Sexism and ageism behind fury of Pretty Little Thing’s appointment of Molly-Mae

A business headline from within the fashion industry caused quite a stir recently.

UK-based fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing appointed Molly-Mae Hague, best known as a former contestant of the ITV show Love Island, as their creative director.

The women’s multi-million-pound fashion brand is said to have secured the signing with a seven-figure annual salary.

In typical fashion (excuse the pun) in such a scenario, the public backlash has been uncomfortably vitriolic. People from both within and outside the industry have been quick to offer up scathing remarks, blasting her assumed lack of credentials, level of experience, time served in the industry and work ethic (the jumped-to conclusion being that she will not be willing to put in the time and hours needed).

As a businesswoman myself, all of this mud-slinging has left me with a very unpleasant taste in my mouth.

It is important to start off by saying that of course, it would be naïve to think that Molly-Mae’s role as a social media influencer has not played a part in her securing this prestigious director role.

As a 22-year-old woman who has managed to amass six million Instagram followers of the same demographic that PLT is targeting, the fashion brand clearly saw someone who could shift some stock and generate some serious sales for them.

However, this is where the dangerous and bitter assumptions quite frankly need to stop. Firstly, Molly-Mae was an influencer with impressive brand and product range deals (i.e. experience) before her appearance on Love Island, which catapulted her following and audience reach.

As far as credentials go, businesses hire people for all sorts of different reasons; where consumer goods such as mass-market clothing items are concerned, there is no getting away from the fact that in the digital world, influence is a powerful credential in its own right. Furthermore, no-one has any idea what skills or talents she has waiting to be tapped into and blossom.

Taking next the argument that she has not put 20-plus years into the industry and ‘worked her way up’ to the role, this argument is simply antiquated. The world of business has changed and being a ‘lifer’ at a company or even at an industry is not the norm as it once was.

Not only is it more usual for people to ‘job-hop’ these days, but it is also more commonplace to completely change sectors or even retrain into a new profession later in life. This benefits businesses, providing a rich tapestry of transferable skills and other sector experiences.

Moving on to questions around her work ethic, there seems to be a whole army of people on Linked In stating with authority that she ‘will not put in 50+ hours of graft a week’ and that she ‘will not be turning up to meetings and making key decisions’.

How on earth are we to know what this young woman’s work ethic is and her level of ambition, grit and determination? Are we saying that career commitment has an age and a gender, one that is neither 22 years old nor female?

This brings us on to the darker underbelly, which is where the real problem lies. I was in my twenties when I launched my brewery business in what is regarded as a very male-dominated industry.

It was so male-dominated in fact that especially in the early days, many assumed I was the ‘sales rep’ or ‘promo girl’.

Whether through ignorance or blatant sexism, it really did not and still does not matter. What does matter is that the assumption clearly has its roots in me being a young woman, and you do not have to be a genius to see the same thing happening here.

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When Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, published her best-selling book Lean In in 2013, she shared the uncomfortable fact that when it comes to applying for jobs, men apply for positions if they meet just 60% of the requirements, while women only apply if they meet 100% of them. Molly-Mae is a wonderful exception to this rule; she will be fully aware that she is arguably not the most qualified person on paper, but has not been afraid to push boundaries, put herself out there and take on the challenge.

In a business world where women are still massively under-represented at the top table, we need more role models paving the way with this mindset.

The public slating of this woman’s success and all the negativity that has surrounded this story is demoralising for other women and flies in the face of any gender equality progress. ‘You’re too old, you’re too fat, you’re not pretty enough’ – it really is relentless for women.

For all the rhetoric in the business world of encouraging women into senior roles and promoting a more gender-balanced boardroom, the negativity around such stories undoes all of the hard work and has the potential to deter women from being bold and going after their dreams.

Instead, we should be rooting for Molly-Mae and congratulating her on her success, wishing her to be the best that she can be.

Only then is it fair game to offer up judgements – on her performance and achievements within the role, not on factors that have their roots in her age and gender.

Sarah John is co-founder and director of Boss Brewing, Swansea

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