Men and women in fashion

by Hanim Dogan-Jain

Have you noticed that the most famous top designers, brands and CEO’s like Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Bernard Arnault are all men? So, where are all the women in fashion? Do women have the same opportunities as men when climbing the ladder in the fashion industry? Is there equality in salaries and promotions? Can you easily combine a successful career whilst having a family too? We are living in the 21st century and still talking about basic human rights?

The fashion industry is like a pyramid. On the bottom of triangle, women fill the ranks in the fashion business as sales assistants, buyers, merchandisers and models. Then in the middle of the pyramid, men start appearing. Filling positions as middle managers of brands and retail organisations. Getting to the top, we really have to search hard to find a woman.Having lived and worked in many countries around the world, the position of women in the fashion industry has many different faces. I will share with you my own experiences and observations. Funnily enough, some very obvious situations are not that obvious.

The Western world versus the rest of the world for example. I grew up in a Western society, the Netherlands but have roots in an Asian country, Turkey. So, from an early age on I was able to observe the cultural differences in families, societies, schools and in businesses. A culture of a country can be very liberal and democratic but on the work floor this culture can look completely different.

In Turkey, there is still a huge gap in inequality and opportunities for working women but when it comes to the top positions, it suddenly gives us a whole new perspective. Turkey had the highest percentage of female chairpersons; women occupy 11.1% of the country’s chairman roles.(* 2015) In the years when I worked at “de Bijenkorf”, the luxury chain department stores in Holland, the pyramid structure was definitely in place. In stores as well as at the head office, making it to the top as a woman was not easy. Making it to the top as an “immigrant” woman was even more difficult.

Yes, the Dutch are very easy going, informal, open and direct. In business they are pretty straightforward which can feel intimidating if you are not used to it. Being in a top position as a woman can be sometimes intimidating for men as well.

Once upon a time in my early years, my boss, an older experienced gentleman, gave me feedback during a performance review. He told me I was doing a good job but I only had to behave more vulnerable towards my team. The majority of my team members were men. I had to show my emotions by being more delicate. At the time, I actually felt slightly insulted. I thought just because I am a woman he used these words. He would have never used the same words to a man. Why does he treat me differently? Why am I judged about my behaviour and emotions instead of evaluating my work results?

I don’t remember exactly I replied to him but I am sure my reply was not what I actually had in my head. Now looking back at it, I wish I were more experienced and mature enough to ask him these questions. Of course, I was too scared to talk about my real thoughts since I knew that to reach the top I needed to work harder than the men and not make a fuss about any inequalities.

Years later, I had another interesting encounter at C&A, one of the biggest fashion retail companies in Europe. My manager – a man (again) who worked all his life for the Brennikmeyer family who owns C&A. He was old school, control freak and had his own way of doing business. Having me in his team was not an easy job I figured out. I was young, ambitious and had given up a very lucrative life in IT to follow her passion. Nothing would stand in my way or stop me from reaching my dreams. Not even this manager. I worked very hard, had brilliant new ideas and was confrontational. His way of disapproving my “female” ambition was to give me a very bad performance review and lay an official complaint about me to the director. He was determined to have me kicked out of the company because I did not fit his “woman” profile as a colleague. It really got to me. I could not understand how I got myself in this situation. I started to blame myself. Like most women do. I became insecure and felt betrayed by the company who headhunted me to accept this job. Nobody backed me up. I was in a lower position again a middle manager guy so who would care about me? Well someone did! It was a “she…” my dear female director and board member! She probably saw me struggling and maybe saw some potential in me for the future. Thanks to her support, I was transferred to a different department and got even a more fun job to do. I am so grateful up until today as she really saved my career and my life. I am where I am today because of what she showed me that time. She gave back my confidence. The rest is history.

As I am not the only one with these kinds of stories, I have started a global foundation called “Women in Fashion”. Guess what, the lady who helped me years ago, is now my co-founder.

  • Our vision is a world in which women have the opportunity, support and resources to thrive as entrepreneurs and professionals in the fashion industry.
  • Women in Fashion exists to break the “glass runway “ in the fashion industry by supporting and empowering.
  • Women in Fashion exists to promote the full and equal participation of women at every level in the fashion industry.
  • We are dedicated to achieving gender equality and to eliminating barriers to give opportunity for women in the fashion industry.
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