Can Female Leaders Help the Furniture Industry?
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.
14 Responses to “Can Female Leaders Help the Furniture Industry?”
Very interesting article on an industry that I have been a part of for 30 years, Paula. As a Style Spotter for the 2014 High Point Market, interestingly enough, the marketers that sought me out the most were females marketers.
My focus currently is the 78 million Baby Boomers. I have stated that I believe this is almost another glass ceiling with our industry in only catering to the young like the Millenialls. It’s like aging is a 4 letter word. Yet as you state, women control the spending, Boomer women control 80% of the spending and receive 5% of U.S. marketing dollars.
Lots to consider, discuss, and hopefully bring about change to our industry.
Mitzi Beach ASID CAPS
Thanks for your comments and participation Mitzi. I look forward to this discussion as my research progresses. Keep us posted on the power of the Boomer Women! Although my work centers on the manufacturing sector, I will necessarily touch on retial, marketing, and merchandising, which tend to employ more women, but certainly more men. Thanks again and best wishes!
As the mother of the author of this Blog and the wife of the icon who was her father, I have experienced these discussions over the dinner table and numerous places and times. Bob Fogarty was always very respectful of the opinions of women and listened to things we suggested and thought, always. Being the leaders of the homes and family atmospheres, women are the ultimate buyers of furniture and accessories of the home. That being said, since women are the buyers who would know better how to please them than the women in the design and manufacturing business? Women are every bit as capable as men and are certainly better at the asthetics than men, generally. It is high time that they were recognized for that and treated the same as the men in respect to leadership and compensation. Wake up you guys!!!
My sincere gratitude to you for promoting dialogue and professional interaction on this topic. As a 30+ year veteran of the furniture industry who worked my way up the ladder from entry-level positions to VP of two major high-end manufucturers, I have witnessed the culturally antiquated “galvanized ceiling” you refer to in a multitude of forms. I look forward to your research findings and future posts, as well as input from fellow blog-followers. I want to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge that I have had the good fortune to have several male as well as female mentors and supporters throughout my career, however the pervasiveness of the female defictit within the furniture industry as a whole is a reality. Kudos to you for so eloquently articulating the realities of the furniture manufacturing industry as it exits today.
This is a subject that definitely needs more exposure in today’s work environment for women, not only in the furniture industry but the workplace overall. Women still earn 76.5 cents to the dollar of a man’s earnings after years of so called progressive rights for women in the US. I have worked for over 30 years in the furniture industry, in various aspects, and love what I do! However, there have been many occasions I have personally observed where male chauvinism is alive and thriving in the world of furniture. Sexism in the marketplace is not a new phenomenon. The fact that women do control the pursestrings in many sectors of the economy, especially in home furnishings, should be reason enough that more women be seated at the table where decisions are made for the future and direction of these companies.
Thank you Linda for your thoughtful comments. We all need to stick together and to nurture male leaders and teach them about the power of the female consumer and how much we can improve the industry. This mission is just as much about working with men as it is working to promote women. Hats off to your great accomplishments and the best of luck to you in all your endeavors! Please stay involved in this dialog and keep the faith!
Personally I am thrilled that you are taking this important topic head on. It’s really long overdue that the manufacturers/ suppliers -male dominated- realize that more female executives are needed in the board room and in leadership roles.
Nobody but you ,who has had COO experience in an industry starved for new creative thinking , will thoroughly research, interview and write that will make changes not only in furniture manufacturing but for all industries . A blue print for future female leadership .
While some of us in retail have fabulous female talent, especially at Clive Daniel Home, I encourage all my male friends and colleagues to get behind this great topic and begin the debate.
Bravo to my friend I am with you all the way!
Thanks so much for your encouragement and your support now and over the years in the industry. You are one of the men who have fully embraced the promotion of women in furniture retail to speak more fluently to the female consumer. Retail does better at this that manufacturing because you all are in direct contact with the consumer. Now the challenge is to get the pendulum to swing toward female leadership in manufacturing and design. There is also a big disconnect between manufacturing, the distribution grid, and the consumer. We need to get these three components working together to improve the industry. People like you can help this effort and, again, I thank you for all your support!!
