Dr Kathryn Watson
Kathryn is the Principal Investigator on the ESRC-funded project ‘Raising the Ceiling on Diversity and Inclusion: A Corporate Retail Case Study’. She is also the Research Impact Manager for the Business School and supports members of faculty with achieving impact from their research in management practice and policy.

Diversity and inclusion are highly topical issues for businesses and large employers. This is especially true in the retail sector. Increasing competition from overseas players, rapidly developing omnichannel retailing and increasingly complex and fragmented consumer markets present the sector with a difficult and ever-changing business environment.

Many business leaders acknowledge that embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace leads to more innovation, better access to talented employees and improved performance. Despite these gains, many companies are adopting diversity strategies simply because ‘it is the right thing to do’, rather than for wider strategic reasons.

While much has been written on the business and moral case for diversity, there is less understanding of the processes involved in effectively implementing a diversity strategy and bringing about real organisational change.


January 2017 saw the start of a major research project led by the University of Leeds and leading retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), together with the universities of Durham and Birmingham. It aims to understand and improve knowledge of the effective implementation of diversity and inclusion strategies in the retail sector and in organisations more broadly.

M&S has effectively opened its doors for the research team to engage closely with staff and explore in detail many of the processes and practices within the company. It is a rare opportunity for academic researchers to be granted this level of access within a business organisation. The team will work in partnership with M&S to identify ways in which the company can build on its existing strong organisational culture, to ensure an inclusive business environment that enables all individuals to perform to their maximum potential and deliver excellent customer service.

The three-year project has so far involved extensive research including interviews with M&S’s top management team and a cross-section of staff from different areas of the country, in a wide range of roles. Members of the research group also shadowed regional managers and their teams. A further staff survey has addressed issues of career progression and promotion, diversity and inclusion, work-life balance and career success.

Although the project aims to develop knowledge, thinking and practice in the retail sector, businesses in general will benefit from the outputs, and this will be supported by M&S. The team will broaden the dissemination of the findings to include knowledge exchange with non-retail businesses, HR managers, consultants and policymakers.

The Leeds Trinity shopping centre

The Leeds Trinity shopping centre

Diversity and inclusion initiatives

The project was publically launched at the University of Leeds during National Inclusion Week in September 2017. Simmone Haywood, Head of Talent at M&S, spoke at an ‘On Your Marks’ event – a collaborative knowledge and networking series which showcases the University’s strategic partnership with M&S. She explained that the company has always tried to “do the right thing” and, given its size and reach (more than 84,000 staff and 979 stores in the UK), M&S can play a part in supporting the diversity and inclusion agenda.

M&S has set up five staff diversity networks, which have more than 2,500 members.

M&S has made huge progress over the past three years with the introduction of many new diversity and inclusion initiatives. The retailer has set up five staff diversity networks, which have more than 2,500 members and are led by the employees themselves.

The groups that have been set up are:

  • Gender Network
  • Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) group
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group
  • Parents.net group which provides support to employees on family issues
  • Buddy Network which helps staff with disabilities and mental health issues.

The networks are open to all members of staff. ‘Allies’ (ie non-focal group members) are especially welcome to join. The groups operate via M&S’s Yammer site in order to connect employees across the UK to discuss these important issues.

M&S has also been a member of the 30% club, a campaign launched in May 2010 with the goal of having 30% of women on the boards of the UK’s biggest (FTSE 100) businesses, for a number of years. Currently, 36% of the M&S Board of Directors and 41% of the Operations Committee are women. The UK average is 27.9%. The business is also part of the Stonewall Equality Index, the definitive benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion in the workplace.


Research impact

This study is timely as in their Plan A 2025 commitments, M&S has committed to ‘launching an independently endorsed retail industry leading inclusion strategy that is locally relevant for business, franchise partners and supply chain’ by 2019. The retail sector (a sub-sector of the wholesale and retail sector) is a significant part of the UK economy. In 2016 the total value of retail sector sales was £358 billion and the industry employed 2.8 million people.

Although the study is UK based, M&S has said that they intend to roll out best practice internationally. They currently have 454 international stores, which are mainly operated as franchises, so it is likely there will be different processes involved to implement this research across the globe.

The research team regularly reports back their findings to M&S, hosting high level analysis meetings and producing reports for consideration by the M&S senior management and Board of Directors. The research project has already begun to fulfil its aims by providing objectives and impactful data for M&S, leading to new organisational initiatives.

The project includes a planned series of public dissemination events from 2018 onwards. These events will be supported by M&S participation.


Find out more

Project overview and additional information