Case study

Think, Act, Report: Marks & Spencer

How Marks & Spencer has improved gender balance in the company.

Marks & Spencer employs around 81,000 people, with 72,000 in the UK. The company was featured in the Times Top 50 Employers for Women in 2011 and 2012.

Marks & Spencer signed up to the ‘30% Club’, a campaign which has a target of at least 30% women on company boards. They reached this target in 2012 with 31% of women on its board. At Marks & Spencer, women account for 32% of senior management below board level. They are encouraged to take on trusteeships and non-executive directorships to help develop and build capability as board directors of the future. 74% of their workforce is female.

Increase employee engagement

Marks & Spencer aims to increase employee engagement by demonstrating that female employees can progress into senior roles. This is an intrinsic part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach and forms part of its brand. The company actively seeks to encourage women into work from disadvantaged backgrounds through its Employability Programme - Marks & Start. This has been running since 2003. Starting as a UK initiative Marks & Spencer has continued to expand this to its international business to help promote opportunities for women in the workplace, wherever they work in the world.

Increasing the health and wellbeing of its entire workforce is a Plan A commitment (under their CSR banner) and the company is actively working to help employees to do this, with specific support for women.

Listening to employee views

Marks & Spencer works to provide employees with clear feedback and communication channels through which they can give their views. The company listens and responds specifically to the needs of female employees.

Marks & Spencer has a diversity working party, comprised of Human Resources (HR) and CSR functions.

Diversity group set up

The diversity group was established to minimise duplication of work and give advice to departmental contacts for diversity. Since its inception the group has worked together on several projects, including creating a Diversity Matters DVD which is now shown to all employees at induction.


Marks & Spencer runs an annual employee engagement survey and the company ensures all results are split by gender to fully understand responses by women across the organisation. The results showed that the following percentages of employees felt engaged in their jobs and the work of the company:

  • 76% of women compared to 73% of men in the retail section
  • 79% of women compared to 77% of men in the head office

This year Marks & Spencer is trialling an open comments box to better understand employees, and the company will particularly focus on responses from female employees. The company has also increased the frequency of the survey with quarterly ‘pulse’ surveys to monitor employee engagement with the business.

Marks & Spencer has consistently removed barriers to work for all employees by introducing flexible working early and often over and above legal requirements. For example:

  • the company removed the default retirement age in 2001 – 10 years ahead of government legislation because employees and line managers wanted to be able to retain an experienced workforce and give people a choice
  • in 2003 Marks & Spencer was one of the first businesses to introduce the right to request flexible working to all employees: 73% of female employees work part-time and 83% of over 50s work part-time
  • in 2006 Marks & Spencer introduced flexible retirement allowing people to take their pension benefits and continue working.
  • in 2010 85% of those taking their pension carried on working for the company and the majority of these were women

The combination of these strategies ensures many women want to work for Marks & Spencer. The company offers flexible employment opportunities to ensure it has more female candidates in senior roles within its business. All senior managers have committed to the actions in the Marks & Spencer CSR report. The company has included gender reporting within its CSR report in recent years in an open and transparent way.

Marks & Spencer has worked pro-actively with a number of charity partners to set and achieve stretching targets to enable women to gain work experience and gain employment.

As part of Marks & Spencer’s focus on health and wellbeing, it launched ‘Plan A’ in 2010 in addition to an offer of comprehensive breast screening that focuses on the over 40s. This has been offered for many years to female employees and spouses/partners of male employees.

Under the Retail Ambassador programme, employees go into schools to teach pupils about careers in retail. The Retail Ambassador Programme is an offshoot from the National Skills Academy for Retail and Skillsmart UK (prior to changes to this organisation) aimed at improving the skill base in the retail sector. It is a nationwide programme which operates in partnership with retail employers and educational institutions with the aim to inspire young people aged 14 years and above to pursue a successful career in retail.

