ROUNDTABLE DEBATE: How can the industry support women in the workplace?

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Professional Jeweller editor Stacey Hailes sat down with a group of influential individuals from the trade to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing women in the UK jewellery industry.

On the panel

  • Alison Skeates, founder, EC One
  • Hayley Quinn, managing director, Swarovski UK
  • Jo Stroud, managing director, Fabulous
  • Leanne Rogers, director, Sarah Layton Jewellers
  • Ruth Bewsey, director, Daisy London

How do you feel the jewellery industry is doing in terms of empowering women and providing opportunities for female professionals to grow? 

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Jo Stoud: I’m not sure the industry really talks about women very much. I would say I haven’t seen anything about the role of women in the industry — this could be the first time. So it’s not a case of respect or disrespect for women, I just don’t think it’s particularly a conversation that happens in the industry.

Alison Skeates: I think it depends on the sector of the trade — some of it is very ‘boys club’. I have gone to various events and walked in and it’s just been a sea of grey suits and then you see there’s another woman and you both go ‘phew’ and stick together, even if you’ve not got that much in common and you’ve got more in common with some of the men.

Leanne Rogers: When my mum, my sister and I opened our store I felt that the majority of the reps I saw were men. Certainly with the diamond suppliers I dealt with, they were almost a bit old school, and they thought it was a hobby for us, a bit of fun, and we weren’t really taken that seriously. But I’ve found recently there is a younger generation of women becoming brand managers and from the people that I see from different companies, about half of them are women and there are up and coming businesses which are run by females.

Hayley Quinn: I completely agree with you. In my experience of coming into this industry there are two very distinct camps. There’s the very traditional, generally family-run, passed down man-to-man kind of business, and then there’s a lot of entrepreneurs, mostly women, who are actually branching out and doing their own thing.

Ruth Bewsey: I feel like I bridge the gap a little bit. Daisy is owned by IBB London, a well respected family-run business. There’s been times I’ve sat with seven men pitching Daisy from a woman’s perspective and a customer’s perspective. Since I was promoted to director, I have been so chuffed to be so heavily involved in really pushing the brand. It empowers the girls I have working at Daisy.

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Jo Stroud and Leanne Rogers discuss helping women see jobs in the jewellery industry as a career option.

What do you think we can do to support the women who want to work their way up in the jewellery industry and to see the jobs they do have as a career rather than a pit-stop?

LR: When you walk into jewellery shops, most of the time you will be served by a female person, but quite often it’s a student who works in there part-time while they’re training to do something else and it’s like you say, it’s educating people that jewellery is a really good career for women. Pandora kind of changed things with women purchasing as opposed to it being a man buying twice a year for an anniversary or birthday, so now it’s women selling to women. For me, I’m a female buying jewellery to sell to other women who are purchasing for themselves, not for men to buy for their wives. I think it is just encouraging women and showing there is more to it than just standing behind a counter and selling.

JS: On the retail side that’s actually been quite easy for me. Sinade, who works in our central team, has been with the team for 10 years and definitely sees it as a career. We have 45 staff, all women in fact, and many see it as a career. I think it’s more in the manufacturing side and the brand side. Women have been very strong in fashion retail and setting up their own brands, but on the big brand side we haven’t seen many women coming through. Retail has been pretty strong, but it’s the more traditional jewellery manufacturers and the major brands that I haven’t seen women in senior roles. I think women would be more inclined to progress in retail, set up their own business or become their own brand rather than joining the bigger businesses.

“Many women decide they don’t want to play the boardroom politics and they go and do their own thing.”

HQ: But isn’t that the same in every industry in the UK? Many women decide they don’t want to play the boardroom politics and they go and do their own thing because it’s so much easier to get things done and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. Why waste your time and effort playing those games? As much as we talk about how we should have more women in the boardroom, and yes we should, actually is it really worth the effort?

AS: Does some of that come round to the plate spinning? The dropping kids off or taking time out. I have been able to have two kids and cancer and come in and out of my business, and that would have been a very different situation if I had been in a big company. I think if I was in a big company I would have just stepped out at any of those significant junctions. I think I would have failed because it would have felt too much or I would have been concerned about asking again. Possibly that’s partly me, that I’m not able to be forthright enough.

