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What Women Want: Empowering Female Leaders

Gender diversity in senior positions is an important step to eradicating discrimination.

May 8, 2019 2:18 AM   By Deborah Yonick
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RAPAPORT... The movie What Women Want was on to something when it came out nearly 20 years ago. In it, a hotshot playboy and advertising executive wakes up from an accident with the ability to read women’s minds. At first, he sees this as a curse, but his female psychiatrist convinces him that his gift could help his career: “If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and you can speak Venusian, the world can be yours.”

This romantic comedy comes to mind as the jewelry industry grapples with how to get women to buy fine jewelry the way they buy handbags and shoes. “Women will think nothing of dropping $1,200 on a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, but not on a pair of diamond stud earrings,” says Victoria McKay, founder and managing director of the UK-based Women’s Jewellery Network (WJN). “We’re finding it hard to keep sales buoyant against other luxury products.”

But the jewelry trade is still led predominantly by men, and sadly, they can’t read our minds. McKay finds the lack of women in senior management to be a huge problem for the industry. “I’m not saying men shouldn’t be a part of the conversation, but women need to be a bigger part of it than they are now. We need more women in leadership [positions] who represent the people who buy the jewelry.”

While there’s limited data on the issues women face in the jewelry workplace, research by the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) suggests that they account for only about 30% of board positions. When industry legal consultant Cecilia Gardner asked CEOs of trade groups why they thought there were so few women on boards, the resounding answer was that they couldn’t find any. So Gardner, who is working with the WJA on its Gender Equality Project to improve gender parity in the trade, is trying to make it easier to do so.

“We are literally building a roster of women interested in serving, and providing the names to nominating committees of boards in our industry,” she says.

In addition to the need for greater advancement opportunities and representation, the industry is still behind when it comes to equal pay, stresses McKay. While the average gender pay gap declined 1.9% to 23% among 11 of the UK’s largest jewelry groups last year, seven of those companies actually showed a greater discrepancy than in 2017, according to an April article in Professional Jeweller.

“It’s been 100 years since women got the right to vote, and we’re still arguing over issues like the gender pay gap, when a woman has to work harder than a man to attain what she’s got,” laments McKay.

Perception is not reality

Despite these figures, the prevailing perception among employers is that there are plenty of women in leadership roles, and that problems such as pay disparity, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and hostile work environments are not an issue in the trade. That’s what emerged from an independent survey that MVI Marketing conducted last fall for the Gender Equality Project, reports Gardner.

Employees painted a different picture in the study, but said that over 50% of the time, they felt uncomfortable reporting discriminatory incidents, citing concerns of retaliation or an impact on their future employment.

McKay, meanwhile, points to a number of issues women face in the workplace that she says will be everyone’s problem in the future, such as childcare support and flexible work hours. “Millennials, the biggest consumer block, are different than the Boomers, as they share things like childcare responsibilities and have a gender-neutral view. Men are just as likely to be impacted by barriers to this as women. We need [measures for] these things in place to benefit the workforce.”

Many states have extremely worker-friendly policies, including New York and California, where a lot of the industry is based, notes Tiffany Stevens, president and CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC). “If someone is facing harassment, whether by a boss, coworker, or even a client or vendor, chances are they’re protected. California and New York also have instituted laws around parental leave, lactation and increased harassment protection, so whether as an employee or employer, it’s worth brushing up on those rules.”

Engendering support

“Part of the problem has been a lack of willingness by some women to acknowledge that these issues exist,” says McKay, who believes it’s incumbent on female business leaders to pay it forward and enable other women to walk in behind them.

While the WJA has provided mentorship initiatives for members over the years, the association wants to be more proactive. Phyllis Bergman, who headed Mercury Ring Corp. for 32 years and is a management consultant, agrees, stressing the need for a deliberate effort “to support women at all levels of the industry in their professional development.” While she admits that she has personally perceived things as better than the WJA survey suggests, she can still recall a time when women weren’t even invited to the 24K Club, a jewelry networking group in New York (she became its first woman president in 2003). “With each woman uplifted in leadership, it gets easier for the next,” she says.

Often, women can be their own barriers to success by not recognizing their value, says Ayelet Lerner, director of Lerner Diamonds. She cites the trouble she had starting a WJA chapter in Antwerp. “It was difficult to get a group of women together here. Women here are not used to being invited and considered in business. Women have to change that mind-set. Part of the challenge is getting women to acknowledge their own self-worth.”