Supporting the development of women employees

Marks & Spencer has created a positive culture for women by offering part time opportunities and flexible working options, which have resulted in a 73% female part-time workforce. These include women job sharing at all levels up to and including senior managers in the business and term-time contracts.

The company has female role models in senior positions within retail - 50% of store managers are women. At the top level 31% of the company board were women in 2012. CSR initiatives have also helped the company support women back into the workplace.

Some 5,000 people have been through the Marks & Start programme since it started. The company has targeted lone parents (98% of whom are women) and works with a charity partner to provide them with work experience. 40% of participants go on to find jobs with the company or another employer. Many ex-participants volunteer to become buddies for new participants, wanting to pass on their positive experiences. Therefore buddies are often women, and can relate to the challenges of participants entering the job market. The role of a buddy can be recognised as a step on the organisation’s career path of a customer assistant. 82% of buddies learned new skills, 93% feel motivated by involvement and 81% say it makes the company a better place to work.

On the company runs many health initiatives including weight loss and exercise challenges and get people involved as teams across the business to meet targets. The majority of participants were female.

Marks & Spencer also introduced a ‘Manage your Menopause’ micro-site which had a video and tips on the wellbeing website; this received extremely positive feedback from female employees.

The company’s National Business Involvement group (BIG) has 20 women representatives (83%). This group has been elected to represent 72,000 employees across the UK on key business issues and change. The business is dedicated to informing, involving and consulting with this group. The group has influenced major policy changes, eg to the absence, refund and holiday booking policy.

The BIG Idea scheme - which involves National BIG - was introduced in 2010 when results from the Your Say Survey revealed that people wanted to be listened to and get involved. Every quarter, a director poses a question on a specific business issue, employees can submit ideas and the winner earns the chance to play a part in making the idea happen. The company has had particularly high engagement in the scheme from women and this year 68% of the ideas reaching the quarterly top ten have been from women.

Employment conditions

Marks & Spencer conducts a comprehensive pay review by gender across the business annually and this data is reviewed by the HR Leadership team and actions agreed. Pay ranges are attached to roles and are made available in an open and transparent way on the company intranet. The reward team carries out external benchmarking throughout the year and monitors the impact of managerial pay decisions.

Since the company removed the default retirement age in 2001 and introduced flexible retirement in 2006 (where employees can start drawing their pension whilst continuing to work for the company), the number of employees aged 65 or over has more than doubled, improving the age diversity of female employees.

By extending flexible working and offering part time opportunities, supported by a clear career management process, the company helped women stay in key roles and continues to progress their careers. Marks & Spencer has retained high performing women.

Next steps

Marks & Spencer’s flexible working policy gives line managers the confidence to view flexible working in a positive light, prior to making a decision. Flexible working will be further embedded by making information more accessible to employees, making employees more aware of options available to help them achieve a work life balance. The company remains committed to supporting employability in local communities and Marks & Start plays an important role in this strategy. Last year and this year the company will place 1,000 people on the Marks & Start programme in stores across the business. The company has already expanded its employability programme internationally and to date has provided 300 women across Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh with work placement opportunities.

In addition, the company’s recently launched new national distribution centre in Donington has a dedicated role setting up the Marks & Start initiative with Remploy. This is an important step to enable those from a disabled or disadvantaged background to work in the business.

Marks & Spencer has expanded work with women to include female offenders. The company works closely with female prisons, through employees using their charitable volunteering day to run employability and skills workshops for women offenders, while promoting employability programmes to them. Some of these ex-offenders have secured jobs with Marks & Spencer since leaving prison.

In the last year the company has had 330 lone parent placements and 40% of those completing a placement have been offered permanent roles.

We will continue to work with an organisation called Pure Potential which works across schools and colleges helping to provide information and understanding about their options on leaving education. The company provides relevant and up-to-date case studies around women who successfully complete the Graduate and Management Trainee Programmes.

Marks & Spencer works with the Fashion Retail Academy which has a strong female presence by offering placement opportunities for their students, running mock job interviews and participating in careers fairs on campus.

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Published 7 October 2013