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Bras and BB cream: Why aren’t brands for women run by them?

In lingerie and beauty, a large part of the diversity battle is being fought on the highest ground: the C-suite.
Danielle Ternes/Retail Dive

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a package on diversity. You can find the rest of the stories here.

L Brands’ executives Andrew Meslow and Stuart Burgdoerfer on the retailer’s second quarter conference call referred to its customers as “she” or “her” over 10 times. And for good reason: The company operates beauty business Bath & Body Works and lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret, both of which skew heavily toward a female customer.

Yet, nearly all of L Brands’ top leadership is male. In late September, the company’s top brand leadership included just one woman: Amy Hauk, CEO of Victoria’s Secret’s Pink. The CEOs of Victoria’s Secret Lingerie, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret Beauty, the international business and the new company set to contain Victoria’s Secret are all men.

In general, retail’s executive ranks remain dominated by men, but in spaces like lingerie and beauty, pressure has begun to build around companies that create products for women and remain run by men. Abby Morgan, co-founder and chief marketing officer of DTC bra brand Cuup, created her company partly for that reason.

In her mind, she said, traditional brands weren’t providing what women wanted anymore. They were pushing up, when women wanted to embrace their natural shape. There was a design gap between what brands were offering and what new models like the bralette promised — a bra that functioned as much as a statement accessory as it did a supportive undergarment.

Describing her a-ha moment, Morgan talked about finding out she was a size 30E — something she “didn’t know existed” — and having only one purchasing option in her size as a result.

“It had molded cups and lace wrapped around, and it was in a band-aid nude color,” Morgan said. “And I bought it because it fit me and it was the most comfortable thing I had, but it was something that I didn’t really want to be seen topless in and so that was kind of an unlock.”

Startups have cropped up in both lingerie and beauty to take advantage of the disconnect between traditional brands and their consumers, with Marla Beck’s Bluemercury being arguably one of the first beauty challengers, but few large retailers are run by women. Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon, who has successfully run the major beauty retailer (previously led by interim CEO Dennis Eck, and Carl Rubin before him) since 2013, is a notable exception in the realm of sectors selling products for women that are run by men. Dillon’s high profile role may be a sign of change on the horizon.

“Investors are going to demand it. Boards are going to demand it. I think I see it as inevitable,” Bluemercury CEO and co-founder Beck said of women taking over leadership in the beauty space in an interview earlier this year. “The feminization of leadership at companies will come. It will come in beauty companies before other industries.”

Already, companies are recognizing the need for more diverse leadership, not only to appease customers that are dissatisfied with not seeing themselves represented in leadership, but also because it makes good business sense. In a May report from McKinsey & Company, the firm found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams outperformed those in the fourth quartile, with a 25% higher likelihood of above-average profitability.

Racial diversity, too, bolsters businesses, with the top quartile outperforming the fourth by 36% in terms of profitability. In fact, McKinsey found that racial diversity is more likely to create outperformance than gender diversity, but both provide a strong business case for diversifying leadership.

“The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability,” the report said, noting that the relationship between diversity and financial outperformance has gotten stronger over time. Still, laggards remain. Over a third of the companies McKinsey tracked for the report have no women on their executive teams.

While gender diversity is a topic that goes far beyond just the representation of women, given the difficulty of ascertaining if executives identify as non-binary or as a member of the LGBT community, this piece is centered specifically around the representation of women at these companies.

Karen Dahms, a research director for Diversity Best Practices, noted that at the least, retailers are beginning to pay more attention to who is buying their products and ensuring their workforce mirrors that, even if it’s only because it’s better for business.

“Fortunately there is a business case,” Dahms said. “Unfortunately we have to make the business case sometimes.”

Why men have stayed at the top of a women’s world

“I can go on this topic forever. It’s bull----,” Morgan said, pointing to Les Wexner’s rule at Victoria’s Secret, as well as men that run several other major players in the space. “That’s why the market is still in my opinion operating with a 50-year-old man mindset. And my issue with this is when men control a female-focused industry, it translates into a fundamental misalignment ... of what the actual product functions as and feels — the comfortability of it, the matronly look as you get to bigger sizes — there is an absolute fundamental misalignment if you cannot wear the product and actually translate that back into the design of these things.”

