Men dominate senior management levels in the c-store sector, where a gender imbalance means businesses are losing out on valuable skills and insight. C-Store looks at what’s preventing women from climbing the career ladder, and what can be done to encourage equality

Imagine a world where most of your customers are women, where most of the decisions about what goes into a shopping basket are made by women (HIM CTP 2017), and most of those serving on the shopfloor are women. But that world is one where business is run predominantly by men. Welcome to the c-store sector in 2018.

In the retail sector just 10% of executive teams are female, despite the fact that women account for about 60% of its workforce, a recent study by Women In Retail, a community of retail leaders and business owners, and Fujitsu reveals. Last year just 28% of board positions in FTSE 100 companies were occupied by women, according to a government-backed review.

One of the handful of women operating at the top level in the c-store sector is Spar UK managing director Debbie Robinson. “The under representation of women in the food and drink sector in particular is quite incredible,” she says. “Post the recent recession it’s been as difficult as any time and I think that we have actually lost some ground. There are fewer women now than before 2008.”

Debbie Robinson

“We are instinctive managers. We are used to juggling and managing many tasks at once. We manage the house, the family, our finances and our careers, and do it more naturally. It makes us more progressive and quicker at picking up trends.”

Debbie Robinson, Spar md

Why there are so few women at the top is an important question, says Robinson, given that “not only are most females workers but most shoppers are too, and that retail is also an incredibly rewarding and flexible career choice”. She adds: “Not only do women do the shopping and control the purse strings, they also make most of the purchasing decisions.”

Linda Williams, co-owner of the award-winning Broadway Convenience Store in Edinburgh, agrees. “It’s about time that this subject was properly and publicly explored,” she says. “The number of women in senior positions in the convenience industry is shockingly low, and it’s a great shame.”

Flexible working

So why the shortfall? Our talks with key figures from the convenience industry’s small, yet strong, pool of leading female lights have identified a number of barriers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, childcare and the challenges associated with it, tops the list.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the biggest factor responsible is childcare, or the difficulty accessing it,” says Linda. “A great many of my female staff are part-time simply because of childcare issues and sadly this does limit their promotion prospects as they can only work a limited number of hours and you can’t really train someone to management level on that time frame.

“I was fortunate that I was working in my own family business and I had my mother-in -law to help with childcare. I did what I could while she watched them for a few hours. It wasn’t always easy, though.”

Donna Mullan, who runs two Spar stores in County Armagh with her husband Stephen, agrees that managing family life can be a major challenge. “We have two convenience stores and three children aged 13, 10 and seven, so work and family life can be difficult to juggle at times,” she says.

Chloé Chambraud, Business in the Community gender research and policy manager, also agrees that women taking career breaks and working part-time because of childcare responsibilities are factors preventing them climbing higher up the career ladder.

“This has a ripple effect not only on their salaries and pensions, but on their career opportunities. In our Project 28-40 survey, more than half of women with children said they felt they were no longer given interesting or stretching work,” she says. “Besides, a recent report also found that women are still shouldering the bulk of housework and childcare, spending three times longer on household chores as men,” she adds.

Linda Williams

“Most women are guilty of underestimating themselves. The fact is that they are more than capable. In many husband and wife retailing teams that I know, it’s the women who do the donkey work, while men are the face of the business. ”

Linda Williams, Premier Broadway, Edinburgh

Robinson would like to see the issue of childcare addressed. “In my experience some of the problems are about childcare. Childcare isn’t always flexible enough and you can only be as flexible as your childcare arrangements. So we need to see some improvement there,” she asserts. “Part-time workers should also be valued. Another key thing is that somehow you are less committed [if you work part time] - you need to see the value all individuals can bring.

A more equal split of childcare could help, she believes. “I think the recent debate about paternity leave is an interesting one because, of course, unless there is equality, women are never going to have an equal representation in the workforce,” Robinson says.But removing the stigma of taking a career break, and creating equality in the home, could also go a long way in removing barriers to promotion. Says Robinson: “My son is 30 and my daughter 25. I have worked full time having had only minimum maternity leave with both children. For my son I had six weeks off in total. I’m not proud of that, but I did feel it was absolutely necessary in that I would have lost pace in my career if I had taken longer,” she says.

