Shattering the Glass Runway in Fashion

By Allyson Stokes

On Tuesday, February 20th, Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85, after a career spanning six decades in the fashion industry. Lagerfeld was one of the most prolific, influential, and celebrated fashion designers of all time. Most famous for his work as creative director of Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld also ran his own eponymous line, and has been credited with several industry innovations, including ushering in an era of high-end designer collaborations with fast-fashion retailers, such as H&M. Although close friends often referred to him as kind and funny, Lagerfeld was a controversial figure to say the least. He was known for public statements that many found offensive, even misogynistic. For instance, critics derided his statement that Adele was “a little too fat” and that Pippa Middleton shouldn’t show her face but “only her back.” Most recently, he came under fire for his comments regarding sexual harassment. In an interview with Numero magazine, Lagerfeld stated a lack of support for Me Too and argued that “If you don’t want your pants pulled down, don’t become a model.”


As a white man sitting atop an industry populated primarily by women workers, Lagerfeld in many ways was the quintessential example of the glass runway phenomenon, which I wrote about in my 2015 Gender & Society article entitled “The Glass Runway: How Gender and Sexuality Shape the Spotlight in Fashion Design.”  In this article, I examined the following puzzle: In an occupation where women far outnumber men, why is it that men fashion designers tend to receive more symbolic rewards in the form of prestigious industry awards, media attention, and critical acclaim? Using descriptive statistics and a content analysis of 253 fashion media texts, I found that: (1) men receive more awards and are more likely to be canonized than women; and that (2) because the evaluation of culture is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, gender essentialism seeps into discourses of art and culture used to represent men and women designers in fashion media, helping construct a masculine image of the ideal fashion designer. These processes push men designers outward into the spotlight as though walking a glass runway.


It is, therefore, no small news, that Lagerfeld’s named successor at Chanel is to be a woman – Virginie Viard. Thought certainly not underprivileged or a vulnerable worker herself (she worked closely with Lagerfeld at Chanel for years), Viard’s appointment is an important one for an industry that has only recently begun to deal with its gender inequality problem.

Since The Glass Runway, I have been thrilled to see that my findings have garnered attention within the fashion industry itself. I have been interviewed about gender inequality in fashion for blogs, newsletters, and magazines with both national and international readership, sometime in the millions. In some ways, I was surprised by this uptake, having worried that the industry would instead take a defensive stance to academic critique. On the other hand, since 2015, the topic of gender inequality has “gone mainstream,” largely due to a renewed women’s movement spurred by the current political climate and Me Too.

Artist: Matt Maitland

Perhaps the best example of fashion’s emerging concern with inequality is that, last year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnered with Glamour Magazine on their own study about gender inequality in fashion, which they also called “The Glass Runway.”  Working with consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the CFDA and Glamour conducted a survey of 535 fashion industry professionals about gender and fashion (no details on their sampling, recruitment, or other methodological strategies were reported). They found that while 100% of women surveyed claim gender inequality is a problem in fashion, only half of the men said the same. This is despite the fact that only half of womenswear brands are headed by women designers, and only 14% of major brands have a female executive. And while women are 17% more likely to aspire to top executive positions at the start of their career, by mid-career, men are 20% more likely than women to have these aspirations, suggesting a disillusionment over time on the part of women who face substantial barriers to career advancement. In fact, they found that 25% fewer women get promoted without asking than men, and 72% fewer get promoted without asking at the management level. Their survey respondents cite a lack of clarity in what it takes to be promoted, a lack of mentorship and support for women, and work-family barriers, as key reasons for this inequality.

Based on these results, the CFDA and Glamour recommended a series of “action items” for moving forward. These action items are all worthy and vital components of addressing gender inequality in fashion. However, there are certain concerns that remain unaddressed, which are critical in moving forward.

