Corporate America is looking for women. In retail and fashion, two industries powered by female spending, businesses are actively seeking female leaders to narrow gender gaps on corporate boards, in C-suites and on senior management teams.

In executive search, we’ve continued to see this trend grow as clients increasingly cite that they would “love to see a woman in the role” for CEO, president, and vice president positions. This demand has led to an increase in hiring, with female executives comprising nearly 70 percent of our placements in the last two years.

Yet while companies are hiring more women, many don’t seem to understand what women want. The data shows concerning trends in the areas of retention and pipeline, despite recent gains. Female executives in retail and consumer goods exit four times more often than men (26.9 percent vs. 7.3 percent), prompting some researchers to project an overall decline of female executives by more than 50 percent in the next decade. At present, only 12.5 percent of Fortune 1000 fashion companies are helmed by female CEOs.

The business case for gender diversity at the leadership level is clear, as is the solution for reducing attrition and accelerating the closure of the gap. To achieve a long-term increase in female representation, organizations must be willing to rethink male-centric practices and create environments that are inclusive to their target demographic. Here’s what they want:

‘Omni-Life’ Flexibility

Companies seeking to increase their female workforce must acknowledge that domestic responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women. These professionals want to be trusted to self-manage their time and the balancing of their myriad duties as they see fit.

Many companies tout flexibility but fail to attract or retain women because they’re lacking in one or both of the following areas:

  1. Policies: Companies take a case-by-case, “flexibility is earned” approach that creates disparities or doesn’t allow for earned flexibility to transfer from one employer to another.
  2. Culture: Companies have flexible work policies in place, but they’re ineffective due to a cultural mind-set that values hours in the office over performance.

Women want to work in companies where both policies and culture support them as a whole person, not an employee. It’s so vital that some candidates place flexibility above compensation when deciding to take a new role.

Companies that embrace this modern approach should leverage it as a key differentiator during the recruitment process. Companies that fall short in this area should take steps to address these culture and/or policy barriers that deter female executives.

Step-Up Opportunities

Experience requirements often work against hiring women. Companies shouldn’t “lower standards” to increase gender diversity, but it’s worth considering the math.

Take Fortune 500 CEOs, for example. A board seeking to hire an experienced, sitting CEO has 500 candidates to choose from. If they also want that person to be a female, the candidate pool drops to 33. If they want that person to come from retail, there are only seven options left. Add racial diversity into the equation and one candidate remains.

Companies that lead in gender parity examine a broader talent pool and proactively seek to elevate female executives into first-time opportunities — a highly effective recruiting tool for attracting the best talent. Those seeking to increase diversity in senior management roles should consider candidates’ “must haves” holistically and focus more on track record and capability than the last title or company on a resume. The question shouldn’t be, “What have they done?” it should be, “What can they do?”

Culture On the Table

Holding just 11.5 percent of the top executive roles in S&P 1500 companies, women are more likely than men to encounter gender-based culture clash. This stimulates a heightened desire to know what they’re signing up for before signing on the dotted line.

To avoid turnover and boost belonging, companies should put their whole culture on the table when recruiting female executives. Are big decisions often made on the golf course? Are 60-hour work weeks the norm? These factors may be deal breakers or they might not. The key is to call this information out and enable candidates to decide for themselves whether they’re likely to fit.

It’s also critical to ensure that female executives get to talk to other female executives during the interview process. This creates a sense of authenticity and provides candidates with a fair and balanced view of what it’s really like to work at the company in consideration.

Pay for the Job, Not the Person

When hiring, the best practice is to establish a compensation range based on the value of the job to the company, not on the perceived cost of the candidate in consideration. This may seem obvious — 18 states and 16 municipalities have salary history bans that mandate it — yet the reality is that many companies still make decisions based on historical compensation.

With earning trajectories established long before “gender parity” was a household term, many female executives want to know how much a job pays up front. It’s more important to them than it is to men.

Companies that offer a transparent, set compensation range regardless of historical pay immediately differentiate themselves from the many corporations where the gender pay gap persists.


Hiring and promoting female leaders is a start, but it’s not enough to move the needle. To achieve long-term success, organizations must address policies and cultural practices that work against their stated goals of achieving diverse and equitable workplaces.

Debra Schwartzfarb is a vice president at Kirk Palmer and Associates, an executive search firm with a focus on senior-level roles in retail, direct-to-consumer and wholesale. Reach Debra at