At the higher levels of the grocery industry, how much equality have women achieved? Karen Dempsey sought out the leaders and achievers among the female of the species Women in business are no longer oddities who get stared at and patronised by the powers that reside in UK plcs. Now, we even smirk at the clichés of sisters doing it for themselves, boardrooms upping their skirt count, and this glass ceiling thing women are supposed to hit at some stage in their careers. And woman in grocery no longer means a housewife pushing a shopping trolley. While grocery has traditionally never been women's number one career choice, over the last couple of decades a clutch of female executives has secured a place in the industry infrastructure. We approached a selection of these women in all sectors of grocery, from trade associations, manufacturing and retailing, as well as female entrepreneurs, to assess what issues they face in what is largely a male dominated sector. Do, indeed, any such issues arise today? Princes' marketing director Michele Vincent thinks not. "I can understand the reasons why such matters had an importance in the past, when talented female achievers were bypassed by the old boys' network, but times are changing." They certainly are. Marie Melnyk, deputy md of Morrisons, says: "Changes have taken place in the grocery industry in recent years that have precipitated more management career opportunities being available to women. It is not women's roles that have changed, it is the nature of the industry." She highlights extended opening hours creating more management opportunities. As have higher instore service elements and the development of support functions such as IT, marketing and product development. But, it would appear, there is still a long way to go. Women get on that middle management rung fairly easily, yet few make it to the board. Sainsbury says 15% of senior managers are women yet none are on the board. Tesco has no women on the board, Somerfield has two, and Safeway has one on the operating board and one non-exec director. And major manufacturers such as Cadbury Schweppes, Diageo and Northern Foods can still count the number of female board members on one hand. A female head of a trade association is no longer a rarity, but a Trade Association Forum survey found only 12% of chief executive posts were held by women. Several grocery oriented trade association chief exec appointments have been filled by women ­ including the IGD, British Meat Manufacturers' Association, and Provision Trade Federation ­ in the last few years. Clare Cheney, director general of the PTF, says: "These posts were all previously held by men, an indication that the trend is in the right direction." But these figures and comments are not about oneupmanship and male bashing. Women point out they don't do the job to prove they are better than men, they do it because they're the best qualified person for the job. Cheney adds: "Special initiatives to boost the number of women in key posts can be counterproductive because they create the impression that women need special help to achieve these positions. We don't." The women we spoke to believe there are common denominators marking them out as successful female managers. For one they are team players. They can multi-task, they can see the bigger picture, but they still roll their sleeves up and empathise with the shop floor. They tend to be good listeners and put people at the heart of what they do. And they do their damnedest to instill and operate a customer led approach to business. The grocery industry has also nurtured several entrepreneurial stars, women who have taken charge of their own destinies, so to speak. Meena Pathak (Patak's), and Perween Warsi (S&A Foods), Christine Manson and Belinda Mitchell at Simply Organic, Renée Elliott at Planet Organic are just a handful of names who have used their passion for food to establish successful businesses. It hasn't all been easy, though. Both Pathak and Elliott work with their husbands and recount anecdotes of male execs addressing their husbands first, assuming them to be at the helm. That's something they now find amusing. Elliott also laughs at the expectation of how businesswomen are expected to behave. "I don't want to get angry or shout to be heard. Having a gentle approach and maintaining my femininity doesn't mean I'm a pushover." The good news for ambitious women coming into the industry now is that they will have an impressive line up of female role models to emulate. Consultant Teresa Wickham, for example, encourages young people in their careers and has taken part in a mentoring scheme. Food from Britain director Charlotte Lawson says women are also getting better at networking and sharing insights in a mutually supportive way. The National Consumer Council's Deirdre Hutton says: "For me, gender inequality has not been a disadvantage. It's been a factor, but I don't think it will even be that for much longer. The generations of able and confident women coming up will not and should not allow it." l This feature is the first in an annual spotlight on leading women in the grocery industry. If you would like to contribute to next year's feature please contact The Grocer. {{COVER FEATURE }}