Katherine Rich: Supporting women in FMCG

10 August 2016 

Back in the “olden days”, as my children refer to the 80’s, the government ran a major public campaign to encourage young women to broaden their work horizons and think about different careers. The slogan was “Girls Can Do Anything”, which might sound a bit twee in today’s world, but I remember that at the time it was an empowering message to many of my generation. We heard the message and started to think beyond traditional female jobs.

Our Commerce intake at Otago University was the first year where the number of male and female students was in equal numbers. When the multi-nationals rolled into town with bigger graduate programmes than there are today, again record numbers of young women were recruited into FMCG companies. And that’s about the last time I recall hearing about diversity. From there on, the vocational pipeline started to shed women’s participation, for many reasons, decade by decade.

Fast forward 25 years, and I look around and the number of women who continued on to positions of leadership are small. In FMCG, women leaders are scarce.

But rather than dwell on the poor numbers, I believe it’s more important to focus on how we can work hard to support younger women to stay in the industry – to help plug “the leaking pipeline” that PWC referred to in their 2007 report about women’s participation in leadership.

Despite being a few years old, the report’s findings are still valuable today. For example, most of the women leaders interviewed for the report said they attributed some of the success in advancing their careers to having a mentor somewhere along their career journey who took “a personal ongoing interest in her advancement, and provided her with the right developmental opportunities at the right time”. I’m not at all surprised by this. Having a senior leader take an interest and provide career encouragement can make all the difference between continuing on or dialing back, particularly during challenging times such as combining motherhood and work. 

I’m convinced there is more that the Food and Grocery Council can do to support members in this area, so a couple of months ago I invited a group of women grocery leaders (including retail) to hear world-renowned feminist Gloria Steinem reflect on her life and her latest book. Those in our group that night agreed we would do more to support the careers of younger women coming through the industry.

As a result, our first step is to hold a seminar on diversity, and I encourage anyone reading this to help get the word out. Attendees will hear some inspiring words from grocery leaders such as Veronique Cremades of Nestle, Amanda Banfield of Mondelez, Alison Barrass of Griffins, and Shannon Kelly and Chris Quin of Foodstuffs North Island. The event is in Auckland on August 23, and is in conjunction with Foodstuffs North Island and the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association. We are also very thankful to ASB and L’Oreal who are sponsoring the event. If you’re interested in attending then please contact us at FGC.

This is our first event, and we are thinking about boosting our mentoring scheme and adding further activities to inspire more women to reach for the top roles.

Of course there’s no quick fix and there’s huge variation in what women executives might be aspiring to – that is, not every woman wants to be a CEO. But, as Gloria Steinem has said, “whatever each individual woman is facing – only she knows her biggest challenge”. That’s why, as we work to provide greater encouragement to keep going, we need to be mindful that there’s no single strategy designed to encourage more women to aim for senior leadership roles.

(As published in FMCG Business magazine)