Assessment of gender balance in the furniture industry

The furniture industry in the UK remains a male-dominated environment, but women are increasingly making the decisions that shape the sector. For the April issue of Furniture News, Paul Farley asked some of the industry leaders to give their thoughts on gender policy, female recruitment and the rate of change…

Ten years ago, I helped champion an awards program developed by the (then) team behind the Manchester Furniture Show, Women in Furnishings (WIF). Although short-lived, it helped shed some light on the issue and made me think how strange it was that our industry was mostly made up of men selling to other men – even though women were clearly the primary decision makers. at the consumer level.

Although it seems that women are playing an increasingly important role in the furniture industry, I wonder what has really changed since then?

According to McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace report, 87% of U.S. companies described themselves as “very committed” to gender diversity in 2019 – a huge jump from 56% in its original survey in 2012. Yet, according to the consultant, there remains a “broken rung” at the top rung of the ladder, with women being promoted to leadership positions at far lower rates than men.

Then there is the burnout caused by the pandemic, as female workers at all levels fall back into unpaid care and domestic roles more easily than their male counterparts. PwC’s Women at Work Index 2021 estimates the impact of Covid-19 will set progress towards gender parity back to 2017 levels – and says the UK is already significantly behind others country in terms of its share of women in full-time employment (only 64%, compared to 89% of men).

The Library of the House of Commons estimates that the gender pay gap in April 2020 was 15.5% – and that’s before the impact of the pandemic was really felt.

The business world may claim to follow an equality agenda, but clearly the reality is somewhat behind the rhetoric.

Like many manufacturing sectors, the furniture industry in the UK has always been and remains male dominated. With the shift to Industry 4.0 promising to remove many of the remaining barriers to entry, it’s entirely possible that we could see a much more balanced workplace in the future – but first, the craft must work on its image and become a more attractive career. choice to women, from the classroom.

“Girls are not offered furniture making as a subject in most state schools in the UK,” says Dr Lynn Jones, former head of the furniture department at Bucks New University. “In the art and design ‘diet’ of schools, furniture making is relatively invisible. When I studied furniture design and manufacture at university in the 1980s, I was the only woman. Today the numbers have improved for some furniture and product design courses, but not to the point where there is an equal gender balance in furniture making courses – so it’s no surprise that there are so few women and non-binary carpenters.

Once they’ve started down that path, Lynn says, it’s critical to keep them there, because crises of confidence, workplace misogyny and the aforementioned pay gap can make progress a real uphill struggle.

“Many graduate and non-binary women, often with top-notch degrees and master’s degrees, end up working in shops, bars, cafes, and other unrelated, low-paying jobs because they don’t think that they are “good enough” to do. They also leave the furniture industry more often than their male counterparts, citing discrimination in the workshops as a common reason, so they must be more inspired than men to enter and stay in the business. industry.

“There will always be people who get lucky, meet the right person at the right time, find a good female role model, or come across a school that has a teacher or principal who cares enough about the subject to promote it or include. It is my personal belief, however, that there are many others who do not.

In the April issue of Furniture News, I’ve assembled an inspiring list of women who, luck aside, have made enough good decisions to rise to the top of their respective fields. They were kind enough to share their thoughts on gender balance in the furniture industry, the additional challenges they faced as women, and the direction of progress – as well as offering some advice for newcomers. potential entrants.

Read the article in the April issue of Furniture News.

About Oscar L. Smith

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