While there are more than 1,600 diamond offices in Antwerp, very few of them are run by women, continues Lerner. She believes the situation is worse in wholesale than in retail. “In Antwerp, it’s heavily male-dominated. Just look at pictures from industry events, and you will get a clear picture of the landscape.”

She is inspired by female role models like her mother, Joy Lerner, who was one of the first women trading diamonds at the Antwerp bourse. “Everyone knew my mom as a fierce and passionate diamond buyer. When she had to become a member of the bourse, and this was back in the mid-’80s, she demanded a women’s toilet, as there was none.”

Lerner is also a fan of McKay and what she’s doing with WJN. Indeed, the group is expanding internationally, recently announcing 45 new women ambassadors from seven countries.

Community is a strong part of McKay’s vision for the WJN. “Women have friends for different things,” she says. “Friends to cry on, go shopping with, volunteer, and advocate. We want to emulate that philosophy in how we organize. By country, regionally, creating networks within networks.”

#MeToo is real

Of the eight gender-based discrimination issues addressed in last fall’s survey by MVI Marketing and the WJA, a significant number had to do with unwanted sexual advances and hostile work environments.

Among employee respondents, 25% of women said they had experienced gender-based negative activity, notes Cecilia Gardner of the Gender Equality Project. “The biggest number of complaints had to do with sexual harassment at trade shows and events.”

Although employees aren’t the only ones who face sexual harassment, they tend to encounter it more often: 58% of employers who had an experience had just one, while nearly half of the female employees who cited harassment had five or more, underscoring the role of power dynamics.

“Having spoken and written about this topic over the last few years, even before #MeToo broke, I’ve been privy to more harassment stories than I’d care to share,” relates Barbara Palumbo, a jewelry writer from Atlanta, Georgia. “Many women in our industry have shared their experiences with me, mostly privately, because they felt they had someone they could trust. I shared my own story of a retailer sticking his hand between my legs and a wholesaler suggesting I take my clothes off. Many of the women who suffered similar atrocities no longer felt alone.”

One problem, she says, is that “many of these men still think women are being too sensitive, or they just don’t understand what harassment is.” To wit, a number of men have responded to her by saying they’re afraid to shake a woman’s hand anymore — to which Palumbo replies: “If a guy doesn’t know the difference between shaking a woman’s hand and sticking his hand in her private area, then yeah…we still have a ways to go.”

Women also can be part of the problem, she adds. “There are some women who think of these issues as ‘boys being boys,’ and that doesn’t help anybody. There are others who, because things like this never happened to them, can’t understand why women are talking about it publicly. The lack of empathy and compassion by those of even our own gender hasn’t helped, nor has the argument that the women who do come forward could be lying. Statistically, there’s a far greater percentage of women who are honest about the harassment or assault that has happened to them, and an even larger percentage of those who don’t report it for fear of what they’ll be subject to. This was a problem years ago, it’s a problem now, and it likely won’t be solved any time soon, but at least it’s finally being talked about.”

The Gender Equality Project is looking into developing a bystander-intervention training program, says WJA executive director Bernadette Mack. The idea is to provide both men and women with techniques that can interrupt behaviors to prevent sexual harassment and assault.

If a person finds themselves in a questionable situation at work, no matter their position, they should start keeping a written record of when and how things are happening, advises the JVC’s Tiffany Stevens. “This applies if you are an employee facing harassment or if you are an employer noticing questionable actions by an employee and are beginning to make a case for termination.”

One thing that troubled Gardner in the WJA survey results was the large number of small companies that had no policies at all. “If you, as a company head, address issues when there are no issues, it creates a positive atmosphere, making problems less likely,” she says. “Lawsuits related to sexual harassment are expensive and kill company morale, and seven out of 10 employee suits win.”

Stevens stresses the importance of having “an up-to-date employment manual to set expectations with employees, [which] can also protect you if something goes wrong. There are certainly federal employment laws, and also many at the state, local and city level, so we encourage jewelers to become aware of all the regulations they need to comply with.”

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of Rapaport Magazine.

Image: The May cover of Rapaport Magazine.
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Tags: Deborah Yonick, diversity, female leaders, Rapaport Magazine, women
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