Analysis: Why appointing female CEOs isn’t enough for supermarket gender equality

In a time of ‘first-ever female CEOs’ and increased gender diversity across supermarket boards and seniority, at first glance the question of workplace inclusion appears resolved.

The past couple of months have seen women climb the ranks in the sector’s corporate sphere with the Co-op appointing its first-ever female CEO in the group’s 159-year history as Shirine Khoury-Haq prepares to replace Steve Murrells.

Morrisons has also recently appointed a female CFO, Joanna Goff, who is set replace Michael Gleeson, while Marks & Spencer is set to replace CEO Steve Rowe with co-CEOs including Katie Bickerstaffe.

But do the effects of this corporate gender visibility trickle down to all women in the grocery industry? And is enacting top-down feminist policy really enough to ensure diversity inclusion on the shop floor and along supply chain lines?

READ MORE: Co-op appoints first-ever female CEO

Women in supermarket supply chains

Last week, Oxfam released a report revealing the supermarket sector’s poor treatment of women along supply chains, with companies producing little evidence of adherence to UN goals, policy support and economic empowerment for women in the Global South.

The charity’s annual supermarket scorecard, which analyses European supermarket’s policies and practises on human rights in their supply chain, follows four categories: transparency, workers, famers and women.

Scoring the lowest in the women category was Asda at 5%, which the retailer explains as a “transition period” between Walmart’s responsible sourcing programme (who owned Asda until June 2021)  to their own standalone programme.

“The [score] is not a reflection of our ongoing commitment to protecting the rights and treatment of the people who work within our supply chain,” clarified an Asda spokesperson.

“We have spoken regularly with Oxfam in recent months to update them on our plans and we are grateful for their feedback which is helping shape our Responsible Sourcing programme going forward.”

Morrisons (24%), Sainsbury’s (48%), Aldi (40%) and Lidl (48%) all scored the lowest in the women category compared to other sections.

However, Tesco earned the highest overall score of 61%, with the highest women’s score of 76%.

The Big 4 grocer was the only UK supermarket to have senior leadership speak publicly to address the root causes of gender inequality and challenge its own operations.

According to Oxfam’s data, Tesco was also the only major UK supermarket to use multi-stakeholder initiatives which address the position of women covering six high risk food supply chains, with at least one addressing the buying practises linked to outcomes of women.

Not a single supermarket offered incentives to suppliers that demonstrated continuous improvement in gender equality or challenged the “root causes” of inequality, such as violence against women or unpaid care responsibilities.

READ MORE: Asda ranks bottom of Oxfam supermarket ethical scorecard

Women on supermarket shop floors

However, gender inequality doesn’t start and end along supply chains.

Last month, the Trades Union Congress published a report revealing that Black, minority and ethnic (BME) women were twice as likely to be on zero-hour contracts compared to white men.

The union called out that intersecting identities of gender and race posed a “structural” issue in retail, highlighting that non-white women were overrepresented on zero-hour contracts by 4.3% compared to white men at 3%.

Zero-hour contracts “makes it hard for workers to plan their lives,” the TUC explained, as the employer has “total control over the workers’ hours and earning power”.

On top of this, shop floor employees – who are predominantly women – have also called for equal pay with distribution centre workers – who are mostly men.

An Asda spokesperson has dismissed this, claiming “retail and distribution are separate and distinct market sectors and the demands of jobs in stores and depots are very different. We pay colleagues the market rate in each sector regardless of gender.”

However, a supreme court ruling in March 2021 claimed that shop floor workers could be compared to workers in distribution centres. The Co-op agreed to a “comparability concession” in a step to recognising different roles of equal value.

If supermarkets are as adamant to close their gender pay gaps as they say they are, could they take a bottom-up approach; lifting shop worker pay in-line with distribution centres, rather than appointing women into senior positions.

READ MORE: Asda criticised for offering female staff lower pay rise than males

Does female leadership mean gender equality?

There is a clear disconnect between supermarket leadership and the initiatives to support predominantly non-white women producers and shop-floor workers.

While senior members and those on the board have the agency to use stakeholder initiatives and supplier incentivisation to publicly address said issues – they have chosen not to.

Additionally, racism and sexism has been baked into the industry’s structure, with little evidence of trying to distribute fair contractual agreements or advocate for equal pay across different areas.

When we see more women in supermarkets populate senior positions previously held by men, we should also be wary that sprinkling in diversity top-down doesn’t equate to structural gender equality.

Improving gender and racial equality, which are inherently intertwined, means recognising that initiatives should go beyond women’s representation to women’s rights right across the industry; from farms and factories to the shop floor and beyond.

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