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Colleen Callander: “Retail has embraced women in leadership”

Sportsgirl CEO, Colleen Callander

Ahead of International Women’s Day (IWD) on Friday, we spoke to Sportsgirl CEO Colleen Callander about being a woman leader in retail, including the increasing representation of women in the C-suite, as well as the barriers that many continue to face to achieving senior leadership positions.

One of the key aims of IWD is to accelerate gender parity in politics, society and the economy. According to the latest figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women made up 57.7 per cent of the total workforce in retail in 2018, but only 10.8 per cent of retail CEOs or heads of business were women. In comparison, women made up 50.1 per cent of the total workforce across all industries in 2018, and 17.1 per cent of CEOs and heads of business.

While Callander believes retail has embraced women leaders more than other industries over the past decade, there is still room for improvement. Here, she shares how Sportsgirl supports the career ambitions of its almost 100 per cent female staff, and what she hopes her legacy as a leader will be.

Heather McIlvaine: What do you think about the opportunities for women to achieve leadership positions in retail? Are they greater today than when you started your career?

Colleen Callander: While the world is evolving, women are still lagging behind when it comes to leadership roles in general; however, the retail industry I feel has embraced women in leadership roles particularly over the past decade faster than other sectors.

Education has helped enormously in this regard, as well as shifting societal attitudes as a whole – I do feel we are now living in a world where women are encouraged and empowered to pursue positions of leadership.

HM: What are some of the barriers women face to achieving leadership positions? 

CC: Some of the barriers women face to achieving leadership roles is the stigma that women are not tough enough and can’t make the tough decisions. I would completely disagree with this, as I have had to make some pretty tough decisions throughout my career. However when tough decisions need to be made, I make sure they are made with strong consideration, and always fit back with our values.

Family responsibilities have also been barriers to women achieving leadership positions in the past. Women have historically been often overlooked for leadership positions once they have families, due to a perception that their attention and focus is less on work and more on family life and the household. This has very much changed over the past few decades, with a greater focus on shared household responsibilities, modern family dynamic and the evolution of what is considered the “traditional” work day, Monday to Friday, nine to five.

Women should be encouraged to have a work life balance that enables them to succeed both professionally and personally.

HM: What initiatives have you put in place at Sportsgirl to support your female staff to achieve leadership positions?

CC: For 70 years, Sportsgirl has embraced and supported Australian girls, in that pivotal period as they transition from girlhood to womanhood. Sportsgirl is a company which innately and truly understands Australian girls.

Our ‘Be That Girl’ manifesto represents something which Sportsgirl have always believed in – empowering girls to feel confident, capable and strong in their own identities no matter what they are trying to achieve.

Be That Girl is an attitude which applies equally to everything Sportsgirl does – and that includes our staff at Sportsgirl. Our head office team is 98 per cent women, each with their own unique gifts, skills, attributes and ways of thinking that make Sportsgirl the inclusive and diverse company it is today. Empowerment and belief in one’s self are values that start internally, and ones that Sportsgirl consistently embrace and nurture within our teams.

HM: Can you tell us a bit about your own experience being a woman leader? Times when you felt overlooked, and times when felt supported…

CC: When I first began my career in retail over 30 years ago, the corporate culture was very different to what it is today. It was very male-dominated, and had a perceptively non-inclusive and non-collaborative culture.

For the past 20 years, I have been fortunate to work for the Sussan Group, which is privately owned by Naomi Milgrom AO.

Naomi is an incredible mentor, who truly believes in the unique capabilities of women. A culture that supports women doesn’t come about spontaneously; it only happens when the leaders of companies create policies and initiatives to stimulate such a culture and Naomi does this whole-heartedly.

The three companies under Sussan Group all have female CEOs, myself being the longest serving of Sportsgirl for the past 12 years. All of the Sussan Group brands embody empowerment and positivity.

When I think about the legacy I want to leave behind, I would like to hope that legacy will be one of ‘great leadership’. Leadership is something I’m very passionate about, not only for myself, but for others around me and those I’m fortunate enough to work with.

People often ask me to describe leadership… and I start by telling them what leadership is not. Leadership is not a about a salary, a title, a position nor the size of your office. Leadership is about one life impacting another life in a positive way.

I want people to remember me for the way I made them feel. The way I encouraged and inspired them, pushed them beyond where they felt comfortable, gave them feedback that maybe they didn’t want to hear but later thanked me for my honesty. The way we laughed together, the corridor conversations, the way we celebrated success, and the way we learned together from failure.

I want to be remembered for my positive impact on the lives of those around me.

HM: What does International Women’s Day mean to you? And do you think it is a meaningful way to achieve change?

CC: International Women’s Day continues to be a powerful, global platform that drives determination and demonstrates our commitment to action to achieve gender parity, whilst at the time, celebrating the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women.

It means different things to different people – for me, it’s about celebrating all women, no matter our age, beliefs, social status or ethnicity. It’s about believing in yourself, dreaming big, supporting each other and embracing the possibility to shatter glass ceilings.

The struggle for women’s equality belongs to no single person nor to any one organisation. This needs to be a collective movement for all who care about human rights.

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