It’s been eight years since I sat as sponsor and judge for the second Women In Furnishing awards. Established by exhibition organiser Theresa Raymond with FIT (now The Furniture Makers’ Company), the awards were a clear – if short-lived – clarion call encouraging the trade to celebrate its most inspirational businesswomen, against a male-dominated backdrop.
The winners that year included Kate Hardcastle, the founder of consultancy, Insight with Passion, who was praised for her considerable drive and social conscience. Now a prolific media commentator, conference speaker, charity champion and MBE, ‘The Customer Whisperer’ took some time out of her schedule to speak to Furniture News.
We talked about how her early days in the trade, working for the likes of Silentnight and Halo, shaped her attitudes to business, and she reflected on a culture in which young women had to work that much harder to be taken seriously. “It was a very hard industry as a young female,” she told me.
Are things any different today? Since 2017, the UK’s largest businesses have been required to publish annual details of their gender pay gaps, and the findings are not particularly encouraging – the difference hardly changed at all from 2017 to 2018, and, 78% of those that responded are still paying men more than women, to perform the same roles.
“In FMCG and retail, the numbers indicate that there’s a permafrost layer between the women on the shop floor and top management,” says Kate. “There’s still a long way to go.”
A glance at some of the key players in the furniture sector reveals some success stories, with notable retailers and manufacturers striving to redress the gender pay imbalance. But there seems to be just as many instances of the gap getting wider.
Yes, it’s a complex equation, muddied by commission, bonuses, and traditional barriers between sales, production, administrative, fulfilment and management roles.
And we shouldn’t expect a revolution overnight. After all, the discrepancy is historically ingrained, and driven by manifold factors. Today, there are fewer educational and occupational barriers to women, but there’s still the impact on wages and promotional opportunities of taking maternity leave, going part-time to care for those children, or elderly and sick relatives, and the huge unpaid workload involved in all the above.
Yet there also remains a more sinister reason – the persistent view that a female employee is, in some way, worth less than her male counterparts. And whatever the challenges facing them, those companies failing to enforce greater equality amongst their staff – however gradually – are, to some degree, complicit in this discrimination.
With talk of the report’s remit widening to encompass smaller employers, it’s time every organisation re-evaluated its take on recruitment, remuneration and flexibility. In the meantime, hopefully next year’s gender pay gap snapshot will yield more encouraging results.