - but it isn't exactly an equal split. If you took these as the only statistics, you'd think EllsVMH, as the initiative is called, had been a total flop.

But things are shifting at LVMH. They have to. In a sector in which 85 per cent of the customer base is made up of women, it seems incomprehensible that we are so badly represented at the top.

It is tricky in the case of creatives, because design success is subjective. We can only guess why more men succeed in this sphere? Perhaps, by not being a women, they somehow have a better, or at least, more objective (not to mention, commercial) understanding of what we want? The jury is still out on that one.

In managerial and board positions though, facts are facts. Pleasingly, fashion does have a marginally healthier number of female leaders than other industries (25 v 19 per cent), but considering a 2014 report by the Anita Borg Institute, which found that 'Fortune 500 companies with three or more female directors saw at least a 66 per cent greater return on invested capital, and at least 42 per cent greater sales', its a hard pill to swallow.

These statistics make up an investigative piece by the Business of Fashion. It is worth noting that LVMH is a minority investor in the BoF, but nevertheless, the feature provides a fairly balanced progress report on EllesVMH.

‘EllesVMH began with an exhibition to celebrate women employees, staged on International Women’s Day, and has since evolved into a multipronged programme to ensure high potential women advance to senior leadership positions. As the scheme progressed, LVMH focused on its brands, or maisons, and set a clear target: 40 percent of those on brand executive committees should be women by 2015 (in 2010, it was 26 percent).'

Chantal Gaemperlé, executive vice president of human resources and synergies, told the BoF, how they do it: 'We organise local, cross-maison development events such as speed networking with senior executives, lunches with female presidents and workshops on specific topics. In China last year 135 female managers participated in a forum on female leadership with panellists of presidents. The four areas that the women’s coaching focused on were: ambition — openly expressing career goals and pursuing them; work-life balance — including family demands; self marketing — building networks to promote herself with influential others; and geographical exposure — managing international mobility for herself — and, if relevant, for dual career couples.'

Five years on and there are some improvements. Today, 38 per cent of executive committee members in the Group's brands are now women, up from 26 per cent in 2010. But of the 12 members on the LVMH executive committee, Gaemperlé is the only woman. It's a depressing statistic; but the seeds of change have been planted. Wouldn't you rather join a company that has this kind of a scheme in place than one that ignores the facts altogether?

Sexual discrimination and unequal representation at leadership level remains a woeful subject that will take many years, decades even, to change. Despite some enduringly depressing numbers, that LVMH has taken steps to bring out such shifts must still be applauded.