Today, 8th March 2023, women all over the world are celebrating and raising awareness of International Women’s Day, with this year’s theme: #EmbraceEquity. To help add to the celebrations, we spoke to six furnishing industry women who share their respective thoughts on what International Women’s Day means to them and the industry.
From the retail side includes Wendy Martin Green – Owner of Peter Green Furnishers, Sharon Robson – PR and Communications Manager at Mattress Online and Jill Barrett – Owner and Director of Barretts of Woodbridge. Featuring from the manufacturing sector is Fara Butt – Director at Shire Beds, Natasha Shillingford – Brand Marketing Director, International at La-Z-Boy and Bilkis Patel, Director at Vogue Beds.
What progress have you seen on women and gender equality in the furnishing industry?
Sharon Robson: “I’m fairly new to the industry – having only worked within it for two years – and I can only really speak to what I’ve noticed in the bed world. However, I am seeing more and more women stepping into senior roles recently such as at HSL and Dreams, and having my role at Mattress Online is a huge step forward. There is definitely starting to be more representation for females in the bed world and its clear things are changing – I’ve attended a number of retail shows and there’s more female leaders present, like Fara Butt, who is also on the NBF council – a valid reminder that there’s more opportunity out there for other women.”
Jill Barrett: “There’s definitely been a healthy debate on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in various industries, including the furniture industry which has traditionally been very much a male bastion. My experience here at Barretts of Woodbridge is that both men and women can excel in interior design, bringing their own unique perspectives and creativity to the field – success depends on individual skills and effort.”
Wendy Martin Green: “Well, I have not worked in the furniture industry for all that long as I took over my business from my mother after she died in 2010. It took me some while before I noticed an imbalance between men and women in the industry…with men far outweighing women in terms of top managers and owners. However, in my own life I was made very aware of gender inequality at an early age. As a school leaver I was told quite bluntly that the two positions I had applied for and wanted, were not open to women. Obviously since those days things have improved greatly in all spheres. However, that being said the gender gap is still very striking in both the furniture retail and manufacturing sectors, which is curious in an industry where the main consumer is almost entirely female.”
Fara Butt: “There are certainly more women in the industry now than when I first started but it is still predominately a male industry. Women in leadership roles are still few and far between and we still have a way to go towards greater representation across all areas of the industry.”
Bilkis Patel: “I’ve found the furniture industry itself is a male dominated industry but for the past few years there has been a number of women stepping into more leadership and management roles which is great to see, especially since women are the key decision makers from a consumer perspective. I still do feel there is still a gap in the industry when it comes to women in manufacturing, I think the opportunities for women are rare and scarce when it comes to courses in furniture making and woodwork.”
Natasha Shillingford: “I first started providing marketing consultancy to businesses in the UK furniture sector in 2010, and certainly the number of women represented in the industry, and even the language used around women has improved in that short time. I believe the digital revolution has driven this, with the necessity for a younger generation and broader skillset in the sector. Having said that, there is a long way to go. This is still a male dominated industry, which can create unbalanced ways of thinking. Thankfully, it is becoming more unusual and more shocking when we witness unacceptable language or actions directed at women.”
How does the company you work for implement women progression in the workplace?
Sharon Robson: “Mattress Online has invested £75k in ongoing staff training and development. We’ve had a major focus on training to empower employees regardless of their identity or background. This is all part of our stance on equity and equality in the workplace, providing people with the opportunities they need to flourish. We’ve seen female operational staff undertake NVQ qualifications in Customer Service and Team Leading to increase their confidence and we help the women in our company through ILM Courses – whether that be in coaching and mentoring or leadership and management. We’ve also supported our female staff to undertake Digital Marketing qualifications to help them gain skills that are in high demand for our industry.
Kirsty Mullen, our Development Team Manager, is a great example of this. She progressed from a Front-end Developer to a Manager in only a short space of time. Kirsty says: “Credit goes to the full support that I’ve received from the leadership team and my colleagues here. I’m grateful to be part of an organisation that takes inclusivity seriously and is keen to develop young female professionals in what can be a very competitive industry. Our CEO empowers everyone in the business to progress. He is approachable, fair, measured and very supportive and encouraging. That’s a culture that filters down to each and every one of us.”