First, they recommend cultivating greater awareness how of gender diversity offers business advantages. This recommendation is supported by a great deal of empirical research showing that diverse teams and organizations are more productive, creative, innovative, and perform better financially. Yet, there is no concrete strategy outlined for how this recommendation can be rolled out. The industry must now ask itself how to build this understanding and increase buy-in for gender equity strategies. For example, will moving forward entail affirmative action practices? If so, what is the best to gain the support of those who perceive of these initiatives as quota systems not based on merit? There would need to be significant cultural / attitudinal change within and outside the industry to make this happen effectively.

Second, they recommend improved transparency and clarity in evaluations, promotions, and compensation. This recommendation closely aligns with my own findings – that ambitious evaluation criteria make it easier for gender and other biases to creep into evaluation processes. However, as I argue in my article, the key is not merely to better communicate evaluation criteria, but also to unpack how these criteria are themselves built upon gender stereotypes and assumptions. In addition, the rise of precarious and short-term employment may render this recommendation difficult to implement. In fashion, as across the labor market, jobs are becoming more short-term and project-based. Within-organization transparency is vital to achieving better equality, but we must also consider how to achieve this transparency and clarity when people are going from job to job, project to project, team to team.

The third action item is to provide skill-based training and mentorship programs for empowering women. As a key mechanism in the glass escalator, and a key component of the glass runway reported by women in fashion, mentorship and the support of leaders is key. Some important ways to implement this would be to host mentorship matching events at conferences, fashion weeks, and other industry events, and to include both women and men in these initiatives. Research shows that women’s only networks and mentorship programs have benefits but can sometimes further segregate women from powerful networks and are sometimes disregarded as opportunities for women to “bitch” and “complain.” To avoid this, leaders in the industry must: promote the work and accomplishments of women; build diverse and inclusive networks; and facilitate relationships based on support rather than competition.

Fourth, the CFDA and Glamour suggest offering unconscious bias training for those occupying leadership positions. They argue that one likely reason why all women surveyed, but only half the men, felt gender inequality was a problem in fashion, was due to the numerical over-representation of women in the field, making it seem like fashion is dominated by women. Unconscious bias training can go a long way toward improving day to day interactions and practices within organizations, and to improving hiring and review practices. It may also help with the buy-in issue noted above.

Finally, they recommend establishing work-flexibility policies and programs that will help workers balance work and family responsibilities. Again, this is a vitally important component of equitable working conditions. To implement these effectively, at least three things must be considered: 1) work-flexibility policies without cultural organizational change will not be effective; 2) policies must not become “women’s policies” either in name or practice, and must be inclusive; and 3) attention must be focused on how to achieve work-life integration for those workers without long-term stable jobs, since, as noted above, standard work forms are becoming less normative.

I am heartened by the emerging commitment to equality within the fashion industry. Moving forward, there are five main ingredients that I would recommend as vital in developing a recipe for effective and sustainable change.

1.) There should be more collaboration between scholars and industry members when it comes to developing knowledge and strategies for action.

2.) We must pay more attention to deconstructing the gender binary in relation to these issues so as not to leave trans and gender fluid fashion workers out of research, policy, and discourse.

3.) Attention must paid to the important relationship between policy and culture in order to ensure support for any recommended changes.

4.) Consideration of diverse work forms, including short-term and precarious jobs, is necessary in order to fully understand and address the processes through which inequality manifests in fashion.

5.) Finally, and perhaps most important, the report made no mention of how women’s experiences are not homogenous, or how an intersectional approach may be of benefit. My article engaged the intersection of gender and sexuality, but unfortunately did not considered race, class, disability, or age. I am now in the process of planning a new collaborative study about Indigenous fashion designers, which will examine the intersections of gender and race in shaping the glass runway. This research will be conducted with two other scholars and an Indigenous fashion designer. My hope is that this research will receive as much uptake from the fashion industry as my earlier research, and will promote a more intersectional approach to within-industry efforts toward change.

Allyson Stokes is an assistant professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research interests include gender, inequality, work, and culture, with a particular focus on intersecting inequalities in creative industries and cultural production. Her work has appeared in publications such as Gender & Society, Social Currents, Canadian Review of Sociology, and the Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu. 

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