At the start of this year, a slew of major retailers were searching for the right person to fill their chief executive roles. Most of those companies have now found that person — and in almost every case it was a man.
In recent months, major retailers like Gap, Stitch Fix, Victoria’s Secret, Kohl’s, the Vitamin Shoppe and the RealReal have appointed men to chief executive positions previously held by women. Others like Macy’s, VF Corp (which owns the North Face and Timberland) and the Italian denim brand Diesel replaced men with men at the top.
And then there’s Bed Bath & Beyond. Sue Gove was chief executive of the home-goods retailer before it filed for bankruptcy in April. The company has since been revived by Overstock.com, which bought the bankrupt retailer’s intellectual property and assumed its name. This month, Overstock’s top executive, Jonathan Johnson, became chief executive of Bed Bath & Beyond.
In general, it is rare for a female chief executive to be succeeded by another woman regardless of the industry, according to an analysis by Catalyst, which works with hundreds of companies to advance the careers of women.
“It reminds me of the Barbie movie,” said Kimberly Lee Minor, who is the chief executive of the consulting firm Bumbershoot and has been working in the retail industry for 30 years. “We live in this society where women control the majority of consumer spending. They make the decisions and yet we still haven’t moved forward and we have to go into this cycle.”
While the number of female chief executives had been trending upward in recent years, nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by men. Of the 86 retail companies in the Fortune 1000, 13 had a woman as chief executive as of July 2023, down slightly from the year before, according to the executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. Retail executives have long been quick to note that purchases are largely driven by women, who make most of the spending decisions for their households. The majority of the industry’s entry-level work force is also female. Seventy-two percent of cashiers are women, and about half of retail salespersons are women, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The underrepresentation of women in retail C-suite roles “is more pronounced because it’s building off of a female base, which should generate theoretically through the ranks more executive leadership,” said Kathy Gersch, the chief commercial officer at Kotter International, which helps large companies train potential leaders. “But we’re not seeing some of that happen.”
One of the reasons many companies are turning to men may be explained by the economic tension retailers are feeling in 2023. In times of uncertainty, companies become more risk averse and seek executives who have the financial expertise and proven track records at previous companies, according to academics and people who work at executive search firms. That tends to perpetuate previous hiring decisions and lead to companies seeking those with experience leading a turnaround.
While the U.S. economy has avoided a recession that many feared could come in the first half of 2023, there are still a lot of difficulties for retailers to navigate. Companies are adjusting to a base of consumers who are not readily spending as they were in the early stages of the pandemic, when people collectively had more savings. Clothing retailers and their shareholders are feeling the squeeze as shoppers respond to stubborn inflation by pulling back on purchases of discretionary items. Despite progress made during the pandemic, the industry is still contending with the reality of e-commerce, the changing role of stores and the challenges and opportunities presented by artificial intelligence.
“Gender representation and just overall diversity representation is here to stay, certainly at any consumer company and definitely at any retailer,” said Catherine Lepard, who leads executive searches for retail firms at Heidrick & Struggles. “However, what we have seen in 2023 — because so many retailers have found this to be a very difficult year — is that the first priority is just to make sure they’ve got the right athlete in the job, regardless of any other factors, to get the job done, to make sure that there is still going to be a company going in 2024 and a sustainable future for all of the employees and stakeholders.”
Christy Glass, a professor of sociology at Utah State University who has been studying gender and racial representation within corporate America for 16 years, said she was not surprised by the current hiring trend. Her research has shown that women are often appointed to chief executive roles when a company is looking to show a bold strategy in the face of a precarious financial situation, a concept often referred to as the glass cliff. This tracks with Ms. Gove’s appointment at Bed Bath & Beyond and the hiring of Sonia Syngal as the chief executive of Gap Inc. in March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was coming into full view. (Ms. Syngal left the company in July 2022, and Gap recently hired Richard Dickson as chief executive.)
The more hiring of men to chief executive roles could be seen as the “savior effect,” said Ms. Glass, who is working on a forthcoming study about executive dismissals.
“I think during a crisis, the glass cliff would claim that the logic there is, ‘let’s show shareholders, let’s show the public, let’s show stakeholders, we’re going to go in a bold new direction,’ and part of signaling that bold new direction is appointing a woman C.E.O.,” Ms. Glass said. “Whereas then the savior effect is a way of saying, ‘OK, we tried that. We’re going to kind of go back to the status quo: safe and steady to navigate through this crisis.’”
There are reasons for optimism, however. Lorraine Hariton, chief executive of Catalyst, noted that the percentage of women running Fortune 500 companies had doubled in the past five years (rising to 10.4 percent from 4.8 percent).
Rosalind Brewer took over the top spot at Walgreens and Stephanie Linnartz did the same at Under Armour in the last couple of years. Michelle Gass left her chief executive position at Kohl’s in November to become the president at Levi’s, and the company said she would assume the chief executive role within 18 months of starting, once Chip Bergh steps down. On Tuesday, Adrienne Lazarus became president of the clothing brand Madewell, reporting to Libby Wadle, the chief executive of J. Crew Group.
And with the retail industry facing even more disruption, more companies may look outside the industry to poach top talent who can bring different skills. That could give female executives more paths to a C-suite job.
“The old formulas don’t work,” Ms. Hariton said. “In the situation where there’s a lot of turmoil in the organization, that’s when they look outside and that’s when you can open up to a broader set of talent, and more women have opportunities in that case, in my opinion.”