Looking at the reasons for why women have been held back over the years, there’s a variety of factors that play into it. At a base level, women are often pushed onto career paths that do not end up leading to the CEO spot. Specifically, roles that are not tied to the company’s income.

Lauren Bitar, head of insights at RetailNext, also noted that while many companies set quotas for the percent of underrepresented groups they should have in their organization, they don’t consider where in the company those quotas are being met.

“What you end up seeing in a lot of places is that women will more than likely end up being in more support roles versus the line roles,” Bitar said, meaning they’re less likely to make it to the CEO spot eventually. “You’re technically meeting your overall quotas, but not really level by level.”

In some jobs in retail, women are over-indexed. For example: as sales workers, and office and clerical workers, according to Retail Dive’s analysis of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Andy Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, likewise said that 73% of employees in apparel retail are women, but that doesn’t mean they’re reaching the top ranks.

“These organizations understand that representation on the ground level is important … but that might not be reflected up at the C-suite,” Challenger said.

Many beauty and lingerie brands are run by men

The top executive at each brand or retailer for the past 10 years
Key:
Men
Women
Both
Retailer
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016
2017
2018
2019
2020
AdoreMe
Morgan Hermand-Waiche
Aerie
Jennifer Foyle
Estée Lauder
Fabrizio Freda
L’Oreal
Jean-Paul Agon
Sally Beauty
Gary Winterhalter
Christian Brickman
Sephora Americas
David Suliteanu
Calvin McDonald
Jean-André Rougeot
Soma
Laurie Van Brunt
Mary van Praag
Third Love
Heidi Zak & David Spector
Ulta
Carl Rubin
Dennis Eck
Mary Dillon
Victoria’s Secret
Sharen Turney
Jan Singer
John Mehas
Wacoal Americas
Bob Vitale
Mitch Kauffman
TOTALS
Men
5
7
7
7
7
7
7
7
7
8
8
Women
3
3
3
5
5
5
5
5
5
4
4
Nami Sumida/Retail Dive

Indeed, of 11 beauty and lingerie retailers Retail Dive looked at going back to 2010, just three are currently run by women, while one — Third Love — has one male and one female co-CEO. In some instances, the lead role of one division will report to another leader, often a man.

For example, while the top role at Aerie has been held by a woman, Jennifer Foyle, since 2010, the top role at parent American Eagle has been held by a man for the same time period. Both the lead role at Sephora Americas and the CEO of Sephora overall have been held by men since 2010. Chico’s Soma brand has also been consistently led by women, but the company overall had a male CEO through 2015.

What makes it especially hard for women is that there are societal problems that factor in as well. Women are already more likely to end up in certain fields of work, but on top of that, their career progression is held back by societal expectations around women being the caretaker of the family, especially when it comes to childcare, sources said. Though Bitar noted that organizations can still help alter these societal factors by offering more paternity leave and childcare benefits, among other things.

“Losing, even if it’s just one promotion, over the course of a career because of extra childcare duties that fall on women in our society: That one promotion can be the difference between a really high ranking executive and somebody in the C-suite,” Challenger noted.

Women also differ behaviorally from men in the workplace. According to Catherine Lepard, managing partner of the global retail practice at Heidrick & Struggles, women are motivated by different things than men, and traditionally metrics for promotion have not always catered to women’s strengths. Likewise, women are less likely to aggressively pursue promotions, and may not even apply for some jobs if they don’t meet every requirement, which can also hurt their chances of progressing.

“I think we like to be endorsed by our sponsor, told we’re ready for it,” Lepard said, and “really have almost already performed in that type of role, proving that we’re ready for it as opposed to feel comfortable and confident stepping into a role with a learning curve.”

This isn’t to say that beauty and lingerie companies have no women in them at all. Sephora’s U.S. business is 82% women, while 92% of associates at Ulta are women, and Calvin Klein-owner PVH has 67% women in its total workforce. Beck even pointed to several senior positions in beauty filled by women, including Carol Hamilton and Jane Lauder.