Thank you Paula for writing this article. I too have been in the furniture industry for many years, and have had the privilege of working with some of the finest companies in the industry. And at these companies were amazing people with amazing talents, both men and women. But, when I look back on how I have been able to move forward in the furniture industry and am now the president of a young and upcoming company, it was only through mentorship of very knowledgeable and talented people that I have achieved what I have. Most of those mentors were men, because we women didn’t hold the positions of power and authority to pave a path for upcoming women. I believe that the women who do move upwards in the industry ranks have a stewardship role to help expand the opportunities available to new talented women. Truly we should be willing to help advance all talented and hardworking people in the industry. But as women we understand the challenges facing other women and can help create paths of advancement that don’t exist for most women in the furniture industry today.
Again thank you for your article!
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Indeed, I have also been mentored by some great men in the industry such as my father, Mike Dugan, Robert Colleen, Morris Savin, and others. You are so right that women need to support one another in this, and all other industries. We have an equal right’s amendment that is not being upheld by corporate America not only in that women are paid up to 28% less than men for doing the SAME work, but also in that women are not advancing into corporate and board leadership positions as much as we should. America should be the shining example of female advancement, but instead, we lag well behind many European nations.
Of the many women in the industry I have interviewed, many have claimed that women don’t really help other women as much as we should, and, in fact, they have gone as far as to say that some women have actually impeded their progress. Perhaps this is because there are so few openings for us and the competition is high. I will address these topics in my upcoming blog next week, so stay tuned please and follow me on Facebook to join the social conversation! Invite your friends to join us here as I need all the feedback and opinions I can get to craft a great and useful book. Thanks again and best wishes for much success!
Very much enjoyed reading your article, particularly like your expression “ceiling of galvanized steel”. How true! I agree wholeheartedly that one of the very major areas where there are so few women is the manufacturing end and I believe that is where it all starts. It is the manufacturers who ultimately determine what enter the retail field.
I think, besides the glass ceiling, manufacturing was considered “unladylike”, strenuous, dirty, etc. I, for one, loved to be in the woodworking and carving departments, in spite of the extra dust.
I appreciate your mentioning many of the famous women leaders; there were some, not many, in the smaller firms in North Carolina, that need to be considered as well.
One of my favorite stories to prove the point of how men think of us: one day we were hosting another manufacturer around our plant as a courtesy. Mike was in the lead myself next, and then the guest. We were in a noisy department, when the guest asked Mike a question that he could not hear. So I turned around and answered. The guest glared at me and said that he hadn’t asked me and wanted a “real” answer. A few minutes later he repeated the question to Mike whose answer was almost word for word what I had said. The guest looked at me with disgust.
How could a woman know that!!!
I am very pleased that you are tackling this difficult and long overdue subject. If I can be of any help, I would enjoy doing so, having been an executive in this industry for over 40 years! I look forward to further discussion with you on the importance of executive women in the furniture manufacturing industry.
Your message comes at a very providential time as I am experiencing some push-back from a few men in the industry who are perceiving my stance as ‘male-bashing.’ I, like you, am merely defining a situation, and not necessarily criticizing men; it is critical to put women in the total context of the ‘man made’ world, and in so doing, it automatically highlights the white male domination of the industry. Women in the all of the arts- fine, decorative, musical, etc – have been subjected to male dominated spheres since the beginning of time. I think all we are trying to do is continue the dialog about female ascendancy in corporate America to ensure places in the future for bright, talented, well-educated young women who are being turned off by the reality of the industry. If we can put ourselves in a bigger context, these young women may just be brave enough to forge ahead and stick with their passion for furniture design and manufacturing.
I appreciate your participation in this forum and look forward to your future posts. The next topic I will post next week will be on putting women in a larger context, so stay tuned and keep up the good work!
When I was a kid, growing up in a major metropolitan area, it was widely accepted that women, minorities and foreigners typically had inferior thinking and capabilities. Really. And it persisted. Employees of one large retail chain I worked for as a young man frequently marveled that a woman was successfully managing a small store offering auto service. It was regarded as a real curiosity, like finding Jesus’ image on your toast.
I am certain that any resistance to women doing anything is animated by these retrograde notions. Personally, I never gave any credence to the idea that women were only really suited to clerical, nurturing and artsy tasks. In fact, when I recently went camping I discovered a 4′ rattler in the campsite. I turned to one of our party, a 5’1″ woman, and asked her to relocate the splendid creature. I knew she had the chops. She was a teamster.
Thank you John for these appropriate anecdotes; they all add up to the fact that we still have so much work to do as women. Why should we be expected to work harder for less recognition and pay? I appreciate your involvement in this discussion! Keep reading and commenting John!