Happy International Women’s Day, 2013

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International Women’s Day was created more than 100 years ago at a time when sexual inequality was rife and the dissatisfaction of  ‘the fairer sex’ started to gather momentum alongside the birth of some (for the age) radical ideologies. The social networks of the time slowly mounted campaigns to bring to an end this inexcusable state of oppression.

To put the levels of discrimination against women into perspective, I should remind you that in 1900 …

We had no vote and we could not own property in our own names.

  • We invariably earned a great deal less than men and even when we did have a job we had no legal right to the money we made.
  • We could not bear witness in court and we certainly could not serve on a jury.
  • Education was unlikely but if you did manage to get through senior school it was nigh on impossible to get a place at university.
  • As for our husbands; we would have needed to choose carefully, because not only did they have the right to beat us as long as they had read the small print (that the cane or rod be no larger in circumference than his thumb) and incredibly it was also legal to brutally rape your wife.
  • Plus there was no getting away from the bastard you may have married, since divorce was virtually impossible to achieve and if a judge did grant one, the woman would inevitably lose any rights to her children.

Oh, and finally women were not allowed to use birth control, so all in all when you look at what we have achieved over the past 100 years I rather wonder if we have anything more to campaign for ? My life is a bowl of cherries compared to our suffragette great grandmothers.

Of course we know this is not the case across the world and there are still countries where women are oppressed to an extent surpassing the inequality of the early 1900s in the West.

But where are we now in this country and where does gender stereotyping end? Do we like doors being opened for us? Do we like receiving flowers, being wined and dined, treated like a treasure and protected? Maybe the feminists of the 1970’s would be repulsed by your man walking on the outside of the pavement – historically to ensure he had his right arm free to protect you with his sword.

I don’t know about you but I do like the flowers and the chocolates and  yet I do believe in division of labour within the family – why should women pick up all the hard slog, not to mention the discarded dirty clothes off the bathroom floor. I’m not against men taking on the heavier work and I’m all for the men cleaning the car and chopping the logs because I prefer cooking and should probably admit to a touch of OCD about keeping my house tidy. But I don’t mind one bit if the tables are turned and I’m given an axe to wield from time to time. In fact I have three brothers who all cook better than their wives and two sons whose socks stay right where they left them (generally on the floor) unless they choose to pick them up and put them into the laundry basket – which they have learnt to do. I’m delighted my Toby loves cooking and has decided to take ‘Food Technology’ for GCSE but equally I love feeding and spoiling my men – it makes me “feel like a woman”.

The issue is, do we still need an International Women’s Day here in the west where we appear to have female emancipation (where wanted), and where maternity rights are law, where I and many other women of my generation have been able to juggle our careers and bring up a family.  It’s a tricky one …

Emmeline Pankhurst (c.1913). Leader of the British Suffragette movement.

Only two days ago I attended a fundraising event hosted by the charity Working Families, which offers advice and campaigns for change in legislation to ensure employed parents and carers are able to achieve a work-life balance . I was horrified to hear some of the case studies; on a recent occasion a lady rang the free helpline for advice. She had informed her employer of her pregnancy as her doctor suggested she do and found a day or two later she was given a form  … the form was called a P45 – what should she do?  In other cases parents were told that they must work unsociable hours or lose their jobs and were finding they did not see their children awake during the week but needed the income to support them. The issues went on and on.

As Working Families related all too often, women have to make very difficult choices, often sacrificing their careers in order to have some time with their families if there is no middle ground.  So even in the UK female emancipation is not quite there and the real question is will it ever be?

Of course there is very much a case for women wanting all the good bits of equality but would like to retain the option to stick with traditional feminine roles and not have to go to work if they prefer the life of being at home.  My experience of juggling a family and a career is without doubt rewarding BUT it is also extremely stressful and not at all the ideal perfect situation it is often made out to be. We have to accept juggling a family with a career is NOT for everyone.

Being a hands on parent and a full time MD, I often end up feeling that I let both the children and the company down – I like to juggle – I thrive on being super busy and I find it very difficult to say no to demands on my time. I fully understand the wish to be a full time parent or to concentrate on your career and not become a parent at all.

Like many women my ideal would have been to share the parenting equally – but this just did not happen in my family where a traditional husband assumed the childcare was predominantly the mother’s responsibility – something I must admit I never minded since it gave me control over my children without argument.  But the issue for most families should not be about who stays at home to bring up the kids and whether it is wrong that it tends to be predominantly the female in the partnership – the issues is who wants to stay at home and look after the children. Choice and a voice is what our grandmothers fought for and it is only when we are all totally open minded and disband gender stereotyping that we will allow choice without prejudice.

