Women have become ‘part of the furniture,’ or taken for granted in the dialog about the power of women in the home furnishings industry. On my most recent search for stock images of women and furniture the major sites mostly turned up images of scantily clad women lounging lasciviously on beds and chaises, sewing something, or picking out colors. If any designing or carpentry was happening in these images, women were being shown how to do so by a man. There are no images of female designers and few of craftswomen, but mostly images associating women with furniture through a lens of sex and subservience.
This goes to the heart of a conversation that no one is having about the lack of female leaders in an industry that caters primarily to a female audience. In the furniture industry, women are mainly relegated to what the male leaders classify as “the fluffy stuff” such as: merchandising, designing, fabric selecting, and interior decorating. By the way, this is hardly “fluffy stuff;” these efforts are what make or break this design-driven industry and yet women are woefully under-utilized in top management positions throughout the manufacturing sector. Retail is a little better, because that is where the product meets its female consumer.
This is personal
The topic of the lack of female leadership in an industry that caters primarily to a female audience is a personal one. I grew up as the daughter of an industry titan and served as one in a tiny handful of female executive leaders in furniture manufacturing for twenty years. My father, Robert S. Fogarty, Jr., is considered a master of turning round tired American luxury brands as Pennsylvania House, Kittinger, Dunbar, and Kindel. He is the subject of chapter six in Michael K. Dugan’s The Furniture Wars. From the time I was nine years old I visited factories all over the country with my father who did not tell me, but showed me there was nothing to fear as a woman in a man’s world, except my own self-doubts. He understood the consumer is female and put women in key management roles in the factories and on the executive teams.
The 2009 Harvard Business Review case study, “The Female Economy,” by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre, demonstrated that female consumers make 94% of all decisions for home furnishings purchases globally.
Research has shown that women now control the global consumer economy yet many companies underestimate this power. No hard research has been conducted to date on the numbers of male and female leaders in furniture manufacturing, but I can reasonably speculate that male leaders comprise at least 90% of C-suite positions. The numbers are in, yet the furniture industry has yet to properly promote women. This fact has kept me wondering about the obvious: Does it make sense that a consumer base of 94% female continues to be served by a nearly all male designer/producer class? The industry, the media, as well as academia have all ignored the question.
In a great summary of the general lack of women in American industry leadership positions, “Can Women Fix Capitalism,” by Joanna Barsh and published by McKinsey & Co., she astutely points out that women occupy half of the professional workforce, yet not nearly enough of us are in top management and board positions. She maintains,
“Women also improve the ecosystem, because company leaders better match the profile of customers and employees. And when three or more women make it to the top team, a company’s organizational health appears to improve on every one of the nine dimensions McKinsey tracks.”
That is powerful stuff. She goes on to admonish, “But will more women, realistically, be the game changer? Not until like-minded men join in to help the movement achieve critical mass.”
In a survey of over 64,000 people John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio had two thirds respond, “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.” Some of the qualities they cited were, “expressive,” “reasonable,” “loyal,” “collaborative,” “passionate,” and “empathetic.” Whereas my research will necessarily touch upon leadership styles among men and women, I do not intend to make it a central theme.
I will call upon the work of Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli in their revolutionary book “Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders.” These scholars have changed the metaphor of the “glass ceiling” to one of a “labyrinth.” They demonstrate that there are no hard facts demonstrating leadership style differences between the genders; that is mostly myth. I am not writing about the “Men are from Mars Women are from Venus” approach to leadership; what is more compelling is a case for how female leadership might actually help improve an industry that caters primarily to women.
Until 2007, I served as leader of an old-line American luxury furniture brand. I supervised sales, marketing, design, and production. I was among the few women who held a top executive position in American residential furniture manufacturing including Kay Lambeth, co-founder of Erwin-Lambeth, Rachel Kohler of Baker Furniture, Joan Karges Rogier of Karges Furniture, Mary Henkel of Henkel-Harris, and Aminy Audi of Stickley Furniture, and Royale Wiggin of Thayer-Coggin.
Since leaving the industry in 2007, I have owned my own marketing and design firm and went back to school for a master’s degree in Art History from the Savannah College of Art and Design. I am now a journalist for the arts, art historian, and public speaker. I started a blog in 2012 on the “Gender Gap” in American furniture manufacturing for Metropolis Magazine to get the conversation started. I have been the Managing Editor, and am now editor-at-large, for South magazine, a beautiful lifestyle publication out of Savannah. The time is right to take my research and writing skills into the arena I know best, women in the male dominated American furniture industry.