Jill Barrett: “We’re a business who happens to have quite a female dominated work force! From ownership to Heads of Department, women excel in every field. For us, it’s now not about diversity, rather becoming a true meritocracy. Take our Flooring Department Head, Debbie Golder. Two years ago, she was a sales assistant in our Homewares and Gifts Department. We saw her talent and moved Debbie into Flooring, and within a year she is running what is our biggest Department, and very successfully too!”
Wendy Martin Green: “I think the problem with the lack of women in managerial positions in the furniture industry is not so much that they are selected against or not tough enough to make it, but more likely because the industry does not attract women in the first place. This is most likely due to the lack of good role models in the sector as a whole. At Peter Green we would celebrate having more female employees on the furniture side but have never ever had much luck in attracting them. If we don’t have women coming into our ranks at a junior level, how can we progress them?”
Fara Butt: “At Shire Beds we have more women working for us than when I started when we had just one. We also have women in all areas of the business, shop floor, sales, administration and leadership. As a trained and experienced secondary school teacher I am always looking at ways in which to develop the skills set of all my staff. Playing to an individual’s strengths and building confidence before introducing something challenging for growth ensures progression – and obviously a great deal of encouragement is also needed.”
Bilkis Patel: “Luckily for myself the director is my father, Ebrahim Patel, and he has always raised me to believe I can achieve anything and to have no limitations, which is the mindset needed in a male dominated industry- Giving women the same opportunities to progress within our company and go up a level in whatever area they may be in is how we implement progression for women in our working environment.”
Natasha Shillingford: “La-Z-Boy recently appointed our CEO, Melinda Whittington, who is one of four women in our corporation’s senior leadership team. On the team alongside Melinda we have Carol Lee, Vice President and Chief Information Office, Raphael Richmond, who is Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, and Katie Vanderjagt, our Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer. I’m hugely proud to work for a forward thinking organisation which is committed to creating opportunities for all. I am a member of the La-Z-Boy Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Council and as such I work with colleagues around the globe to support, represent and educate employees on issues affecting under-represented groups. It’s really important that all aspects of our workforce feel they are able to have their needs met and be empowered to initiate change where it may be necessary.”
Why do we need more women in leadership?
Sharon Robson: “Gender equality in leadership roles has been a priority for many businesses and organisations but is often overlooked or given insufficient attention. I have previously worked in very-heavily male dominated environments and have been very aware from experience that gender bias impacts careers. I’ve been very lucky to work in companies like Mattress Online where the topic of inclusivity remains high on the agenda for leadership and as part of this culture, we are always looking for different ways to improve equity for employees at all levels. Having more women in leading roles not only advances the fight for gender equality but also has clear advantages for businesses, such as improved team performance, stronger creative thinking, and increased innovation. We must continue to strive for a more equitable workplace for everyone and commit to making progress towards achieving gender parity.”
Jill Barrett: “I would say about 75% of the Barretts customer decision makers are women, so having women in leadership roles is probably a good idea! Without wanting to sound sexist, but I think there’s less ego involved with women, and we tend to take a more co-operative and empathetic approach.”
Wendy Martin Green: “More women leaders in any workplace will break down the barriers created by gender bias. They will set good role models and encourage other women to follow them. I believe that the challenges of their journey to reach management levels makes them strong and insightful. They will more readily understand the issues faced by other minority groups. Women are also considered to be better communicators and great multitaskers, all good qualities for a manager.”
Fara Butt: “It’s important to have greater representation in senior and leadership positions for a more egalitarian fair society but that aside women can achieve commercial success through a different route and that can be exciting. Women can bring a different style of negotiating and leveraging and closing deals that can be gentler without necessarily losing any of the success.”
Bilkis Patel: “Again, touching on the fact that women are the key decision makers when it comes to purchasing furniture, women know what women want, therefore know the market. Women in leadership roles provide a different skillset and perspective, as well being resilient, conscientious they lead by example and are highly empathic which is important in a leadership.”
Natasha Shillingford: “A balanced and representative workforce has been shown to be good for business, and women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership. Studies have shown that businesses with greater gender diversity are more profitable and outperform those which are less diverse. This is partly due to the differing skillsets and natural abilities that women can offer. Aside from this, it’s vital we offer younger generations the role models throughout society to reinforce to them that they can be anything they want to be.”
Share a women’s empowerment moment that inspired you.
