The UK furniture industry remains a male-dominated environment, but women are increasingly making the decisions which shape the sector. In April's Furniture News, we asked some of the trade’s leaders to offer their views on gender politics, female recruitment and the rate of change – here's what The French Bedroom Company's Georgia Metcalfe had to say …
The founder and creative director of online store The French Bedroom Company, Georgia was a finalist in the 2021 NatWest everywoman Awards, in the Aphrodite category – which recognises a woman who founded her business while raising a child/children aged 12 or under.
Day to day, how aware are you of the furniture industry’s gender balance? Is equality important to you?
At European trade fairs, you can see an even gender split – but UK furniture trade shows comprise predominantly men. In almost all businesses we work with, whether supply or manufacture, there are males at the helm.
There is scope for acceptance and change here – the furniture industry isn’t dominated by men because they are better at designing, manufacturing or selling furniture, it’s a hangover from times when women traditionally didn’t work. It’s an exceptionally friendly industry, and it’s rare that women are considered below men – it’s simply the numbers that aren’t in line with other industries.
Traditionally, the furniture industry has been one of the slowest-moving industries to respond to change, whether in tech advancements, new product development or, in this case, gender equality. Yet the irony is that it’s females who predominantly make the purchasing decisions for the home, and specifically for the bedroom.
I work in furniture, but also ecommerce and tech. The two industries couldn’t be more different. One is bleeding edge, Zoom calls, trainers and flat white coffees, the other is suits in meeting rooms, handwritten minutes and secretaries – and I don’t need to say which is which!
At the start of your career, were you made to feel welcome by the trade, or did you have more obstacles to overcome than a man might?
I didn’t aspire to fill a man’s shoes. I carved my own road into the industry, knowing I had something different to offer, to a different audience and a different route to market. Most of the males in the industry work on the trade side, supplying and manufacturing. I was going direct to consumer, knowing my strength lay in customer insight, understanding and marketing.
I did come up against some animosity from a supplier in the early days, when I enquired about a bespoke size for a customer in France and was told I was “a silly little girl” for thinking they could manufacture bespoke sizes. Yes, it was frustrating – the thinking behind this response was a hurdle to overcome – but I used it to empower and encourage me to strive to change the status quo, so that the next generations of girls and women won’t experience these comments and career obstacles.
At dinner parties, I still recall the story from my first trade show in Birmingham. I met with a potential supplier, discussed ordering a container of products from him, and he reached into his jacket pocket to hand me his business card – except he pulled out a calling card from an escort. After a blushed exchange, he retracted the card, and reached into his other pocket for the correct business card, only to extract a second escort’s card! Perhaps an industry steeped in male domination has been able to overlook this inappropriate blend of business and pleasure …
Is there anything you know about women and the workplace now that you wish you’d known sooner?
Women have an amazing ability to understand each other. Business empathy is my driving force, and every decision I make at work is based on empathy, understanding, care and relationships – with my customers, my suppliers, my team or business partners, agents and agencies.When you put relationships at the heart of your decisions, you’re placing your business in a resilient position during times of adversity.
Women make great empaths, they understand and seek to change. So, this genuine, authentic desire to connect and understand customers makes for a great customer experience and an optimal product offering. Empathy and insight goes beyond the data of a CRM, GA or any digital attribution model.
Can you share an anecdote/example of a time you felt held back or discriminated against due to your sex?
There have been many times I’ve been only offered a half-hearted handshake. I’m not too delicate to take a full handshake.
During a sales pitch from a firm of accountants, they spoke only to Ben, my co-director. They didn’t make eye contact with me, and my questions were put to Ben, as if I wasn’t there. Needless to say, we didn’t appoint them.
On the whole, the industry is friendly and accepting. However, there have been times when my open nature has been construed as a weakness. I love big business, I love big numbers, but I don’t like a serious disposition. I work hard and I have fun along the way – it is possible to get great results without being stern and serious.
Conversely, can you identify any stand-out gestures of fairness/equality?
In 2019 we worked with our UK factory to develop the UK’s first plastic-free mattress. The factory was under new ownership and financial pressure. The male owners sat patiently whilst we developed and sourced fillings, yarns and damask covers for the prototype.
This relationship is formed on hard work, trust and dedication to achieve the highest standards and pioneering designs. I’ve never felt the team at the factory look down on my skillset or treat me differently because I’m female. Consequently, we have a really great working relationship and they now make almost 20% of our beds.
Do you feel things are generally heading in the right direction?
They are in Europe – the trade shows are very equally balanced between the genders. In the UK, I see increasing numbers of female sales agents, but not at director level. Vispring has a formidable female sales manager who understands the minutiae of every coil, spring, stitch and filling that make their mattress collection so technically exceptional. She also really understands the needs of the end-consumer and what they expect from the Vispring product, brand and service.
Sadly, though, I often hear female sales agents say: “I need to check with my director, he will be able to make that decision.”
Women are experts at understanding other women. The French Bedroom Company is successful because we listen to our customers, value their feedback and develop products in colours and designs to match their taste, their home and their lifestyle. We do this by talking to them via focus groups, surveys, and conversational commerce – we love to chat, and our customers do too!
What would you tell young women who are thinking about entering the furniture industry?
The industry will benefit from a female perspective, designing and styling for female consumers. This has been neglected, and you can make a real difference by bringing these qualities to an industry that has previously been a sea of navy and grey at trade shows.
It’s a creative industry, and becoming increasingly pioneering. It’s an industry where hard work and innovative design can really make a difference. Don’t just design products that you like, or because you think they’re clever or different. Do your research, and ensure you’re answering a problem or a need.
In order to really succeed in the industry, you have to start with the purchaser – know how your end-consumers live, what they want from their home and the furniture they use. Then design for their visual aspirations and marry that with their functional requirements. Every stage of every process requires research, and the end consumer has to be at the centre of every question you ask.
Read the complete feature in April's Furniture News.