“What may be sometimes perceived to be positive discrimination in terms of maternity leave being greater than paternity, I think we should have equality there and men should be encouraged to divide responsibilities in the care of families,” she adds.

Many fathers are on board with this, too. According to the 2017 Modern Families Index, almost half of working fathers want to work less and devote this time to their families, while 38% said they would take a pay cut for a better work-life balance. For millennial men, these figures are even higher. However, according to Business in the Community’s Chambraud, fathers are twice as likely as women to have flexible working requests turned down.

“And where policies do exist, the fear of being perceived as less committed means that new dads choose not to use them,” she says. “This culture needs to change if companies want to retain their top talent - men and women - such as by showcasing senior role models who are working flexibly and/or taking shared parental leave (SPL).

Chambraud adds: “Supporting fathers to spend more time at home is an effective way to tackle pay and bonus gaps. This paternal engagement will free up women’s time and allow them to invest in their careers. However, currently, just 2% of eligible fathers have taken SPL.”

Anita Nye

“One man approached the group I was with and shook hands with each of the men, but ignored me. I don’t know what he was thinking, perhaps that because I was a women I couldn’t have much influence and wasn’t worth his time? ”

Anita Nye, Premier Eldred Stores, Orpington, Kent

She adds that enhancing pay and benefits to mirror those received on maternity leave. and normalising career breaks through SPL would also reduce the detrimental effect of a career break on women and address the concerns of men considering SPL.

Lack of confidence

Perhaps the second biggest barrier is women’s own modesty, or low self-esteem. “The second ‘excuse’ identified as holding back women from the top is the complaint that women lack the confidence to go for the jobs,” a spokeswoman for Women In Retail says. “We found that men will go for a job if they think they can do 20% of the work, whereas women only go for it if they think they can tick 80% of the boxes.”

“Modesty is indeed a big issue,” Linda adds. “Most women are pretty bad at putting themselves forward and underestimating themselves.

“The fact is that they are more than capable. In many husband-and-wife retailing teams that I know, myself included, it’s the women who do the donkey-work, while the men are the face of the business.

“It’s the women who anchor it all, though. There’s no way that Dennis would be able to attend the events that he does without me staying here and manning the fort.”

She points out that the fact that women do just this doesn’t help matters. “Yes, we are behind the scenes keeping everything going but that’s just it, it’s behind the scenes. We aren’t at all these conferences and industry events which means we don’t have a face, and that in turn limits our voice,” Linda adds.

A man’s world

Traditions and expectations of male leadership in the workplace also contribute somewhat to women’s lack of representation in top positions. Donna explains: “When we opened our business 14 years ago the convenience retail world was dominated by males. Occasionally, when we first opened, we would be in a meeting with a supplier maybe negotiating a contract or pricing, I would ask a question and the supplier would answer Stephen. Initially, or until I toughened up, I would just get annoyed, but then I had to stand up for myself and remind them that behind every good man there’s a good woman - we are a partnership and I deserve the same respect.”

Anita Nye, manager of Premier Eldred Drive in Orpington, Kent, has had to fight similar battles. “I did have one surprising experience recently when store owner Raju Patel and I attended an industry event and I was the only female. One particular man approached the group that I was standing with and shook hands with each of the men, but ignored me. Not one to take something like that lying down I challenged him and he apologised. I don’t know what he was thinking, perhaps that because I was a women I couldn’t have much influence and so wasn’t worth his time? I’m fortunate that I’ve not encountered much behaviour like that before, because it would be incredibly demoralising if it were more frequent. Clearly it does go on, though.”

Women also have to fight much harder than men for their ideas to be taken seriously and not trivialised, Debbie Robinson believes. “Often when you state something that’s obvious, often consumer facing, it’s trivialised. I’ve had to grow a thick skin as part of the process of getting to where I am,” she admits.

