by Oluremi Akin-Olugbade
Every year the United States of America produces trillions of dollars’ worth of goods and services, all finished products of a variety of lucrative and developing industries. Of these industries, the fashion industry has remained a growing source of income in the economy. With the average American spending over a thousand dollars on clothing every year, the clothing and textile industry in the US remains one of many remunerative social structures (Bureau of Labor Statistics 3). The fashion industry is also one of very few business trades receiving minimal criticisms of gender inequality in comparison to other traditionally gendered fields, such as technology and services. As a commerce whose success and profitability is significantly reliant on women, many assume that the industry is owned by women, for women. Unfortunately, the majority of influential fashion houses are owned by men, as is the case in most other industries. Of the seven Americans on the Forbes 400 list for the year 2014, only two are female: Doris Fisher of Gap Clothing and Anne Gittinger of Nordstrom (Bhushan). The social practice of gender inequality plays a role in the fashion industry of the United States and is supported by the functional structures of this industry such as educational qualifications, capital resources, homosocial reproduction, and cultural capital. These structures are organized and influenced by existing social norms and beliefs of gendered behavioral differences, such as the interpersonal skills of men and women.
In 2012, Fashionista released a list of the “Top 10 Highest Paid CEOs in Fashion,” all of whom were male and a majority with business degrees (Phelan). In corporate firms—fashion houses included—the norm is that individuals who have acquired educational qualification in business and work experience commonly hold executive positions. The executive position holders determine the nature of the structures in the fashion industry and, similar to other industries, executives are typically male. Men dominate the industry as designers and CEOs, and also tend to advance more quickly than women in this industry. This can be attributed to the fact that a larger percentage of people with the required business skills both academically and experientially are, in fact, men. In the United States, studies show that 22% of male college graduates hold a business degree versus 11% of female graduates (CollegeAtlas). Therefore, men are more likely to come out with degrees in business and gain experience running businesses. This puts them at the forefront when executive positions are being fulfilled. In her book Framed by Gender, author and sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway explains that the practices and activities of the workplace are constrained “within organization and institutional structures” (93). The nature of these structures, she explains, determines the social relations between workers and the extent to which social norms and beliefs are maximized to engage in these relations (93). Certainly there are companies in which women occupy positions of authority, especially in the fashion industry. However, the executive officers remain largely male because of this educational and experiential requirement.
Identical to other industries, the fashion industry requires capital resources in the form of money and labor in order to sustain its fashion houses. The need for capital resources for the administration and maintenance of the corporation also tends to further the reproduction of gender inequality in the foundation of the fashion industry. The sociological theory of power, which Ridgeway references in Framed by Gender, shows that dependence between people, resulting from the innate human need for valued resources, is unevenly distributed (10). Fashion houses are constantly looking for wealthy investors with the capital resources needed to launch and sustain their corporations. In the United States, these capital resources are primarily at the disposal of the majority group: men. Consequently, this unequal distribution of capital resources between men and women in the United States continues to put more men in the positions of authority.
The concept of homosocial reproduction, also referred to as homophily, is another structure that encourages and perpetuates the persistence of gender inequality in the fashion industry. Homophily, commonly observed in network settings by sociologists, is a behavioral concept in which a person tends to associate with others similar to themselves (Purcell 301). Research confirms that men often professionally adopt and mentor other male colleagues or personnel more often than females—grooming them to take over their positions when they retire. The same theory also applies for women in authority who, in their case, tend to mentor more women. The CEO of Ralph Lauren Inc., Ralph Lauren, a white American man, recently stepped down from his role and appointed a new executive, Stefan Larson—another Caucasian male with previous experience running operations in world famous brands, including Old Navy, H&M, and Gap (Tabuchi and Friedman). This unconscious tendency to associate with people who are “socially and culturally similar” allows for the continuous gendering of jobs to create an unbalanced gender ratio in the field (Purcell 292).
The informal social structure that exists in the fashion industry makes it one of the few industries that allow for employees to socialize and attend exciting and engaging events. At the same time, this social structure provides a platform where gender inequality is able to thrive even more so. Purcell identifies the idea of cultural capital as “the role that cultural knowledge, tastes, practices, attitudes and goods play in the reproduction of inequality” (294). At social events such as after-work gatherings, fashion shows, happy hours and more, employees have the opportunity to network with executives and activate their cultural capital to increase their prospects for advancement. However, in order for cultural capital to be beneficial, it must represent a similarity in interests between employers and employees. Because the majority of executives are male, the interests and tastes of that group are fundamentally masculine. As a result, the informal activities are usually designed to fulfill those interests and tastes (e.g. golf dates, hangouts at the gym, bars). In general, very few women hold these same interests—especially in the fashion industry—and, as a result, they are less likely to advance. The same goes for women in the firm who have families or other obligations, which often prevent them from attending these after-work events (301). Unfortunately the concentration of men in the places of power make the informal culture of the fashion industry a lot more masculine, limiting the full engagement of women with differing interests and responsibilities in corporate events.
Ridgeway explains that there are social beliefs and norms that a society holds and uses to categorize individuals, splitting them into groups. These social beliefs, which people associate with the typical man or woman, are defined as gender stereotypes (58). One of these beliefs is that men possess agentic skills while women possess communal skills. Agentic skills refer to traits of assertiveness, confidence, independence, forcefulness, and dominance—all skills largely attributed to men (58). On the other hand, women are regarded as more community oriented, with communal skills such as emotional expressiveness, nurturance, interpersonal sensitivity, kindness, and responsiveness (58). These social beliefs are evident in the structure of the fashion industry from the minute one enters a clothing store. At the lowest level of management are the store associates, customer service attendants, and secretaries who are required to possess strong interpersonal skills. In the Midwestern headquarters of a large retail corporation, 70%-80% of employees in low levels of management are women (Purcell 301). This social belief of women as communal makes them more favored in roles such as these, where they are required to portray the “nice girl” image by dressing nicely and engaging with employees and clientele (Fox 815). In this same corporation, the top tier consisted of 11 members of whom 18% were female. The social belief that men are more agentic makes them more favorable for these positions, which require leadership and expert business skills. Accordingly, these social beliefs restrict women from engaging in the fashion industry to the best of their ability. Women are kept in jobs that require interaction with customers because society attributes communality with them, denying women of the opportunity to equally compete with men for higher positions.
The fashion industry, although less hyper-masculine than other fields such as technology and law, still has structures and practices in place that allow for the persistence of gender inequality. Due to the general belief that fashion is every woman’s “hobby,” it is easy to assume that there is a significant representation of women in power in the field; however, this is not the case. In fact, while there is a substantial presence of women in the industry, this is only true at the lower positions of authority. Consequently, in the fashion industry women continue to be denied equal opportunities to advance to positions of authority because of the structures established by the dominating male group. Social beliefs also continue to limit the professional growth of women with stereotypical perceptions of what women represent and have to offer to society at large.
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