A Scholarly yet Accessible Study
I intend to produce a compelling study on the topic of why these leadership and consumer numbers are so far apart and to uncover the reasons behind the apparent inertia in this industry. My work will recommence the post-feminist dialog on women in creative and design fields and will serve both business and academic audiences.
My primary research will be conducted through surveys of top and middle manufacturing and retail company executives, design school students and teachers, and other appropriate constituents. This research will be augmented by interviews, anecdotal information, and stories gathered through my long experience. The intention is to turn this work into a scholarly, but practical, book that will be useful not only to every member of the home furnishings industry and other sectors of the American marketplace, but also to academic business and design schools, and the broader curricula of design history and material culture.
Female Leadership is a Hot Potato
The subject of women in male dominated industries can be a hot potato and one that many women I have interviewed feel they cannot talk candidly about for fear of losing their jobs. It is my aim to serve as a reasonable voice for the advancement of women in an industry that has not a glass ceiling, but seemingly one of galvanized steel. I recently delivered my initial research and position as the keynote speaker at the annual conference for Women In The Home Furnishings Industry Today. The discussion was lively and the positive response has inspired me to finish this work I started two years ago.
There have been no statistical studies on the numbers of women in the industry relative to C suite positions, or in retail for that matter. To date, I have conducted interviews with a healthy cross section of women in middle and upper-management positions, men in upper management, design leaders and students, and retail leaders. Although some optimistic journalists have stated that they see more women entering the industry, the actual numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that these numbers are 20 – 30% down since 2004.
Female Talent Filling the Well
Initial results show that furniture design schools, such as Kendall College of Art & Design and Savannah College of Art and Design, are often graduating more females than males, yet they are having difficulty entering and remaining in the industry. The industry is design and marketing driven, and it always will be. The fact that design schools are graduating more females than males demonstrates an organic evolution of women rising up to lead in this arena and we may be smart to mentor them in the ways of how the industry really works.
You can expect some jaw-dropping, but prevalent, statements from some male leaders I have interviewed. For instance, when I told the male CEO of a major luxury retailer I am writing about women and leadership roles in the furniture industry, he replied,
“What women? That is going to be a short book! The only way you and others got there was through nepotism. You are either born into it, or you marry into it. This is an industry where the good old boys protect their own, and women pose too many threats.”
As much as I hate to buy into this misogynistic premise, I can’t help but admit that it smacks of the ugly truth. I have met many men, and even gentlemen, who say they do not hire based on gender, but on the merits of an individual candidate. The talk on the street is that men understand there aren’t enough women in leadership positions, but the industry’s tendency to do things the way they’ve always been done keeps women from top positions. We need to break this inertia; that 94% number is too big not to. I will attempt to explain the reasons for this inertia in the furniture industry and will call upon the great work of Mike Dugan’s The Furniture Wars in doing so.
Female Icons of Industry
It is always good to remember where we came from to help us move forward. I will be featuring stories of women in the industry from the early twentieth century to the present day. I will feature interior designers, such as Dorothy Draper, contract designers, such as Florence Knoll, as well as great retail mavens, such as Kris Kolar of Clive Daniel Home and Caroline Hipple of hb2 and formerly of Storeouse and This End Up.
The ascendancy of women in furniture manufacturing has been, as our retail friend put it, achieved through nepotism or marriage with very few exceptions. I will include the stories of many intrepid women in the industry who became leaders and others who are doing the work of a top executive but neither have the title nor the paycheck to accompany it.
Opportunities for Women
I argue that there is opportunity for women everywhere in the industry and it is best that we act in concert on all levels of management. As a leader, I learned and successfully performed many management tasks carried out by males in the industry and there is no logical reason to exclude women from the top ranks; it is a result of the industry’s unconscious, inbred inertia.
My research is not a male-bashing effort, but one that will hopefully clear some pathways in the labyrinth of leadership, inspire more young women to keep forging ahead, and inspire men to pay more attention to the contributions female leadership can make to furniture manufacturing and other industries. I hope to conclude that the American furniture industry can be improved with more female leadership, but my research will determine the conclusion. Please join in the conversation and follow me on Facebook. Your feedback is greatly valued.