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Five lessons on how women can get ahead in retail

There are only two female chief executives holding the top jobs in Australia’s retail sector, despite women making up at least 57% of the country’s 1.2 million retail workforce.

At a lunch in Melbourne on Friday, the Australian National Retailers Association hosted four prominent female leaders from the retail sector, with an aim to encourage more women to put their hands up for leadership roles.

Their comments come on the back of a report released last week which showed most female directors didn’t seek their roles and were taken by surprise at the offer of their leadership roles.

Speaking at the lunch, the chief executive of Harvey Norman, Katie Page, says there is a perception of retail as a job people do while waiting for another job or while studying, and this fails to highlight the potential a career in retail provides to women.

“We haven’t been good at promoting retail as a career in this country,” says Page.

“It doesn’t just mean standing at a checkout.”

Page says many male retail executives often fall victim to hiring in their own image, despite acknowledging the majority of buying decisions in Australian households were made by women.

“If the majority of shoppers are women, then why are there not more female leaders in retail?”

Page and the other panellists offered these top lessons for women trying to crack the glass ceiling.

1. Do what your staff do

Debbie Poole, general manager of logistics and improvement at Bunnings, says making sure you understand the job you ask your staff to do was a key part of being a leader.

Most women start in retail on the floor, rather than coming in at an upper level of management with a business degree, and Poole says women should use this to their advantage to know what their staff are facing.

Poole, who started out packing grocery shelves, says she was proud of the approach Bunnings took towards listening to the expertise of its employees and pointed to the positives that had come out of the lead the company has taken in employing older workers.

2. Don’t be scared to put yourself in the firing line

Kendra Banks, general manager of Coles Brands and Customer Insights at Coles, says women should put their hand up for the stressful, high profile jobs that put them in the firing line.

“Chances are, the jobs that require the most stress will help develop your career the best,” says Banks.

Banks took on a tough pricing job that saw her face daily pressure when she worked at UK supermarket chain Tesco and says the experience held her in good stead to move up the ranks of the company.

3. Don’t be a perfectionist

Page says a lot of women are haunted by wanting to do the job perfectly, without any mistakes.

“Women are hard taskmasters on themselves,” she says.

She says many women stand back because they are afraid of making a mistake, while men often put themselves forward without the fear of making a mistake.

 “I have made so many mistakes in my career,” says Page.

4. Don’t let criticism get to you

Page says women leaders have to let criticism roll off them like water off a duck’s back.

“There has to be more women that do this, regardless of labels,” says Page.

She says being able to cop disapproval and blame isn’t for everyone, but those women who can ignore the criticism need to make a stand as leaders.

5. Take advantage of all opportunities

Kelly O’Dwyer, MP for Higgins and a past senior adviser to Peter Costello, says women have to grasp all opportunities offered to them with two hands.

“Even if they make you feel uncomfortable,” says O’Dwyer.

She says sometimes women taking on leadership roles will be seen as aggressive, while in a man, it might be seen as ambitious.

“We have to call that sort of thing out,” says O’Dwyer.

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Kirsten Robb

Reporter

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Kirsten Robb is the newest member of the SmartCompany team. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.