Female leaders in the retail industry: bridging the gender gap

Karen McCandless talks to Tracy Issel, general manager of Worldwide Retail, Consumer Goods, Hospitality and Travel at Microsoft, to find out why there is still a lack of female executives in the industry and what can be done to change this

Karen McCandless
Karen McCandless
By Karen McCandless on 29 August 2014
Female leaders in the retail industry: bridging the gender gap

Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list features only five executives from the retail industry. In fact, according to research firm Catalyst, there is a general lack of women on boards across the globe. So why aren’t there more top executives in the industry?

Tell me about your background and how you got to where you are today.
Tracy Issel: After university, my first ‘real’ job was with a technology company that sold software to automobile dealers. In 1996, I elected to enrich my sales and marketing skills by learning more technology; the easiest way to do that was take a role at a technology training company where I could get my certifications and become an instructor, which was where Microsoft found me in April 1999. Since then, I’ve held a variety of positions, including head of financial services in the US, and leader of enterprise solutions and industry strategy, worldwide. I took over as head of the WW Retail business in September 2011. Since then, we have added Hospitality and Travel plus Consumer Goods to my portfolio. Today, I essentially run the commercial business between Microsoft and the top 500 businesses in these high consumer touch industries.

Have you faced any challenges in your career related to the fact that you are a woman?
I suppose I have faced opportunities, some in the guise of a challenge. Certainly, it was always a great motivator to do something great when people said I couldn’t do it because I was a woman or no other woman had ever done that. That is far less prevalent in corporate America and at Microsoft I’ve never experienced or observed any challenges related to gender beyond those that we, as women, place on ourselves related to balancing home, family, community and work. If by challenges we mean, are there sufficient female role models in powerful positions, I would say no! I see it all the time; when I’m at meetings with clients I’m often the only women in the room and, while I don’t feel it impacts me personally, it does affect young women who are looking for role models.

What women have inspired or encouraged you throughout your career?
Early in my career at Microsoft, I worked with Susan Hauser who was running the financial services organisation out of New York. She was an awesome coach. Then there was Gail Evans who was the first female executive vice president at CNN. I learned so much from watching her engage and inspire other women. I invited Gail to speak at a women’s group in Charlotte, North Carolina and she told us if we wanted to have a female president then we would have one because we represent more than half of the voting population. She said we needed to stop giving up our power and make decisions about what we really want. That was like a lightning bolt in the room. From that day forward, I really looked for women I could hire in my personal life – for my attorney, accountant, cleaners, tutors for my son. You name it, if there was a great woman who owned her own business, I made it my goal to find her and hire her. It is certainly not only corporate America who can do more. Every woman can do more.

And what women do you think should be held up as good examples of retail leaders?
Watching Meg Whitman (now HP CEO) when she was CEO at eBay was inspirational. They remain among the most innovative retailers. I greatly admire Marnette Perry, chief strategist and head of retail operations at Kroger. She is brilliant and generous – a great leader. I think Rosalind Brewer is amazing. Most wouldn’t think of Sam’s Club as a place of great innovation, but she has led a customer-first transformation that is exciting to see. And while not technically retail, any list of examples is not complete without Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi.

Why do you think that there is still a lack of women in top positions in retail?
I honestly don’t know. Great companies always work to hire diverse employees in order to mirror the markets they serve. Given women’s tremendous purchase power, one would intuitively think our industry would have a much higher percentage of women in executive roles. There are certainly many meetings with clients where I am the only female in the room. That startles me. There also don’t seem to be the same initiatives to encourage the advancement of women in retail compared to other industries. As an example, I was often asked to speak to women’s groups in financial services when I worked in that business.

Do you think the situation is improving?
Yes, but I would have expected by now that the pace of change would be faster.

What initiatives does your company run to encourage more women to go for top positions?
At Microsoft, there are a few different programmes that focus on issues of interest to women, and help with career development, networking and mentoring. The Microsoft Academy for College Hires programme recruits from top universities with an emphasis on not only the best candidates, but also the underrepresented minority population, including women. Then there is the Women at Microsoft Employee Resource Group, which implements corporate diversity initiatives and encourages employee development. This year Microsoft also introduced the Big Dream Movement, which is a new effort to involve more girls in science and technology. Microsoft Research also supports the International Women’s Hackathon, which provides a fun and safe environment to explore computing, and supports university women globally to become producers of future innovations in technology. Finally, the company has a good number of female executives, including our CFO Amy Hood, head of HR Lisa Brummel, president of Microsoft Canada Janet Kennedy and Laura Ipsen, who leads the public sector division.

Whose responsibility is it overall to ensure that there are enough women in top positions in retail?
It starts with us as women; we always have to be the best person for the role through advancing our skills, getting experience and just being at the table. And women should be helping each other, beginning with those who are already in leadership positions, whether it’s through formal mentoring or making sure project teams are balanced. In retail, we should take a page from other industries, such as financial services, that have actively focused on recruiting women to top positions and ensuring they have the right environment that will help them thrive in their career. I believe the companies who develop, hire and retain women, particularly in the senior ranks, will be the most successful in the long and short term. More women in top positions is just good business!

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