Challenging gender norms: How three top women in e-commerce built their brands and careers

From being ignored by male colleagues to fighting feelings of guilt around working long hours, women in e-commerce (and many other industries) often have to navigate the struggles that come with starting a business while simultaneously fighting gender bias.

The National Retail Association, along with online marketing agency dotdigital, held a panel for International Women’s Day to provide advice and expertise for women in e-commerce.

The panel discussion brought together Julie Mathers, founder and chief executive officer of ethical e-commerce retailer Flora and Fauna; Sandradee Makejev, founder and chief executive office of online clothing boutique St. Frock; and Aparna Gray, APAC marketing head for dotdigital.

But what advice did they have for viewers?

Julie Mathers recalled a piece of advice once given to her by a former manager in the 90s, when women in leadership positions were seen as a novelty.

“She said, Julie, to be a leader in this business you have to rule with an iron fist.”

There was a view that you had to fight hard to get to a leadership position, and have a certain type of personality once you get there.

Rejecting the iron fist advice, Mathers instead chose a kinder leadership style.

“There is a view that as a woman leading, you have to lead in a cold and hard way. I do not think that is the case.”

Instead, she says she has one personality and leadership style — her own, defined by openness and transparency.

“That is something that I am proud of. I’ve become a leader that we should have, as opposed to what I’ve been told,” Mathers told the panel.

Leadership was an important point for Sandradee Makejev, too. She credits a leadership coach with turning around her struggles two years ago as she felt she had hit a plateau.

“It was someone I could talk to and bounce ideas off. Speaking to her, I get a perspective of what other leaders go through, making me feel more normal, and giving me the tools to lead better,” Makejev says.

Work-life balance and myths from women in e-commerce

For Makajev, “Everyone is looking for the magic recipe for work/life balance, but it doesn’t exist.”

In the first three years of running her e-commerce business, she did not take a single day off, public holidays aside. Knowing that she was onto something, and since it was what she wanted to do, Makajev says it was a choice made from passion.

As time went on, she hired staff, built a team, and then was able to step back and work more manageable hours.

“At different times of your life you will want to work more or less, and spend time with family and friends.”

For Gray, flexible working has helped to better manage her competing desires to work and spend time with family.

“It’s no easy task to keep a human alive and thriving. It is complicated, with unforeseen circumstances that can come up. It is hard to prepare for life with a baby, and work pressure on top of that is a double whammy,” she says.

The business Gray was formerly working for in London was not capable of helping a first time mother, so she quit, noting it was something she had not done before or since.

“There’s no mould that all women should fit into. If it’s not right, you shouldn’t force it,” Gray says.

Which characteristics are key?

Makejev told the panel that resilience, empathy and being solutions-focused are key to surviving and thriving as women in e-commerce.

Conversely, her biggest pet peeve is people that catastrophise.

“Every day is another day in business. A system could break, someone could resign, someone could fall ill. It is a problem that needs to be solved. We sit down, collaborate, and discuss,” she says.

“You have to love what you do. You have to really love it and enjoy it. There will be times when you want to give up, when it is crushing, and hard, and takes every ounce of your being to turn up. You need the resilience for that.”

Mathers shared a couple of anecdotes on the resilience required as a woman in e-commerce, when feeling both overlooked and undermined.

“I went to a meeting once where I was completely ignored for the entire meeting. It was a man and me. I was the GM. I should have said something, but I didn’t at the time,” she says.

One more egregious example occurred when Mathers entered a meeting room full of men and was greeted with “oh great, she’s here to bring the coffee”.

“It was said in jest, but it completely undermined me. They weren’t trying to be hurtful, they said it because ‘it’s a joke’.”

Setting up the future of women in e-commerce

Understanding gender equality starts at home, and it is important to break down gender stereotypes at an early age, says Gray.

“I am an Indian woman who has had the opportunity to leave India, study in America, and be a working leader in my industry. I am lucky to have this opportunity and have family to back me up.

“My father encouraged me to leave home, be independent, follow a career, and build my own life before getting married. This is not the case for many women and girls,” she says.

For Mathers, setting up future leaders means coaching and mentoring people in your company today.

“They do not need to be structured sessions, it can be just a quick phone call. It’s important to make ourselves available wherever we can,” says Mathers.



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