By Liz O’Donnell (Boston)
“The need for the network is real,” says Alison Paul, head of the Network for Executive Women (NEW), in her President’s Message posted on the organization’s website. NEW is the largest diversity group in the retail and consumer packaged good (CPG) industries. The group has approximately 2,000 members representing more than 400 companies, 15 regional groups, and 53 corporate sponsors. Their mission is clear: to attract, retain and advance women in the retail and consumer products industry through education, leadership and business development.
Paul, who is also a principal at Deloitte & Touche, LLC, where she manages strategic relationships with retailers and consumer goods companies, has been involved with NEW almost since the beginning. The organization started in a living room and was officially formed in 2001. “Women were leaving the industry for more female-friendly companies or they were starting their own businesses,” says Paul.
To combat the exodus of women, a small group got together and approached the power structure –the men at the top—for support and financing. They received seed money from Coca Cola and Proctor and Gamble and NEW began.
According to Paul, the need to retain women was more than a diversity issue. “It is a talent issue,” she says. It is expensive for companies to recruit and train women only to have them leave when they should be at peak performance.”
There is another business issue at play as well. As we have reported, women represent approximately 85 percent of the consumer buying power in the U.S. However, less than 20 percent of industry executives were women at the time NEW started.
What is needed says Paul, are the things that are inherently learned from mentors and informal networks. “Women need to learn the unwritten rules of success,” she says. “It’s a long process. We’re fighting a lot of history.”
According to Paul, women tend to think if they work hard and keep their heads down, they will be rewarded. “They need to learn how to toot their own horns and in which circles they should do that,” she says. “Pop Warner and Little League allows for a lot more of that.”
The other thing needed to change the industry for women, and for men too, is flexibility. “The working environment of today is based on a 1950’s model. One person goes to work and one stays home to keep things running smoothly,” says Paul.
When NEW was formed Paul says they weren’t just losing women to not wanting to work all together. They were losing women who thought, “I don’t want to leave the work force, but I can’t manage this model.”
“Sometimes you need to be able to dial-down and not be dinged for it,” says Paul.
In recent years, NEW has expanded beyond just women to a broader diversity focus. As Paul states on NEW’s website, “People of color, especially women, are similarly underrepresented in the ranks of decision-makers. Meanwhile, the industry is confronted by a shrinking pool of skilled talent, a changing workforce, global competition, and increasingly diverse markets.”
In November the organization released a report entitled “Multicultural Workforces: Managing and Maximizing America’s Rich Mosaic” based on feedback from conference it held on the same topic. It offers best practices for recruiting, retaining and managing a diverse workforce.
Paul says that since NEW was founded they have seen some progress in the industry, although they primarily track their data anecdotally.
One of the best compliments Paul has received is from colleagues who tell her they hope her daughter turns out like her — successful in business.
“The tragedy is you can still list the female CEOs on one hand,” she says.
Based on new data from Catalyst, progress is slow but may be tracking slightly ahead of the average. A report published this month on Women in the U.S. Retail Trade shows that women account for 3.1 percent of CEOs, 19.1 percent of board directors, 18.5 percent of corporate officers, and 49.1 percent of the industry labor force. In the Fortune 500, just 15.2 percent of board seats, and 15.7 percent of corporate officers positions are held by women.