Furniture News continued to explore women’s changing role in the furniture industry this March, asking leading female professionals for their views on equality and the trade’s likely directions. Here, Shire Beds' Fara Butt offers her take …
Former teacher Fara has spent nearly two decades as marketing director at The Shire Bed Company (Shire Beds). She is a member of the National Bed Federation (NBF) board, and Yorkshire regional chair of The Furniture Makers’ Company, and plays an active role with local organisations including the West Yorkshire Mayoral Task Force, Kirklees College and Connect Yorkshire. Last year, she was named Business Woman of the Year at the Yorkshire Choice Awards.
Day to day, how aware are you of the furniture industry’s gender balance? Is equality important to you?
Even today, the furniture industry is a predominantly male. It’s absolutely important for the industry to have greater representation, diversity and inclusion at every level, and particularly in senior leadership positions. This is important not just for the industry, but for a more egalitarian and fair society on the whole.
The gender imbalance is much more marked in the furniture industry, as opposed to my previous career which was teaching. I’m aware of the imbalance on a daily basis – even today, when I come across women in the industry, I’m still nicely surprised. It would be great if this was the norm, and not a surprise.
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 had had a career in secondary education, where issues around female empowerment are handled well. When I moved into the furniture industry, I felt I had gone back in time, in so many ways – there were fewer women, the hours longer and unsociable, work was away from home, across the country, or around the world. The world of furniture was quite different, and clearly inequalities and obstacles exist in terms of the culture particularly.
I remember an initial unease which was as much due to my discomfort related to my newness to the industry, and partly due the feeling of not fitting in. Being a woman in a male industry – and add to that being a woman of colour – I can see how it could be perceived as obstacles to overcome for someone in the early stages of their career.
I have also been very lucky and found most people I have worked with very welcoming and supportive in my work at Shire Beds.
Is there anything you know about women and the workplace now that you wish you’d known sooner?
I think women in male-dominated professions can sometimes have a version of the imposter syndrome which leads them to feel like outsiders. It’s important for women to be aware of this, and own it, by seeking out role models for inspiration and mentors for guidance. The power of a mentor is immense – seek out someone who is on your side. It doesn’t always have to be a woman (though that can help), but it’s important to have someone who believes in you and can guide you through the obstacles. I try to do that wherever I can at Shire Beds, and in the manufacturing sector.
Can you share an anecdote/example of a time you felt held back or discriminated against due to your sex?
I’m always surprised when you have a different view to a group of men in the room, and your view is perfectly valid yet you are met with incredulity. I recently had an experience like that, and I am convinced that reaction was more marked because I was a woman. In those circumstances you have to dig deep for the courage to stick to your point of view and believe in yourself.
Conversely, can you identify any stand-out gestures of fairness/equality?
There are some wonderful people who have offered me words of encouragement over the years. One of the first people in the industry to offer encouragement and support was Peter Spinks of Harrisons, when I started to work in the furniture industry. He would come across and visit the Shire Beds stand and offer words of wisdom at trade shows. It’s heartening to have this kindness, and at that time when I still felt like an outsider, having someone steeped in the industry offer you this is hugely uplifting and encouraging.
Do you feel things are generally heading in the right direction? How can other people/the industry make a difference?
Generally, we are heading in the right direction. We now have more women working in the industry than when I started (when, even in our company, we just had one). At Shire Beds we have women in all areas of the business – shop floor, sales, administration and leadership.
It is important to offer mentoring and support structures in the workplace or externally, especially when there might be isolated women in an organisation. I think Industry 4.0 and greater digitalisation is also exciting, as I believe it will bring greater opportunities for women in the industry. ‘Green jobs’ in sustainability, too, could encourage more women to join the industry, as many of these jobs may be suited to a culture more suited to women.
What would you tell young women who are thinking about entering the furniture industry?
I would absolutely encourage them to join, as there is such a wide variety of roles and jobs. It is such a huge industry that they will find something to suit them.
I would also ask them to learn from everyone, but not to be afraid of expressing their own thoughts and views. We as an industry need fresh ideas and diversity of thought, and young people and women have that in abundance. This can only be good for the industry.
Read more views on women's changing role in the industry in the March issue of Furniture News.