But businesses vary in what statistics they are willing to share on the subject of employee diversity. Of 26 top women’s underwear and beauty brands Retail Dive reached out to, 12 either declined comment altogether, did not respond to comment requests or did not provide any statistics. PVH, Hanes, Glossier, Estée Lauder, Ulta and Coty were the only companies that provided diversity statistics in full.

Nearly half of beauty and lingerie companies did not provide employee diversity statistics

Top retailers’ responses to requests for information about diversity at different levels of the company
Retailer % people of color % women
Nami Sumida/Retail Dive

“I think at some point, women will run every major Fortune 500 company in the industry,” Beck said of beauty, adding that companies are making paths for women to get to leadership roles. “I actually think it’s one of the best industries to be in for leadership opportunities.”

While Bluemercury declined to comment on its diversity statistics, Beck told Retail Dive at the beginning of the year that the company was 93% women and that the entire senior management team was made up of women.

Bitar agrees that women are prevalent in the beauty space, but noted that the C-suite still seems to be tough for women to break into.

“I certainly see women at the VP level all the time, but there still does seem to be this weird glass ceiling,” Bitar said. She also pointed to retail’s tendency to keep male CEOs and top executives in rotation, like Calvin McDonald, who left the top spot at Sephora Americas to lead Lululemon.

In the future, that means there’s likely to be a lot of opportunity once this generation of leaders retires, but in the meantime, it means slow progress for diversity.

“What are you going to do, start firing your board because you have to replace them with other people?” Bitar said. “It has to be a long-term plan.”

‘We’re not thinking of seduction’

Even with the acknowledgement that C-suite spots might require a longer runway before meaningfully increasing the number of women, there are some ways in which women are already taking back these spaces. The number of well-known startups in each space is one indication that some simply aren’t satisfied with the pace of change at traditional players.

“That’s why you see so many female founders of new ventures because they actually don’t want to wait to make it to the top,” Beck said. “They don’t want to work their way up, they just want to do it now, and sometimes the way to achieve what you want is to go out on your own and just make it happen on your own. That’s certainly what I did 20 years ago. I always wanted to lead a company, to be CEO. And I think I realized 20 years ago, the only way I was going to be able to do that was if I created the role myself.”

Beck noted that there are many more female-focused funds now for entrepreneurs looking to raise capital in retail, which is another step in the right direction for women trying to start their own businesses. Still, there’s work to be done on breaking down barriers on that front as well.

“Who’s getting those opportunities? Who is getting the initial injections of cash and investors?” Bitar said. “We know that there’s an issue with that, and women and other minorities face incredible bias in getting VC funding.”

For her part, Beck has made an effort at Bluemercury to champion other female founders, both by offering advice and mentoring, and by increasing the number of women-founded brands Bluemercury sells. In 2019, Beck said the company added close to 30 brands, with the majority being founded by women.

Startups in the lingerie space have also cropped up, from Michelle Cordeiro Grant’s Lively to Third Love, Adore Me and Cuup, spurred to create companies that offer a different experience from the Victoria’s Secrets of the world.

“When it’s created and marketed from a male perspective, it’s still marketed from a very sexual perspective,” Cuup’s Morgan said of the lingerie space. “But when we as women put on bras every day, we’re not thinking of seduction.”

Rather, Morgan sees Cuup as “redefining sensuality for the woman,” making the experience of putting on a bra more about self-confidence and appreciation than performance. Victoria’s Secret has long been criticized for a sexualized, narrow representation of women.

As a result, its challengers have embraced diversity. Diversity and inclusion has been a pillar of Cuup all along, according to Morgan, and feeds into how the brand thinks about casting in its marketing — from age, body size and race to spiritual background and upbringing — and also how it thinks about its customer more broadly. Morgan describes Cuup’s target customer as “anybody who emotionally connects to the brand and wears a bra.”

“I think that’s a big change in marketing,” Morgan said. “I think it’s kind of like the way a Coca-Cola would do it. It’s anybody who wants to drink Coke. You can be a 20-year-old or you can be like a 65-year-old man and I think that is a really, really big point.”

