UK retail sector makes rapid progress on diversity

The proportion of women at board room or executive level in UK retail businesses has risen to more than two in five, according to a report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

A study by research firm The MBS Group and the BRC for a ‘Diversity and Inclusion in UK Retail’ report found 43% of board-level leaders are women, up from one third in 2021 when the report was first published.

The percentage of ethnic minority leaders on boards has almost tripled from 4.5% to 12% over the same period.

However, while the report suggests significant progress on diversity, this is not uniform across the sector. More than one third of retailers (35%) have an all-white board and more than half have no ethnic diversity on their executive committees.

It notes diversity and inclusion (D&I) “sits high on many shareholder agendas” but concludes it “is not sufficiently prioritised by some investors or owners” and argues: “Inclusion remains the ‘nut to crack’.”

The report suggests social mobility and disability “need much greater focus”, and an analysis of ‘inclusion sentiment’ among employees in retail workplaces found this to be “generally low, particularly regarding recognition and overall feelings of happiness”.

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Employees who chose to describe their sexual orientation as ‘other’ or ‘prefer not to say’, and those from Black/African/Caribbean backgrounds reported the lowest levels of feeling ‘included’ at work.

The report also warns of risk “some businesses may take their eye off the D&I ball” in the current economic environment.

The BRC said its annual study of diversity in UK retail by gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, social mobility and age aims “to drive change in the industry by tracking progress” and “identify what more needs to be done”.

It urged employers to “continue to drive forward the initiatives that have been working to improve diversity thus far and look at . . . other people initiatives that ensure more employees feel included”.

The BRC suggests a strong sense of inclusion at work “will increase employee engagement and productivity, and reduce employee turnover and sickness absences, and ultimately leads to more successful businesses”.

The report’s findings were based on a survey of the UK’s 200 biggest retail businesses together with a survey of 12,000 retail employees.

The study found 98% of retailers have a co-ordinated diversity and inclusion strategy in place, two thirds (67%) now include social mobility in these strategies, up from 20% in 2021 and 67% could identify at least one senior leader from the LGBTQ+ community compared with 27% in 2021.

However, it found a lack of ‘disabled role models’, with only 11% of respondents able to report one in their business.

More than 90 retailers have signed up to the BRC’s D&I Charter launched alongside the first edition of the report.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson hailed “the strides retailers have made to improve diversity especially at a time when D&I could easily have been relegated to the sidelines”.

But she said: “The progress on diversity will only be meaningful and effective when it happens in tandem with a workforce where every employee feels happy and included.

“There needs to be greater focus on initiatives to change workplace culture to ensure we see this shift on inclusion.”

The MBS Group managing partner Elliott Goldstein noted: “We’ve seen real progress since 2021. More than half of all direct reports into the executive committee in retail today are women.

“However, retailers must continue to drive initiatives to ensure diversity and commit to building work environments that are truly inclusive.”

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