The famous fashion brands that underpay women

What the UK data highlights, as reported by the New York Times, is that several big names in the fashion industry are among some of the nation’s worst offenders, despite employing an overwhelming majority of women.

Names as big as Victoria’s Secret (19 per cent, based on median hourly pay rates), Benefit Cosmetics (31 per cent) and Burberry (26 per cent) all came in for criticism by the Times, the latter singled out in spite of its 70 per cent female workforce.

Cara Delevingne walks in the London Fashion Week show for Burberry, which reported a significant gender pay gap among its British workforce.

Cara Delevingne walks in the London Fashion Week show for Burberry, which reported a significant gender pay gap among its British workforce.

Photo: AP

Mid-market brand Karen Millen pays women about half of what it pays men on a median hourly basis, despite women making up 84 per cent of the company’s top positions, with a female CEO and CFO. And while the same proportion of men and women received bonuses, women’s median bonus pay was 96 per cent lower than men’s. Ninety-six per cent!

The company defended its record on gender diversity, saying that the majority of its retail assistants and distribution centre staff were women, and that the small percentage of male employees worked mostly in its head office.

“Our gender gap paints a misleading picture about our commitment to gender diversity and equality,” the company said, adding that when head office roles were excluded, the gender pay gap dropped to 6 per cent.

So based on a more lowly-ranked, mostly female, proportion of workers, the gender pay gap was much smaller. Bravo.

While the fashion and beauty industries should be commended for employing so many women, it must be asked why these same companies can’t get their houses in order when it comes to pay? (Several of the companies that reported, including Burberry, pledged to do more to promote women to senior ranks.)

Even Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour and GQ, reported the largest mean gender pay gap among all British media publishers and broadcasters, despite having more women than men at every pay level.

Shoppers could vote with their feet if gender pay gaps are not addressed at major fashion and beauty companies.

Shoppers could vote with their feet if gender pay gaps are not addressed at major fashion and beauty companies.

Photo: Bloomberg

The company reported a mean gender pay gap of 36.9 per cent (that is, when comparing mean hourly rates, women earn 63 pence ($1.15) for every £1 ($1.82) men earn), and a median gap of 23 per cent (when comparing median hourly rates, women earn 77 pence ($1.40) for every £1 that men earn).

In Australia, the situation is not much better. Although the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency is not legally allowed to publish wage data from individual companies like in the UK, some of its industry sector data paints a sobering  part of the picture.

Female full-time workers in clothing and accessories retail face a 27 per cent gender pay gap, despite making up 79 per cent of the workforce. And while the gap for workers in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals retail industry has narrowed – from 39 per cent in 2014 to 23 per cent in 2017 – there’s still a way to go.

According to the Times, some UK companies explained the gap as “a coterie of men in a handful of top-tier executive roles, while the majority of entry-level, retail, design and distribution centre jobs are held by women, creating a gendered, pyramid employment structure reflected across sectors in the fashion industry”.

Travel, such as attending fashion weeks, can be a challenge for women in the industry who are raising children, so they are sometimes forced to pass on senior roles.

Travel, such as attending fashion weeks, can be a challenge for women in the industry who are raising children, so they are sometimes forced to pass on senior roles.

Photo: EPA

In 2018, are we really going to buy the “It’s not our fault the women don’t take the top jobs” line?

We know women are discriminated against when they leave – and return – from having families, even in so-called family-friendly industries such as fashion and beauty. One woman I know was recently made redundant from her role at a major retailer while she was maternity leave, while I’ve heard of countless other cases of women in so-called “soft” roles being first to go when trouble strikes.

Women in fashion, a global business, are often burdened with the dual – and competing – demands of family and travel. And not every woman has the luxury of nannies or the ability to take their children with them, so they are often forced to forego those higher-paying jobs.

But back to the hip-pocket. We are becoming more accustomed to shopping according to our values, be they the environment, workers’ rights, animal rights, or a combination.

Let’s add gender pay to the mix and demand companies make tangible strides to bridge the gap. Maybe hold off buying that Burberry scarf, or those Victoria’s Secret knickers until we see change. My only hesitation in calling for a boycott of these brands is if a fall in sales leads to job cuts, it’s often the women at the bottom who suffer first, and suffer most.

Melissa Singer

Melissa Singer is Fairfax Media’s Deputy Lifestyle Editor and fashion columnist.

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