21 July 2024, 12:23
By Furniture News May 24, 2022

ufurnish.com's Toni Wood on the furniture industry's gender balance

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 ufurnish.com's Toni Wood had to say …

Toni is the CMO at furnishings retail search engine ufurnish.com, as well as being a fellow of the McKinsey Marketing Academy and advisor to Econsultancy. In 2019 she was named one of Marketing Week’s Top 100 Effective Marketers, and worked as DFS’ chief marketing and commercial officer for three years before that. 

Day to day, how aware are you of the furniture industry’s gender balance? Is equality important to you?

I strongly believe that ‘balance’ is broader than gender alone, and diversity and inclusion across the whole sector remains a challenge. Whilst there have definitely been improvements, this sector definitely lags behind others. You only have to look at the boardrooms of the businesses leading the sector to see how far we still have to go. 

Fairness and equality are very important to me, as I believe they are for most people. However, we all have to recognise our unconscious bias – it’s real, no matter who we are, we all have bias. Recognising it, where it is detrimental to building teams and businesses, and then acting on it is everyone’s responsibility. In my experience, real change only happens when it is driven top down, and this is proven out across businesses whatever the sector. 

I once read a great quote that really struck me: “The culture of a company is the behaviour the leaders exhibit, but more importantly, the ones they choose to walk by.” Lack of equality and fairness is something no-one should ever walk by! 

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?

My career started in food retail, then I moved into FMCG and spent 10 years in Geneva with Procter & Gamble (P&G). P&G has been championing diversity and inclusion for years, so when I returned to the UK and later joined the furniture industry I was definitely shocked by how far it lagged other industries. 

However, joining DFS as the CMO, and then later the CCMO, was a great opportunity to be part of the change the board were committed to make. My CEO at the time, Ian Filby, was a huge champion of diversity and inclusion, and was committed to making change happen. Under his leadership I believe the culture did move on. 

Whilst the sector definitely lags behind others in terms of its pace of change, it is definitely making progress. Throughout my career I have faced mixed reactions and various barriers due to my gender – but I am a strong believer in being part of the change, not sitting back and being a victim of circumstance. I do appreciate that it is much easier to say than do, and others have different experiences to me. 

Being part of defining and building a culture was one of the many reasons for my excitement when I first met Dee McGettrick and Ray Wright, the founders of ufurnish.com. I felt an instant connection to them and their vision. We share a passion to build a business that truly solves a consumer problem, and we are committed to blending the experiences we have to do that in the right way, for our consumers, our retail partners, and critically our teams. That is part of the joy of being in a rapidly scaling business with people who share your values.

Is there anything you know about women and the workplace now that you wish you’d known sooner?

I think everyone suffers with imposter syndrome, no matter your gender or seniority. It’s well documented across all sectors – but I especially see young women struggle (maybe because they are more open to talking about it?). I mentor a number of amazing female leaders, and often all they need to take the leap is reassurance – especially when they go through major life stages like becoming parents and are faced with a different set of choices. 

I’ve had some great supporters across my career, and many of them remain my mentors – Alan Sutherland at P&G, Keith Carnes at Gillette, Carol Welch at Costa Coffee, and of course Ian Filby at DFS. I wish I had known how to better identify those people that saw my potential, and had the courage to ask for their support sooner. They were committed to championing me, and played a huge role in helping me fulfil my potential as a leader. My commitment now is to pass that forward, in whatever way I can. 

Can you share an anecdote/example of a time you felt held back or discriminated against due to your sex?

One that really sticks, probably as I was so junior and so keen to impress, was when I was part of the graduate scheme in my first job. I was given the role of warehouse manager in a high-trading store with a notoriously tough store manager. I was sick one day and unable to attend work. When I was eventually connected to his office to explain my absence, his response was, “This is what happens when you give a little girl a man’s job!” I still remember how that made me feel, and the injustice of the statement.

Conversely, can you identify any stand-out gestures of fairness/equality?

So many – I feel very lucky to be able to name a long list of supporters and champions, both peers and leaders, who have given me great opportunities as well as the confidence to seize them and succeed. I can genuinely say I have been fortunate to have had more great experiences than those that have held me back. I also have a military father who taught me to ‘step up and in’ when times get tough – and that has probably helped. Plus I have a great group of friends – we all support each other.

Do you feel things are generally heading in the right direction? How can other people/the industry make a difference?

In the majority, change is definitely happening. At ufurnish.com we have some amazing retailer partners – women who have built successful businesses and who inspire me every day. Georgia Metcalfe founded The French Bedroom Company in 2006, and I have some of her pieces in my home. Claire Gaudion introduced me to biophilic design and the role nature’s colours and textures can play in creating a feelgood home, and Oxana Yanushkovskaya from Pepper Sq is equally inspiring, with her clever space-saving furniture. The number of successful, female-led businesses we partner with is evidence of change in the sector, and Dee and I are excited to champion them as part of our continued business growth. 

What would you tell young women who are thinking about entering the furniture industry?

Do it – it’s hugely rewarding and the breadth of roles is really exciting. But choose wisely – find a leader, a culture and a business you believe in. Mentors can also really help you think through your choices, and hopefully I have illustrated that they can be of any gender! If you are lucky to have someone who believes in you, seek out their counsel and take the leap! And you never know – if, like Dee Mc Gettrick, you have a great idea and huge drive, you too could be a successful business founder.

Read the complete feature in April's Furniture News.

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