Both Morgan and Beck emphasized the importance of having female perspectives in leadership in order to empathize with the consumer. For Morgan, it means knowing what women are looking for in a bra, how they feel when they put one on and what they’re not getting from traditional players in the market. For Beck, it’s about understanding women at all stages of their beauty journey and the factors that are weighing on them, from a teenager trying to get rid of acne to a woman going through menopause.

“Consumers want to feel like the brands really represent them,” Bitar said. “And I think that they’re getting more and more turned off if they think that it doesn’t. Like, ‘Oh, you say that you’re all for women, but you’re some old White dude who is making these clothes for me and they don’t fit.’”

Traditional brands aren’t the only ones that have been called to task by consumers and critics. Some DTC disruptors in categories focused on women have also come under fire for not practicing what they preach. Third Love pitches itself as a female-focused brand, but a Vox report on the company in 2019 focused on employee complaints around the company’s male co-CEO, David Spector, who employees reportedly described as “condescending” and “bullying.”

Adore Me, likewise a DTC brand in the space, describes itself as “Designed By Women, for Women” on its website, but it was founded and is run to this day by a man: Morgan Hermand-Waiche. Crunchbase also lists two other male co-founders, Gary Bravard and Romain Liot, who are both still at the company as chief business officer and chief operating officer, respectively. Even Cuup, which only has three men in its company (up from one three months ago), has a male CEO and co-founder.

Morgan sees the pairing as complementary at Cuup, since it allows her to focus on the design and marketing of the product, and CEO Kearnon O’Molony to be solely focused on the numbers and the operations side of the business.

“Cuup wouldn’t have been created if it wasn’t for my co-founder, Kearnon,” Morgan said, adding that they have different skillsets and she values his objective perspective. “He kind of creates a platform where it’s like, ‘Okay, well I need to raise the money to make sure you guys can do what you want to do.’ I think it’s actually been pretty invaluable.”

It’s a reminder, too, that the solution is not to demand there be no men in the C-suite of an organization, even one geared predominantly toward women. It’s also not fair to paint all men with the same brush, and claim that they don’t understand the female customer, according to Lepard.

“I would say that there are probably certain male executives out there who really embody that understanding of the female consumer and today’s consumer, which is a passion for health and wellness and doing good and sustainability and best practices,” Lepard said. “I don’t think that we should task all men with not sharing those values. I think that would be a mistake.”

The future of change

Outside of just beauty and lingerie, women are making headway when it comes to the top spot. This year, Challenger’s firm saw its highest number of female CEOs since they began tracking the number; it’s increased to around 23%, but that is roughly double what it was ten years ago. In retail specifically, appointments of the past couple of years have tipped the industry to a much more progressive spot in terms of female CEOs.

Michelle Gass at Kohl’s, Jill Soltau at J.C. Penney and Sonya Syngal at Gap, are a few of the women heading up major retailers today. Lepard also pointed to Corie Barry at Best Buy, “a very traditionally male-dominated category,” as an example of retail moving toward a greater representation of women in executive ranks.

While sectors like beauty and lingerie gain more attention for the hypocrisy of being run by men, there are plenty of other areas in retail that are still male dominated and theoretically shouldn’t be. Challenger singled out car dealerships and automotive parts sellers as one area that is less than 20% women, but is geared at both men and women, considering consumers of all genders own cars.

Focusing solely on the total percentage of women at these companies also risks ignoring the progress of women of color, specifically.

“Multicultural women in particular are still significantly underrepresented among the ranks of retail managers and executives and over-represented in frontline roles, which are typically the roles with the least stability and lowest pay,” according to Diversity Best Practices’ Dahms.

Ella Washington, CEO of diversity and inclusion strategy firm Ellavate Solutions, and a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, believes some companies may be focused on women alone because executives are more comfortable in the conversation around women than race.