HQ: They talk about the millennial generation and how millennials refuse to sign up to a 25-year career but actually women are just 20 years ahead of the millennials because they decided 20 years ago that wasn’t the game for them. Women thought ‘I want a career, I want to play it my way – not the corporate way’ and they started their own businesses. And now, if you look at men and women in their 20s and early 30’s coming into businesses, they have exactly the same demands and mindset that women have had for the last 20 years so I’m not sure we didn’t just trailblaze the way for everybody else to follow.

AS: I don’t really see people not seeing jewellery as a career as an issue. Everybody who comes through our doors is committed to jewellery. Maybe it’s because they’re not sure which part of the trade or industry would be cool for them. I think people can see it’s very broad and actually people get drawn into different bits, and people shuffle from one part to another.

RB: I have one member of staff at the moment who recently said she sometimes feels like her job is too broad, and she saw this as a bad thing because it’s easier for other member of staff to say ‘I’m in charge of X’, but she’s in charge of lots of different things. She felt having broad responsibilities was a bad thing, but I think it’s brilliant to be able to do lots of different things. Knowledge is power. When I joined Daisy I was doing all sorts of things and have completed many different roles over the years at Daisy. I really enjoyed knowing and learning loads of different areas of the business and it means I know how to do lots of different people’s jobs.

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Swarovski’s Hayley Quinn says a strength in women is they are “much more willing to explore diverse roles”.

Do you think women are more flexible like that? They’re more willing to try lots of things?

HQ: That’s just the point I was going to make. We have a policy in trying to grow our own, which is equally open to males and females. We often find the men are very hierarchical; it’s ‘I want to go from this step to that step to that step’. The women are ‘ooh, chance! I’ll go do marketing, oh yeah I’ll try finance’, they’re much more willing to explore diverse roles. That’s a strength in women that we as employers can exploit because women are very open to giving everything a go.

JS: My retail career began in Dillons’ book stores. I applied for their graduate training scheme from university, but I didn’t hear from them so I just went to work at a Dillons’ book store as a sales assistant and then they wrote back to me to say they’d like to give me a chance to join the programme, at which point I had to tell them I was already working for them. I asked to defer so I could spend a year working in the store to learn the basics from the ground up. So I worked as a book seller for a year and I absolutely loved it. I learnt the retail trade for a year, then I joined the graduate training programme. Within eight months I was a deputy manager in a store. I loved doing all the placements, I spent time in the security department learning about shop lifting. I spent time in marketing, I spent time in an academic book shop. I did all these different things so by the time I became a deputy manager at a new store, and then a manager, I was so much more rounded than many of the men who were just really focused on ‘how quickly can I get to that management role?’. Women are very flexible about wanting to learn lots of different things and they feel they need to know more where a man might feel he’s ready to go for a job when he hasn’t got the full knowledge.

HQ: Statically they say men will apply for a role if they can do 40% whereas women need 60% to even consider it, so I think it’s something genetic.

LR: For me, I want to know as much as I possibly can in case someone asks me a question. If someone asks me something, I want to be confident in my answer and know I’m going to do the best job I possibly can, and I think that applies to lots of women. I think that’s maybe why women are quite a bit more open to trying lots of different things like the lady who works for you Ruth who juggles all sorts of different jobs. It’s a positive thing because she’s going to know so much more about the business as a whole that if she does go up to that next level, no one is going to ask her a question that she doesn’t know the answer to.

HQ: Can I be very controversial though? Because I think that is the single biggest problem women have in reaching senior levels because in order to reach directorship level, I had to accept I will never know everything because I can’t. I will never be as good at marketing as my marketer and although my background is retail, I’m not as good at retail as my retail director and I had to learn that actually not knowing all the answers was okay because if I tried I wasn’t going to get anywhere. That’s one of the biggest problems we have as women, you’re absolutely right, there’s something inherent in us. We don’t need to know everything, but we somehow feel we do, and I don’t know how you help that.

