If anyone can speak with authority about the importance of diversity in retailing, it’s CEO of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) Paul Zahra. And it starts with gender inclusion, he tells the audience at Sala harbourside restaurant in Sydney’s Pyrmont. He’s here at Qantas magazine’s Think. event, in association with LSH Auto Australia, as part of a panel discussing diversity in business.

While active in supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, Zahra believes the foundation of diversity strategy lies in companies achieving gender equality. “If you can’t get gender equality right in a corporate situation, then the other pillars of diversity – cultural, LGBTQIA+, people living with a disability – don’t have a hope,” he says. “We’ve come a long way but there’s so much more to be done.”

Over more than 40 years in the retail industry, Zahra has been an active advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. “A sense of being valued and welcomed can only come from diversity,” says Zahra, a past chair of PwC’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, and founding chair of The Pinnacle Foundation, which supports disadvantaged LGBTQIA+ youth.

“That sounds really simple, but for many people there’s high anxiety when they walk into a boardroom and they’re the only female or the only gay person in an all-white male environment.”

Paul Zahra

On top of supporting individuals from all backgrounds to succeed, it’s clear that companies with genuine commitment to supporting diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI) cultures do better in a business sense, too. “Diversity is a strategy and inclusion is the outcome,” says Zahra, who spent almost 15 years working at David Jones, including four years as CEO and managing director.

“When I joined David Jones in the 1990s, there was one female board member, yet about 75 per cent of discretionary shopping is done by women. The obstacles that were ahead for David Jones could have been avoided had they had better gender equity at the board level.”

Today, Zahra is working towards more progressive thinking across his industry, encouraging retailers to sign up to the ARA Statement for Gender Equality.

“I realised my own industry was full of inequality – look at a wall of fragrances in a department store and you see women’s fragrance is up to 20 to 30 per cent more expensive. There’s no reason for it – the ingredients are the same, just tweaked. A woman’s hairdresser is sometimes four to five times more expensive than a male’s. We’re asking our members to sign up to this statement and remove all gender stereotypes, including pricing and visual merchandising.”

Paul Zahra

Zahra envisions a future where gender fades into the background in sections of stores renowned for their pink and blue divide. “You wouldn’t walk into a department store and see ‘girls’ toys’ and ‘boys’ toys’ – they’re just ‘toys’ and people can choose if they want a Tonka truck or a Barbie doll, regardless of how they identify.”

He’s adamant that retailers that incorporate diversity and inclusion across the business will reap the rewards at the cash register and the ecommerce check-out. “Consumers today, particularly younger generations, are very much shopping around their personal values, and diversity is really important to them. People are loyal to brands if their values are aligned.”

Think. is a thought-leadership event and content series, presented by Qantas magazine and in association with LSH Auto Australia – the country’s leading Mercedes-Benz dealer group. Find out more about LSH Auto Australia.

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