“Many executives that I work with will immediately say, ‘I’m not as comfortable talking about diversity when we talk about race,’ ‘I’m not as comfortable with talking about diversity in the LGBTQ+ community,’” Washington said. “And so because of that lack of comfort, organizations often rest on their laurels and say, ‘Oh, we have close to 50% women in our organization’ and kind of stop there, and they really need to be pushing the needle and thinking about intersectionality, because none of us are just one thing. None of us are just one facet of diversity.”

So far, the path to greater leadership diversity in these spaces has been left, at least in part, to the startups. But a complicating factor has become the acquisition of those startups by their larger, less diverse peers. Lively, founded by former Victoria’s Secret exec Michelle Cordeiro Grant, was acquired by Wacoal for $85 million in August of last year, and plenty of other digital natives’ acquisitions have raised concerns from the core customer base about what life will be like with a different owner.

“I think the reality is there’s a lot of the startup companies that have been acquired by larger companies that, soon after acquisition and the founders have met their bio goals, they’re gone, and the company already looks very different,” Lepard said. “The culture looks very different. It doesn’t feel perhaps as attractive to the digitally native talent that was just acquired and there’s quite a lot of churn and churn. I think we’ve all seen that movie a gazillion times.”

Lepard is hopeful, though, that more companies are recognizing that approach does not work, and making an effort to meet their acquisitions in the middle for a more symbiotic relationship. Grant herself told Retail Dive at the time of the acquisition that Wacoal held similar values to Lively, which was one of the reasons the deal made sense.

Morgan thinks it is more likely, in the current moment at least, that DTC brands are getting acquired because traditional companies have truly recognized they need to change.

“The larger conglomerate realizes that they are losing market share and that they’re becoming irrelevant and that they need a new brand with new leadership that is culturally relevant and gets the space to kind of take over their old brand,” Morgan said. She added that hopefully the DTC brand would be able to tap into the larger company’s resources and help guide innovation for the larger company as well. “It would be silly of Wacoal, who is losing market share and can’t figure out how to have a brand that connects with an audience past a department store, to acquire a direct-to-consumer brand that owns that relationship with their consumers and feels culturally relevant — to close that down would just harm their deal. It wouldn’t make sense.”

Asked how much the diversity of startups matters if the diversity of dominant companies like Victoria’s Secret doesn’t change, Morgan still backs the startups.

“I don’t know if you’ll exist in 10 years,” Morgan said of companies with heavily male senior leadership teams. “It is a massive, fundamental misalignment and if they don’t change it, there are a lot of people who are creating more superior products and marketing them better because they’re doing it right and they’ve got women represented in their senior leadership.”

Methodology

Retail Dive’s analysis in this series focuses on representation gaps for people of color and women and is rooted in available data.

Throughout this package, when discussing multiple underrepresented racial groups, including Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Hawaiian employees, as well as employees of two or more races, as one group, we use the terms people or employees of color. We also use the term underrepresented groups to refer to not just people of color, but other minority groups in the workplace, including women. However, not all organizations and sources use the above terms. As a result, some quotes and information provided by sources or companies may use different terms in this piece.

In tracking the leaders of several beauty and lingerie retailers and brands over the years, Retail Dive used a combination of SEC filings, company websites and company press releases. Not all the executives tracked here are CEOs, some simply hold the highest position we were able to identify for that brand. For example, for American Eagle-owned Aerie, we list Jennifer Foyle, who is the chief creative officer for AEO and Aerie’s Global Brand President.

We determined the gender of executives through the honorifics and pronouns the company used to refer to the specific employee, either in press releases, company bios or SEC filings.

For those brands that fall under parent companies, we use the top executive recorded in the company’s SEC filings for the specific brand. If the company had not yet been founded, or information on who led the company in a given year was not widely available, the year was left blank.

In our analysis of individual companies’ employee diversity statistics, we asked all retailers included for the same six statistics: the percent of people of color and the percent of women at the leadership, board and employee levels respectively. Terminology and level of detail vary depending on the retailer’s response, and occasionally based on what country the retailer is headquartered in and local laws governing data collection.

We chose the retailer responses to include in this piece based on which retailers analyst firms identified as some of the top in the beauty and lingerie spaces, and also which retailers and brands Retail Dive found relevant.