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Creating Women Leaders in Fashion

March 07, 2018

International womens day leaders in fashion

Words by Tavie Meier 

"Despite some improvements, leadership positions across the board are still held by men, and the economic gender gap is widening, thanks to outdated attitudes and entrenched male chauvinism. We must change this, by empowering women at all levels, enabling their voices to be heard and giving them control over their own lives and over the future of our world."

-- Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, IWD Statement 2017



Brands appoint creative directors at the age most people get married or start a family, and as women are largely expected to be primary caregivers, career prospects are disproportionately impacted.

The gruelling expectations of leading a fashion label are unattainable without compromising personal lives. In an interview with Business of Fashion, Dr Allyson Stocks, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo’s department of Knowledge Integration, states, “Increasingly, careers are requiring long work hours and being available all of the time. . . There is an overwhelming idea of the artist being all-consumed and loving what they do so much that they don’t mind committing 24/7.” Autonomy is one of the essential qualities in creative directors and raising a family is thought to negate it.

Even in the manufacturing sector which takes advantage of economically poorer countries and 80% of low-level workers are women, there’s also a glass ceiling. Women can’t participate in new skills training because of time spent caring for children and elderly parents. Therefore, factories promote men into higher-paying jobs because they have more opportunities to learn. Add to this, employment laws in countries like Cambodia don’t prohibit firing women who become pregnant during their employment.



Despite such inequalities across the globe, the fashion industry is in prime position to economically empower women and inspire social engagement. Carmina Manecon, representing Japan at the Clinton Foundation’s G(irls)20 Summit in 2013, stated, "Fashion is the ideal vehicle to introduce girls to these issues,” because it uses a subject many young women are already passionate about. Women are bootstrapping industry-wide change in matters of unequal representation, unethical labour practices, and the long-term environmental impact.

For top-level positions, there’s been an effort among women-led brands to offer opportunities to peers who are still in the start-up phase. Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman appointed to Christian Dior’s highest creative post, stated, “I was very lucky in my life as I started at Fendi, which was a family company run by five women who had children, but sometimes we think that if something didn’t happen to us, it just doesn’t happen, and we need to maintain attention on this debate of equal opportunity.”  

Last year, Dior began a mentorship program that matches 60 women with company executives in their offices around the world. Tory Burch also launched a foundation in 2009 to help female entrepreneurs gain access to capital, mentorship, and education. 

"I look forward to the days when the cultural norms that hold women back are simply a part of our history and not our present circumstance. When ambition in a woman doesn’t have a negative connotation. I no longer shy away from the word ambition. I embrace it."

- Tory Burch

But how can the movement to #EmbraceAmbition trickle down to the global manufacturing sector? By providing opportunity and understanding the value of intelligent, hardworking, and creative women.



Dorsu realises the delicate work-life balance that employees with families -- or who want to have families -- require. For brands to retain talent that’s crucial to its success, managers must be realistic and understand we have priorities outside of our jobs.

Valuing safety and staying personally invested in our team’s happiness brings a ten-fold return. They bring value to the company, which is more time and cost efficient than using exploitative labour to line our pockets.

As it stands, Cambodia’s garment industry contributes to family separation and living conditions for their workers that place health and safety at risk. One example is Sihanoukville, a migrant town only miles away from one of Cambodia’s Special Economic Zones. Sihanoukville's Special Economic Zone is home to hundreds of factories that employ tens of thousands of people. Workers have a choice: live in overcrowded, poverty-like conditions near the factories, or brave the dangerous, hours-long commute to the provinces.

Kampot, the location of Dorsu’s production studio is a two hour drive from Sihanoukville. One notable difference, the absence of widespread poverty. Reason being, most people that live and work here are given Cambodia’s extended family structure, this means most people here don’t need to choose between earning a wage and living with their families.



Hanna (left) & Kunthear (right) - Dorsu's co-founders lead a team of women who design, produce, and sell our clothes (and still go home at five).


Dorsu understands the importance of keeping families together, and provides a five-day work week, instead of Cambodia’s typical six-day work week, as well as guaranteed maternity and paternity leave. Also, entry-level employees receive a base-pay that’s 30% more than the garment industry’s starting wage, with monthly bonuses and an optional sixth day at overtime pay.

This structure doesn’t compromise productivity, quality, or our personal lives. We employ a 14-person manufacturing team that produces and quality-checks 2,000 garments a month and still goes home at five.



Our majority female staff is proof that fashion’s gender bias is unfounded and unfair. The industry-wide movement to raise-up women already has the resources it needs: designing heirloom-worthy clothing, operating industrial sewing machines, and negotiating global contracts in opposite time zones. Executives must recognise they're sitting on a talent goldmine. Brands that don’t take steps to ensure support for our professional and personal lives will fall behind in our rise to the top.


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