BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The food industry needs to improve its record of advancing women in the workplace, a move that should be driven not by fear of lawsuits, but by promise of better return on investment, according to a retailer/supplier panel here.
The panel, which included executives from Ahold and PepsiCo, said companies that promote women aren't just doing the right thing; they will also likely become victors in the battle to retain talent and fully understand shoppers.
"What manager would say, 'I'll only concentrate on a small percentage of my customers'?" asked Bill Grize, president and chief executive officer, Ahold USA. Nevertheless, Grize added, the same managers who recognize that women are the majority of their shoppers might not be investing in hiring and promoting women in the workplace. "When a manager who can choose from 1,000 people only considers a small piece of the talent pool, it's just dumb," he said.
Kimberly Betts, director of communications, Ahold USA, stressed that women in a retailer or supplier organization provide invaluable insights into female customers. "You merchandise to women, and do market research on what these shoppers want," said Betts, who is also president of the Network of Executive Women. "But, the intelligence is already there in your companies. Tap it. Sometimes, the most obvious solutions can get overlooked."
Carla Cooper, senior vice president of PepsiCo's Quaker, Tropicana and Gatorade sales operation, said advancement of women will only succeed at food companies that actively stress that agenda. "It starts at the top with the board and CEO," she said.
She noted that PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Steve Reinemund is building on the company's earlier commitment to this cause by holding top managers accountable for success with workplace diversity and by forming affinity groups to support women, minorities and other employee groups.
In a presentation prior to the panel, Margaret Heffernan, a Fast Company columnist who is an expert on how work changes people's lives, said a few food retailers, including Albertsons, Ahold and Tesco, have excelled in their efforts to advance women employees. However, she said the food industry generally lags behind other industries in this regard. Although the food industry has a larger percentage of women in the workforce than the Fortune 500 companies overall, it has a lower percentage of female managers, top earners and board members compared to the broader group of industries.
"The food industry as a whole is behind the curve" in the advancement of women, she said.
Heffernan stressed that women in management bring invaluable insights to companies. "If you listen to women you'll hear, 'Why do I get rewards for shopping at bookstores, but not at the supermarkets where I shop every day?' Or, 'Why don't I know if I trust this food?'
"You can get these women on your team, and they'll build you a business that understands the customer."
She stressed the need for inclusion because "groups of people make better decisions than individuals, but only when the group is truly diverse. When you hire women and let them be women, they bring a lot to the team."
Betts cited gains in membership and influence of the NEW organization, whose stated mission is to "attract, retain and advance women in the retail and consumer products industry through education, leadership and business development." She said NEW has enabled her to build her personal network of women, who can help her solve all kinds of challenges.
"I can seek out support by calling someone outside of my retail organization and saying, 'What do you think of this solution that I want to do at work?' These kinds of connections help women."
Grize said the topic of advancing women is part of the larger subject of doing right by the people of an organization. "This is a people issue," he said. "We all talk about asset management. The most valuable asset any company possesses is human or intellectual capital. We spend a great majority of time talking about issues like quality of perishables, service, variety, etc. But we only spend 3 or 4% of the time focusing on people. But that topic can influence all of the other ones."
Betts said a lot of top industry leaders understand the benefits of advancing women, but "as you go down deeper into organizations, the message often gets stuck."
Cooper said old attitudes associate female advancement with excessive risk. "Why aren't women being put in positions to call the shots?" she asked. "I hear managers say, 'We'd be taking too much of a risk on her.' They worry that a female will fail. We must ask if it is really so risky."
Heffernan said women need greater representation on company boards of directors, but urged firms to avoid the practice of having only one woman on a board.
"If you are the only one on the board pushing for diversity, than you won't be taken seriously on other issues," she said.