The Genteel
April 22, 2021



Every couple of months or so, I find myself reading another article along the lines of "10 successful women in the fashion industry" or "25 women who are making it in fashion." Whatever the tempting tagline may be, I find them to be misleading by implying that being a prosperous woman in the fashion industry is a rarity.

What do the people in the top positions look like? Are they the women who have treated their female colleagues with respect, and thus have made it to the top with integrity? Or are they the leaders of the "bully" pack, taking down other women to get where they need to be?

Step into a fashion school, a buying office, or simply walk into the nearest H&M; who do you see prominently in all these fashion and retail organisations? Women. Yet despite a high female-to-male employee ratio, few women manage to make it to the top.

Women and their Intimate Relationship with Fashion

The relationship between women and fashion is deeply rooted, going back centuries in the West, as genesis fashion theorist Joanne Entwistle described in her book, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. Historically, women were the makers of clothing: women were involved in "the preparation of raw material (spinning, for example), to the sewing and altering of garments in the home, [and] the manufacture of garments."

In addition to being producers, women were the ones purchasing clothing for themselves and their families. Entwistle explained: "shopping was a form of employment most effectively carried out by women; but it was an occupation considered 'unskilled' even though it required time, effort and a good degree of knowledge about commodities and taste." Gradually, she illuminated, both the production and consumption of clothing grew to be perceived as "feminine" activities.

But the historical connection between women and clothing doesn't end there; clothing was also used to indicate a woman's status in society. If a woman was unwed, she used her clothing as a means to demonstrate herself as a "suitable wife." Those who were married also used clothing as a display, but instead of attraction, they used it to communicate the wealth of their husband and family.

The Dynamics of Women Working Together

The historical connection between women and fashion has continued up to present day. In Canada's most recent census report (2006), a staggering 82 per cent of clothing stores were employed by women and 77 per cent of clothing manufacturers were employed by women.

The fallacy is that this predominance of women working in the fashion industry would create a nurturing, warm, and perhaps encouraging environment - characteristics commonly (and stereotypically) attributed to women. But on closer inspection, this premise isn't usually the reality because of female interaction and work dynamics.

Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of TIME magazine. Source:
Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of TIME
magazine. Source:

According to Pat Heim and Susan A. Murphy, co-authors of the contentious book about the relationships between women in the workplace, In the Company of Women: Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each other and How to Stop, there are two types of relationships that can emerge among women; they can "either be truly wonderful or they're quite terrible…there is little in between." When working with women, it is important to be prepared for both positive and negative aspects of this relationship, particularly the negative.

This past February, writer, Pete Evans, wrote an article about the difference in workplace disagreements between men and women. The article, "Office conflicts between women seen as more damaging," discussed results from a recent study at the University of British Columbia which revealed that both men and women perceived "more negative long-term implications from the female-to-female dispute[s] than they saw in the male-male or male-female conflicts."

If women are perceived to hold enduring disagreements, it can seriously damage the interactions one has with others, even before the conflict begins. For instance, women may feel too intimidated to even share opinions, for if they do clash, the side-effects of a resolution are unknown. 

Despite this, The New York Times claimed in "Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work": if women had to choose whom to fight with in the office, they would choose women. To be exact, women will "prefer their own kind…[as targets] more than 70 percent of the time." Writer Mickey Meece explained that these are not just little tiffs, but serious bullying - defined as "verbal or psychological forms of aggressive (hostile) behavior that persists for six months or longer."

The Mobility of Women in the Retail Fashion Industry

If we know that this gender hostility exists between women in the workplace and, by extension, in women-dominant industries such as fashion, what do the people in the top positions look like? Are they the women who have treated their female colleagues with respect, and thus have made it to the top with integrity? Or are they the leaders of the "bully" pack, taking down other women to get where they need to be? Nope. Neither. They're men.

Men are often at the top of this female-filled industry, including CEO of HBC (and now Saks), Richard Baker; President of Holt Renfrew, Mark Derbyshire; and Joshua Schulman, President of Bergdorf Goodman (former CEO of Jimmy Choo). Even for those women who navigate the minefield of female professional relationships, upward mobility continues to be a challenge.

"Working women, know your value," published on in April 2013, discussed this phenomenon. Referencing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's recent book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013), it suggested that it is a woman's innate character that keeps them at the bottom or middle. Specifically, it is because women "can get squeamish about negotiating for money and don't know how to effectively advocate for themselves." If Sandberg is correct, perhaps women need to apply their female-to-female work patterns to their interactions with men in the office - however sparse they may be.

 Hudson's Bay Company's CEO Richard Baker and Vice-Chairman Bonnie Brooks. Source:
 Hudson's Bay Company's CEO Richard Baker
and Vice-Chairman Bonnie Brooks.

"Girl Talk", published in The Economist in April 2013, suggested that if all employees become more "gender intelligent" about the work dynamics of women and men, a change could take place. If others understand female work processes, a growth in preparation, understanding, and consequent satisfaction will follow.

If women understand their own work habits better, they can begin to resolve their weaknesses and develop their strengths. Who knows, maybe this awareness can be the extra push women need in order to go from being the "successful woman" in an overused tagline to the exemplary president of an organisation.

I can (begrudgingly) understand that women may struggle to attain executive positions in male-dominated industries, but in female-dominated ones too? What will it take for women to finally receive all the validation and authority they deserve? We've been working in the fashion industry for centuries; we can handle it.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.