Sharon Robson: “One person we’re particularly proud of is Kirsty Mullen who I mentioned previously. She is a rising star. Her invaluable technical skills truly set her apart, evident by her rapid rise through the ranks to manager within a year and her very exciting shortlisting for Insider Yorkshire’s Young Professional’s Awards 2023. Since joining the company in 2021, Kirsty has already worked her way up from Front-End Developer to Development Team Lead and is now the Development Team Manager. She has key experience in the industry, knows the business well and is a highly experienced and skilled Young Digital and Tech Professional. Kirsty loves what she does and is very assured at it. Solving problems, delivering value and supporting others are her passions. Not only has Kirsty been empowered to perform well in a male-dominated industry and given the necessary support she needed, she also acts a representative for her peers and as a role model for those joining the business now or in the future.
Jill Barrett: “Watching Debbie Golder (mentioned above) grow in confidence as she first mastered the many aspects of the flooring industry, then successfully led a team in a challenging environment has been a wonderful example of women’s empowerment for me.”
Wendy Martin Green: “The women’s liberation movement in the 1960’s and 70’s was something I was very aware of as a child and a teenager. I feel that this movement, which sought for equal rights for women opened people’s minds to the possibilities and as a result paved the way for greater opportunities and greater personal freedom for women.”
Fara Butt: “It’s very hard to choose a moment as we are still on the journey but there are many strong women that have inspired me. If I had to give one example of recent it would be Jacinda Ardern, she’s lead in her own unique feminine style and she knew when it was time to quit – leaving in her own way – I liked that.”
Bilkis Patel: “A women’s empowerment moment that inspired me, was the whole of 2014 where feminism and women’s empowerment seemed to gain a huge amount of media attention. Seeing women standing up for gender equality and equal opportunities itself was inspiring.”
Natasha Shillingford: “I am a big music fan and enjoy reading autobiographies by women who were pioneers in their respective fields. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet some of the icons who were founders of the punk movement in the UK. Punk symbolises a break from societal rules, and the personal risks that these women exposed themselves to during the 1970s and 80s, simply for the right to express themselves through fashion and music, I find inspiring. The shocking violence and abuse they had to endure at the time has paved the way for young people to be able to be creative, enjoy what they love and be true to themselves without fear of being spat at, stabbed or sexually assaulted.”
What does International Women’s Day mean to you and what’s International Women’s Day message?
Sharon Robson: “I believe International Women’s Day offers an important opportunity to pause and reflect on the efforts of everyone working towards true gender equality and in line with this year’s 2023 campaign, equity too. However, while the 8th March is important, so too are the other 364 days in a year. The hard work must not stop and equity isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.”
Jill Barrett: “For me, the important message is – it’s not just men who can sell carpet & furniture, women can do it just as well, and they do it just as well! So, give it a go! For us, the main ingredient to the Barretts workforce is humour – we’re all friends and when you visit the store, you’ll notice laughter isn’t far away, and we love to get to know new customers and hear their stories.”
Wendy Martin Green: “It is good to be able to celebrate the progress and accomplishments that have been made towards women’s rights and towards equality both in this county and across the globe. Looking back even within our own short lives we can see that we have come a long way, but there is still much to do. My message to young women would be to… “Always behave as if you should be there, because you should.”
Fara Butt: “International Women’s Day allows us annually in a very focussed way to acknowledge women who achieve amazing things, it gives us an opportunity to celebrate the unsung heroes, it reminds us that the journey must continue and it inspires so many of us on this day to just go for it.”
Bilkis Patel: “International Women’s Day for me is about celebrating all the women around me who continue to inspire me daily, with their strength and determination. My IWD message is and to quote Serena Williams – “Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another. We’re strongest when we cheer each other on.”
Natasha Shillingford: “The theme of this year’s IWD is embracing equity, over and above equality. This is such a simple yet vital concept that is the key to all aspects of social progress. It acknowledges that women often need active support in order reach the same opportunities as their male counterparts, rather than the equality of a level playing field. A scenario to illustrate the difference between equity and equality could be if a particular job stipulated a minimum height requirement. This offers equality, in the sense that anyone, regardless of gender, can apply for the role if they meet that criteria. However, on average women are shorter than men, so fewer would be able to meet this requirement. To create equity, the job role should be reviewed to see how shorter people could be enabled to do the same job effectively, holistically looking at what changes could be made to the role, or equipment, to give any potential applicant an equal chance to get the job. As part of the IWD mission I’ll be aiming to educate friends, family, colleagues and others about how to consider equity to aid change.”