“They talk about how Millennials refuse to sign up to a 25-year career but actually women are just 20 years ahead.”

JS: I’m like that on the shop floor now. I don’t go on the shop floor now because I’m not good enough anymore to give the customer service that I demand in Fabulous. When I stepped off the shop floor seven years ago, I had to make that hard decision. I had to admit that I can’t be the number one sales person anymore. I used to love to be that, but I had to step away. When you get to four stores you can’t be a super sales person in all those stores. That was a big step for me but I took that early enough in my career that I was able then to find really good store managers and staff. Once you’ve made that step I think it’s easier, but the first time you step away and say ‘I don’t know everything, I need to get hands off’, that’s challenging.

HQ: The vulnerability is really difficult. And to answer your earlier question, that’s what we can help women do, to help them understand it’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s easier said than done. It’s easy to say it in a forum and it’s very difficult to do but it’s giving permission to them not to have all the answers at the drop of a hat.

JS: That’s another thing, maybe it’s more of an American thing, but a lot of men are very keen to find a mentor and they’ll happily talk about it whereas women don’t. But in fact you need someone to help model your career but also to go to for help. The boys’ network is better at doing that but I think maybe women don’t do that as much because it looks like they’re asking for help and they don’t want to be seen to be asking for help.

“My advice would be take that risk, go for that role even though you don’t know everything, but learn what you can and stay open to learning.”

AS: For larger companies that’s part of standard culture. For me, I have a female friend who’s about 10 years older than me, and she has a lot of retail experience and she will be somebody I have lunch with here and there, and she will ask me very searching questions. Some of it is quite personal such as, ‘why do you think you don’t have the skills to do that?’, ‘is this a confidence thing?’ Because, and I hate myself for it, I feel I am the classic women in the sense of lack of self-belief when it comes to these things. But she will tell me all the reasons I can do something and it’s great to have women around who will help you see that.

JS: We need those female networks to really get women together to support each other and to be role modelling. In this industry I haven’t seen that but it’s big in other industries. It still seems a very insular industry doesn’t it? I mean I don’t think we do get the input from big fashion houses or big retailers. Things like John Lewis having a female CEO, that’s great but we’re not seeing those kinds of role models coming into the jewellery industry and doing talks. I don’t think we’re getting our eyes opened to the wider business industry. It’s still pretty old fashioned.

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Leanne Rogers discusses how it can sometimes be intimidating to walk into a room of men and talk business.

HQ: And do you think it’s because it’s a bit of an old boy’s network?

LR: I was just going to say I do a bit and I certainly think when there’s networking events on or some of the award ceremonies, I personally find it really intimidating walking into those rooms because I don’t really know many people. It’s very cliquey with people in the industry, like jewellers where the business has been in the family 60-70 years and it’s been passed down and they seem to know everybody, and it’s very difficult to just approach people and talk about business. There’s very few women and there’s very few women my sort of age and it does seem to be a grey suits brigade. So that’s a bit like what you said before Alison. You go to these events and you gravitate towards the only woman in the room, but you might not necessarily have that much in common or be at the same level career wise.

RB: It’s difficult to hold yourself and to introduce yourself to a group of 10 men.

LR: If it was 10 women it would actually be easier, or if it was more of a mixed group. But it is very male dominated and it is intimidating.

How do you help people in your companies have a good work/life/family balance? 

LR: From our point of view, my sister and I swapped roles when I had my baby nine weeks ago. I was normally running the shop floor and doing all the buying for our shop and dealing with Nick in the workshop but we swapped so I’m more office based now. So when I first had my baby, three days later I was at home working from my laptop when she was fast asleep. I think there’s a lot you can do now remotely, which makes things more flexible when you have families because you can work 24/7. Especially on the manufacture side of things.

