The UK furniture industry remains a male-dominated environment, but women are increasingly making the decisions which shape the sector. For April's issue of Furniture News, Paul Farley asked some of the trade’s leaders to offer their views on gender politics, female recruitment and the rate of change …
A decade ago, I helped champion an awards programme developed by the (then) team behind the Manchester Furniture Show, Women in Furnishings (WIF). Although short-lived, it helped shine a light on the issue, and made me think how strange it was that our industry chiefly comprised men selling to other men – even though women were clearly the principal decisionmakers at a consumer level.
Although it appears that women are increasingly taking more prominent roles in the furniture industry, I wonder how much has truly changed across the board since then?
According to McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace report, 87% of corporate America described itself as “highly committed” to gender diversity in 2019 – a huge leap from the 56% recorded in its initial survey in 2012. Yet, says the consultant, there remains a “broken rung” at the first step on the ladder, with women being promoted to management at far lower rates than men.
Then there’s the added burnout brought on by the pandemic, as female workers at every level fall back into unpaid care and domestic roles more easily than their male counterparts. PwC’s 2021 Women in Work Index estimates that the impact of Covid-19 will set progress made towards gender parity back to 2017 levels – and states that the UK already lags significantly behind other countries in its share of women in full-time employment (just 64%, as opposed to 89% of men).
The House of Commons Library estimates that the gender pay gap in April 2020 was 15.5% – and that’s before the pandemic’s impact was truly felt.
The business world might purport to be following an agenda of equality, but it’s clear that the reality is somewhat behind the rhetoric.
Like many manufacturing sectors, the UK furniture industry has always been, and remains, male dominated. With the move towards Industry 4.0 promising to remove many of the remaining barriers to entry, there’s every possibility that we could see a far more balanced workplace in the future – but first, the trade needs to work on its image and become a more attractive career choice to women, from the classroom up.
“Girls are not offered furnituremaking as a subject option in most state schools within the UK,” says Dr Lynn Jones, the former head of Bucks New University’s furniture department. “Within schools’ art and design ‘diet’, furnituremaking is relatively invisible. When I studied furniture design and making at university in the 1980s, I was the only female. Today, figures have improved on some furniture and product design courses, but not to the extent where there’s an equal gender balance on furnituremaking courses – so it’s no surprise there are so few women and non-binary woodworkers.”
Once they’ve started out on this track, says Lynn, it’s vital to keep them on it – as crises of confidence, workplace misogyny and the aforementioned pay gap can make progress a real uphill struggle.
“Many female and non-binary graduates, often with first-class degrees and MAs, end up working in shops, bars, cafes and other non-related, low-paid work, because they don’t think they are ‘good enough’ at making. They also leave the furniture industry more often than their male counterparts, citing discrimination in workshops as a common reason, so they have to be more inspired than men to both enter and remain in the industry.
“There will always be the people who get lucky, meet the right person at the right time, find a good female role model or happen upon a school which has a teacher or headteacher who cares about the subject enough to promote or include it. It is my personal belief, however, that there are a great many more who don’t.”
In April's issue of Furniture News, I’ve brought together an inspirational line-up of women who, luck aside, made enough right decisions to reach the top of their respective fields. They were kind enough to share their thoughts on the furniture industry’s gender balance, the added challenges they’ve faced as women, and the direction of progress – as well as offering would-be newcomers a few words of advice.
Read the feature in April's issue of Furniture News.