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Dawn Calleja, editor of ROB magazine, Dec 2021Steph Martyniuk/The Globe and Mail

The story of Jennifer Wong’s rise through the ranks at women’s clothing retailer Aritzia is an inspirational one. She started as a sales associate at a store in Vancouver in 1987, while studying economics at UBC. The teenager quickly impressed exacting founder Brian Hill, who’d opened the first Aritzia location three years earlier. “She had an ability to cut out the noise and eloquently share an opinion,” Hill told ROB magazine for a 2020 cover story on Wong. The chain now has more than 100 stores across North America, with revenue of $2.2 billion—and Wong’s been there for all of it. She was named COO in 2007 and president in 2015, a year before Aritzia went public in the biggest IPO of that year. In mid-2022, Hill announced she’d succeed him as CEO. Aritzia has appeared on our Women Lead Here benchmark since we launched it five years ago, and 69% of its executive team are women—making it the top company on this year’s list.

It’s the stuff of corporate fairytales. But like most such stories, this one has a dark side. This past July, Business Insider published a story alleging that Hill—now Aritzia’s executive chair and controlling shareholder—has fostered a toxic work environment in which he “prioritized aesthetics above all else...and at times became so enraged that he yelled and threw things in front of his employees.” The allegations include associates being fired for not being cute enough, racism against Black employees and deteriorating mental health due to high-pressure sales targets.

Wong wasn’t keen to tackle the allegations against Hill head on—and as yet another woman stuck facing the fallout from a man’s poor behaviour, who can blame her? “We pride ourselves on our inclusive culture, incredible diversity and opportunities for growth,” Wong said in a statement to ROB. “Having worked my way up through various roles, I count myself among the many success stories at Aritzia. We celebrate our expansive and diverse community, and strive to reflect it through our brands, people and the self-expression we encourage through fashion.”

It might be hard to square the Insider allegations with Aritzia’s strong performance on our Women Lead Here benchmark. But it drives home an important point, one that the vast majority of women—particularly women of colour—understand intuitively: One woman succeeding at an organization does not automatically mean it is welcoming to and respectful of all women.

And that’s the problem with today’s diversity discourse. Sometimes we can get lost in the data and forget the most important part: making sure women and people of colour stick around, and are given the chance to participate fully in and contribute to the corporate culture. Hiring, in other words, is just the start of the journey. And judging by the number of high-profile women who’ve decamped from top jobs over the past few years, it’s clear companies aren’t doing a great job on that score. For more, read Deborah Aarts’s essay, “Why women leave.” We hope it helps companies create better work environments for everyone—until we can finally stop talking about it.

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