One of the areas Robinson has pioneered is store layout, and making the argument that it should work for the female shopper. She put the case for ensuring stores had enough space to wheel pushchairs around, that shelves were not too high that women have to ask for goods to be taken down, and that windows were open to enhance the store environment but also so women felt safe.

Benefits of equality

Despite the hurdles, all those C-Store spoke to highlighted the advantages that creating a workplace which embraces diversity, mutual respect and equality brings, from a vibrant working atmosphere to clear business benefits.

Women have unique skills that they can bring to the table, says Anita. “In my opinion they are particularly good at thinking outside of the box and being more creative.”

Adds Linda: “Women have lots of key strengths they can bring to a role. I believe women are more organised than men; they have to be because they have so much to multi-task. They’re thinking about the day job but also what needs to be done on the way home, what’s for dinner and what the kids need for tomorrow.”

“We are instinctive managers,” adds Robinson. “We are used to juggling and managing many tasks at once. We manage the house, we manage the family, we manage our finances and our careers, and do it more naturally. It makes us more progressive and quicker at picking up trends, feeling the environment around us and reacting to that.”

Donna Mullan

“When we first opened, we would be in a meeting and I would ask a question and the supplier would answer Stephen. Initially, I would get annoyed but then I had to stand up for myself. We are a partnership and deserve the same respect. ”

Donna Mullan, two Spar stores in County Armagh

Harnessing these talents makes good business sense. Former Women and Equalities Minister Justine Greening recently stated: “Bridging the UK gender gap in work could add £150bn to our annual GDP in 2025. Tackling inequality in the boardroom and ensuring more women get into senior leadership positions is vital to our economy.”

So, it’s pretty clear that change is needed, and fast, but what form should it take?

The government is working on a range of measures, including gender pay gap reporting, to better support for women in the workplace. This includes £5m to increase returnships (internships which act as a bridge back to senior roles for professionals who have taken career breaks), offering 30 hours of free childcare, and introducing new rights to request flexible working.

More female role models and supportive mentoring in the c-store industry would also be of benefit, helping to inspire future generations and boost women’s confidence.

The Rockerfeller Foundation’s Women In Leadership study finds: “The only way to address and overcome negative preconceptions and barriers is to have more women in positions of leadership; providing the support and role models women desperately need to advance in their careers, and bringing about much-needed changes in the workplace benefitting both genders,” it says.

Donna agrees: “Women need to be encouraged to apply for senior positions. They need supportive mentors who believe in them and encourage them,” she says.

Robinson is on the same page: “The biggest way to make a change happen is to actually put a woman in the position,” she adds.

But perhaps more than anything, a culture of mutual respect and understanding needs to be nurtured at all levels. “It is about creating an environment where you are heard and your opinion valued, not trivialised,” Robinson adds. “I think we all need to be much more open in understanding how to get the best out of people.”

Supply chain issues

Imbalance in the wholesale sector

It’s not only the retail side of the grocery sector suffering a gender imbalance at senior management level. According to Elit Rowland, founder of Women in Wholesale, just 11% of senior leaders in the wholesale sector are female.

Women in Wholesale was set up as an educational networking programme to support and develop women of all levels working in grocery and foodservice wholesale. Rowland says: “I launched Women in Wholesale to improve the image of our sector and attract a greater diversity of talent. A few years ago, differentiating your company was all about technology and having the best tools to compete. But now it’s very much about people and having the best teams to drive your business forward.”

According to a HIM Research & Consulting study for Women in Wholesale in February 2017, the biggest challenge women face working in UK grocery and foodservice wholesale is lack of flexible working (52%) followed by lack of a defined career path (43%), lack of respect (38%) and lack of opportunities (38%).

HIM also found that 48% of respondents said they have experienced gender discrimination.

Vital statistics


The percentage of women in retail executive teams (Women in Retail/Fujitsu)


of men would take a pay cut for a better work-life balance (2017 Modern Families Index)


new parents took Shared Parental Leave between April 2016 and March 2017 (EMW)


That’s how much bridging the UK gender gap in work could add to annual GDP in 2025 (McKinsey Global Institute study September 2016)