May 27, 2010, 2:16 PM

Survey: Field leveling

An Internet Retailer survey shows e-commerce offers big opportunity, and distinct advantages, for women.

Jill Layfield is chief operating officer of online-only retailer Backcountry.com. She's also the mother of a 3-year-old. On any weekday she may arrive home at 7:00 p.m., have dinner and spend time with her family, then get back to work on her computer at 8:30 p.m. "E-commerce is a different way of doing business," she says. "You can get online and respond to e-mails at any time of day and it's accepted. I think that would be much harder if you were working for an investment bank."

Layfield's day illustrates some of the challenge as well as the opportunity of a career in e-commerce for women in particular. It's a rapidly developing field with a 24/7 work culture. Managers and executives not in their workplace can use the web and mobile channels to address questions and concerns left at the office in earlier times and in other career fields; and it's the expectation that they will do so. While this applies to both genders, it can mean greater pressure to the extent it bumps up against the traditional role of family caregiver.

Flexibility
But it's also precisely because anywhere/anytime communication is possible that many women say they're able to put in the hours needed to distinguish themselves and advance their careers. Moving up in most professions requires long hours, and Layfield believes other fields don't offer the same flexibility to do that on her own terms that e-commerce does.

Near-constant workflow and an increased blurring between work and home aren't the only areas where the demands and the possibilities of a career in e-commerce separate the experience of women from that of men. Working in e-commerce doesn't necessarily require hands-on experience in information technology.

As Heather Kaminetsky the e-commerce director at Barney's New York who studied management information systems in college put it, "I've never had to build a computer." But it does require a working knowledge of the industry's technologyÑa field where women have historically demonstrated less interest.

Then there are the capital markets, engines that have driven much of the growth of this new industry. Venture firms reverted to more traditional investment practices after a tidal wave of venture-backed e-commerce start-ups crashed in the early part of the last decade. Women entrepreneurs are still less common than men and research suggests gender bias is a factor. According to a recently published white paper by Cindy Padros, founder of Illuminate Ventures, which invests in start-up companies owned by women, "Men have access to more start-up capital than women."

Only 4% of women owning $1 million dollar-plus firms gain equity funding compared with 11% of men in the same category, according to Padros, who attributes this to factors ranging from "a lack of proper introductions to unintentional investor bias." Women who do secure equity funding have to work hard to get it, reporting contacting as many as 30 prospective investors before succeeding, she adds.

More opportunity
Even so, the results of an Internet Retailer survey of women in the industry in settings from entrepreneurial to web-only to multichannel retailers suggest they are finding more opportunity than barriers. If in its early days e-commerce was more closely aligned with pure information technology and so heavily male-dominated, that's no longer the case.

In the survey, which drew responses from women in e-retailing plus industry consultants and vendors, it was the perception of many women that they're represented in their workplaces in numbers roughly equal to men, with 39.2% reporting that 50% or more of their e-commerce team are women. The team leader gender divide was even more balanced, with 54.2% reporting a male top e-commerce executive at their companies and 45.8% reporting that title was held by a woman. The survey is part of Internet Retailer's ongoing survey of issues in the e-retailing industry, in partnership with Vovici, provider of online surveying technology.

Not only are women making it to the top of their e-commerce teams, but they gradually are making it to the top of their organizations as well. Of this year's Internet Retailer Top 500, 29 companies have female CEOs, roughly double the 15 Fortune 500 companies that have CEOs who are women. With some notable exceptions, these companies tend to be smaller, with only two in the top half of the Top 500. While 5.6% of the companies have women chiefs, women-led e-retailers collectively account for 3.9%Ñ$4.9 billionÑof the $126.4 billion in web sales for the Top 500.

As a newer industry, e-commerce may be less affected internally by some of the boys-club practices flagged in other, more traditional corporate cultures: gender bias favoring males in promotions, for example. "I think of the women ahead of me who really had to break the glass ceiling," says Danielle Leitch, executive vice president of search marketing firm MoreVisibility.com, whose early career experience was as an executive recruiter in the technology field. "The guys that were holding them back are gone, and the ones still hanging onto that philosophy are close to retirement."

Viable, speedy
The greater penetration by women into top executive roles in e-commerce companies than across businesses as a whole, though still small, lends support to the belief expressed by many women interviewed for this story that e-commerce can be a viable, even speedy, career path for women with corner-office aspirations.

"It's not a several-year progression to see if you can be successful," says Carol Steinberg, senior vice president of e-commerce, marketing and business development at ShopNBC.com, whose early background was in internal support for information technology. "You can really make an impact quickly, and be known for that impact quickly."

Sophia Drivalas, director of online user experience, design and searchandising, W.W. Grainger Inc., notes that e-commerce involves multiple disciplines that come into play in the executive suite. "If you are in e-commerce you get a taste of operations, marketing, analytics, technology," she says. "It's a cross-section of functional areas so it's a great way to build some expertise in different functional capabilities you will need for higher-level positions in the organization."

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