JS: That’s true because we’ve now found, having set up our brand Mantra nearly two years ago, that it’s easier when it’s all about design and manufacture and marketing and branding. Not about retail. Of course the retail part of the business is a lot more difficult to be flexible because if you trade seven days a week you’ve got to have staff in at certain times. It’s very hard to be flexible in that department. That’s a challenge because of demand in retail, but once you move into that office-based, marketing-based world, you can work from anywhere so we’re seeing our business evolve. It’s easier to be much more flexible.

LR: I have a few staff members who have young families and we try to accommodate them with start times once they’ve dropped their kids off at school, and they finish before the children finish. Actually the women that work in our store like working weekends because it means they don’t have to pay for extra childcare because they’ve got their partners home from work. They’ve got time off during the week to spend time with their children and only pay two or three days for nursery, as opposed to a whole week, because nursery costs are ridiculous.

What would be your best piece of advice for women in the jewellery and retail industries?

HQ: If I was to give one piece of advice I would say take a risk. If you fail it doesn’t matter because you haven’t lost anything and actually that would be another thing — If someone gives you an opportunity, say yes. Even if you’re not keen, it’s about learning. It’s a lifelong experience, you don’t get your degree and that’s the end of it. The fact of the matter is every day you learn something new and every day you see a different perspective, and if you remain open to that most of the channels remain open to you.

RB: I’m not sure it’s advice as such but I always try to just work hard and be humble and just be open to things and like we were saying earlier on, I don’t know everything so I’m here to learn. I learnt a lot from my dad and my brother. They’ve never gone and asked for pay rise or a job title change or anything like that and they have been very successful and I think that’s from working hard and being humble, rolling their sleeves up and taking risks. Accept you don’t know everything. I’m so lucky to be where I am. I love my job. I love the fact I turn my job into a lifestyle and I think that’s quite a big thing when you look at supporting women and families.

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Alison Skeates believes it is important to have mentors in the industry to talk to about business.

JS: I’ll build on what Hayley said earlier about not waiting until you know everything because A, you simply never will and B, you’ve got to get to the point where you learn enough that it’s good to do lots of different things. I think that whole multitasking thing, moving into different areas of the business, is fantastic. Certainly coming up through retail and then marketing I felt that by the time I set up my own business, I had a really good grounding and knowledge. If I hadn’t had seven years marketing experience I think we would have closed down in very early years. You can gain as much experience as you can but there has to be a point when you say, I now have enough experience, I’m not going to know everything, I have to go for that more senior role and set up that business or take that risk. I think there is a danger of just waiting until you feel you know everything and that’s simply never going to happen so you’ve got to be prepared to be vulnerable. So my advice would be take that risk, that leap, go for that role even though you don’t know everything, but learn what you can on the way and stay open to learning once you’re there.

“You go to these events and you gravitate towards the only woman in the room, but you might not have that much in common.”

LR: For me it’s don’t be afraid to ask for advice. We’ve been open over seven years now but we only opened our workshop two years ago. Nick our goldsmith has got 30 odd years experience and starting to do bespoke is really daunting. My thing is, say yes and I’ll find out how to do it afterwards, then actually bouncing off Nick upstairs in the workshop I have learnt so much. Do not be afraid to ask for help.

AS: I’ll pick up on what has been mentioned a couple of times – that thing of treating people well because it is a small trade and you will cross paths backwards and forwards with people. That’s an incredible thing because doors can really be opened for you. Taking risks, you can’t know it all and I think being honest. You’ll grow through development. Being adaptable, rolling with the changes, the economy or all of these spending patterns change, your interest, opening a workshop, it’s a massive thing but it’s totally brilliant, you’re promoting those skills and bringing those services.

LR: I think it’s also about being proactive isn’t it? Looking at the industry as a whole, looking at what’s missing. You notice a gap in the market and take it and that’s what we’ve done where we are, there isn’t anyone else nearby that has got a workshop and I think that’s the way to do it isn’t it.

JS: I think it’s keeping fresh and keeping yourself stimulated, whether that’s launching a brand or going to hear a talk or all of those kinds of things, otherwise you can become demotivated. It’s been fantastic meeting all of you, as we said at the beginning there’s just not these kinds of forums, so having this conversation with just women just makes a nice refreshing change.

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