Research by the Huffington Post has found 11 of the UK's top 50 retailers have no women on their boards at all, and less than 15% have achieved the target of having women make up 30% of their board.
Top clothing retailers JD Sports, Matalan, New Look and the Arcadia Group, which owns Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Evans, Wallis and other brands, have no women on their boards at all.
Other female-less boards include the Schwartz Group, which owns Aldi supermarket, local convenience store groups Martin McColl and Costco, electricals shop Euronics, Home Bargains owner TJ Morris, Lloyds Pharmacy owner Celesio Retail and frozen goods supermarket Iceland.
Brands with just one woman on their board are Boots owner Alliance Boots, Next, Amazon, Aldi, Primark, Shop Direct (which owns clothing brands Littlewoods, Very and Isme), Ikea, Sports Direct, Wickes owner Travis Perkins, House of Fraser, River Island, Phones 4 U, Costcutter and Nisa supermarket groups and Premier Foods.
The figures are particularly shocking because the majority of money spent in retail comes from women's purses. ONS stats on household spending showed that in 2011 men spent £244 a year on clothes, against an average of £458 on women's clothes.
Women's shoes accounted for £109 a year, while men's cost £68. Men's accessories cost £10 a year, while women's £21. Add this all up and on average women are spending £588 a year on their wardrobes, while men are shelling out £322. And that's before you take food, beauty products and hair into account.
The Arcadia Group has no women on its board, despite owning several female-only fashion brands
At the opposite end of the scale, Tesco and John Lewis both boast female board membership above the 30% target laid out by several groups such as the 30% Club, which aims to bring more women onto UK corporate boards.
Tesco has 30.8%. John Lewis Partnership also has a board where 30.8% are female, while Primark's operational board has exactly a third (although its parent company AB Foods can only offer 12.5%).
Alpha Retail - the group which runs duty free stores in airport lounges - boasts 40% female representation, and SPAR UK supermarkets has a 42.9% female membership on its board.
Asda's parent company Walmart has 55.6% female representation at the top, but HuffPost was unable to reach Asda for a UK board breakdown.
Commenting on HuffPost UK's findings, Sian Westerman, managing director at Rothschild and a member of the 30% Club steering committee, said she was surprised at the number of retailers who had resolutely male boards, in spite of the focus on this issue for the past few years.
"It should be obvious that if your customer base is diverse, and if your work force is also diverse, it would make good business sense to have a diverse board to reflect these constituents as well as to facilitate good decision making," she told Huff Post UK.
"However, many retail businesses are looking to address this by working hard to facilitate return to work for women who have had children and actively implementing strategies to further develop the pipeline of talented women who will move up to board roles as the impact of the many excellent initiatives is felt. There is clearly a lot to be done, but the impetus for change is there."
This was evidenced by retailers like Marks & Spencer; although it only had 26.7% female representation at the top level, 64% of all management staff beneath that were female, 50% of all store managers are female, and 35% of senior management – the top 120 people underneath the main board – were female.
Similarly at the Kingfisher Group, which owns B&Q, Screwfix and other DIY retailers, said its board had just 27.3% female representation, but 40% of its staff were women and 29% of its manager were female.
Around 40% of the Kingfisher Group's staff and 29% of its managers are women - pictured with Vince Cable
Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, and former board director at Boots, said good management was vital if the struggling retail sector was to boom again, and that meant having a diverse board.
"We know having women in top jobs makes business sense, bringing diversity and new ideas to the counter. Businesses perform better with better balanced boardrooms. In retail especially, senior management should reflect their customers, a high proportion of whom are female," she told HuffPost UK.
"Like all companies, retail businesses should set themselves targets to see more women in top roles and be open about this information. Women who are already at the top should support others in getting there as well, mentoring and sponsoring other women is important. Seeing this action in retail would now, more than ever, have a positive impact for the industry."
The business case for mixed boardrooms
But does having a diverse board room make good business sense? Do retailers with a mix of men and women at the top do better in terms of profits generation, company stability and growth?
HuffPost UK asked business analyst Nick Hood at Company Watch to compare and contrast the 50 retailers, and look for trends between those with mixed boards and those with all-male groups at the top.
The results were fascinating - the boards of the male dominated companies have had 70% more risks than the mixed ones, thanks to greater reliance on intangible assets (such as acquisition goodwill, brand value or IT spend on websites) and having a debt ratio of more than 100%.
High debt levels were described by Hood as "toxic in a sector which is hugely capital intensive and has fragile profit margins" which are easily driven down to unviable levels by consumer pressure in tough times like today.
Having a high level of intangible assets was "equally dangerous" when lenders and credit insurers are taking the tough decisions about which businesses to support and which to abandon, Hood added.
Probably most striking of all, half of the male-only retailers were in Company Watch's 'warning area' for structurally weak retailers, compared to just 16% of the mixed board companies.
"The question is whether a significant female presence on a company's board tempers the macho element in decision making; most of all does it eliminate testosterone-fuelled deals," said Hood.
"Are these management teams more likely to keep an eye on the overall financial profile and take action to keep their company from becoming vulnerable to insolvency or a major restructuring?
"On the basis of our analysis of the sample of leading UK retail businesses, the evidence suggests that retailers with significant female representation on their boards have a far more prudent financial status. Conversely, a worrying proportion of those dominated by male directors have adverse financial characteristics that would concern most analysts."
Hobbs has an almost all-female board
The case for female-heavy boards?
One unusual retailer in the clothing space is women's workwear specialist Hobbs – it has a board that is almost exclusively female, with just its chairman having a Y chromosome.
That chairman, Iain MacRitchie, told HuffPost UK it is "an exciting learning experience" being the sole man on a board of women.
He continued: "For us, it was about picking the best team in order to realise the global potential of the Hobbs brand. In creating our board, we sought to find individuals who could develop our multichannel credentials, have international retail experience and the ability to understand and develop our brand."
Chief executive Nicky Dulieu added: "A mix of genders on the board with the right skill set is ideal. It is rare to have a majority female board and this was not our intention.
"We were focused on hiring the right people for the job, with the best skill set, team fit and expertise. In our case, these happened to be women but it is a bonus that we are able to wear and enjoy the product and understand it from a customer's perspective."
UPDATE: 8 March, 2013 10:34
The original version of this article stated that furniture retailer DFS had no women on its board. Since publication, HuffPost UK has been contacted to say that two of its 16 operational board members are women, appointed within the last year.
The article has been amended to take account of this new information.
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