I totally believe in a work life balance. I can’t impose this ethos on some of my workaholic colleagues, but equally there are never any demands on their round the clock dedication. They have the choice and they take it. I’m fully behind our ethos that by offering our teams a friendly and inspiring work life, but not demanding too much agressively, we are invariably rewarded with much more than expected.

I’ve been lucky … by creating my own rules; I’ve had plenty of choice but not as much as many would think since dedication and a deep sense of responsibility  incurs their own inflexible demands.

20 years ago, I launched JoJo Maman Bébé as a tiny start-up; we turned over £30,000 in our first year. I was young, idealistic, a serial entrepreneur (having run two other small businesses, the latter a property agency in Brittany, hence our French inspired collection and business name). I wanted to run the best company I could; offering exemplary service with attention to detail in everything from design to marketing. I would manufacture and retail high quality, up-market products at affordable price points and I hoped that JoJo would be a thriving little business.

Over the next few years I grew the company organically, working hard and reinvesting every penny.  I loved the excitement of bringing new ideas to market and watching them become household essentials. I remember the very first time I saw a child wearing one of our styles on the street and I rather inappropriately pulled the hem of the skirt straight since the child was dishevelled – much to the parent’s shock until I explained my reasons and the ownership I felt for the design!

My team are incredible and many have stayed with JoJo since the early days, working alongside me and enjoying taking pride in their achievements. We have grown together both on a business and personal level and I have come to understand that business is about people not about money. Business is about work life balance and getting that right. Poor sales can generally be put down to the economy or the weather – poor in-house morale and poor customer feedback is my doing and is inexcusable.  I have no wish to run a company that our teams do not wish to work for, no matter how much money it may make.

My greatest pleasure is walking around our head office in Wales and hearing our teams singing while they work or getting a customer email commending some great help from one of our lovely in store teams.

I’m told this attitude is a feminine trait and maybe it is. The truth is I gave birth to this business; I nurtured it through the difficult early years and have seen it grow. As we reach maturity I have the pain of having to sometimes stand back and feeling helpless that I am no longer in control.  The correlations between watching my own two boys grow up and become independent and my business doing the same, is surprising.  I am well aware of the condescension my empathy and emotion generates amongst traditional businessmen, but this attitude in itself is beginning to be questioned. Our endemic  company ethos, which is natural as a woman who loves her business like a child, is now a tact some business experts are trying to inject into large corporates.

We believe without a doubt that the way we run our company works. Of course we need to remain profitable; we must keep a strict eye on cash flow, monitor our overheads and manage the P&L account – all without losing sight of our first concern – our customers, their needs and expectations.  But we can do this without compromising on our ideals.

Not letting go of our charitable, environmental and philanthropic projects despite the economic pressures and making sure we offer our teams the best working conditions possible whilst keeping the company financially viable, is our top priority. Honesty and trust add more to the longevity of a brand than increased shareholder profits and whilst many would negate the importance of these principals I would like to challenge their opinions using fact to support the argument.

There is research ad infinitum to underpin the notion that women on boards bring less volatility and more balance through the cycle of economic fluctuations. There is no doubt that women run companies for longevity and growth with less of the reckless risk that may add accelerated growth sporadically, but equally could bring redundancies in a downturn.

The year I launched JoJo we turned over £30,000 – this year our gross turnover is £36M. We set out with 2 part time members of staff, we now offer 450 permanent secure positions in the UK and many more via our factories across the world. We have grown slowly but sustainably and like the fable of the Hare and the Tortoise, we have plodded on but I really feel that it is business common sense and feminine empathy to teams, suppliers and customers that wins the business race.

We are not a huge company but we have not had to compromise our ideals or had to marginalize our ethics in the pursuit of profit. I know that we can do well whilst doing good and of course see a financial return on our emotional investment via:

  • staff loyalty,
  • employee retention,
  • reduced pilfering,
  • increased production,
  • lower levels of absenteeism
  • customer retention and word of mouth recommendation
  • … in fact the benefits are numerous and all too often ignored in more corporate business environments.

This is not just a marketing story. This is a brand with values we believe in and with teams who stand up for those beliefs. When we had to make the difficult decision to impose a temporary pay freeze this year due to economic pressures, we had several managers come forward offering to take pay cuts in order to help some of the more junior members of the team who were struggling financially. This group effort comes from within and on this International Women’s day I would like to suggest more men put down their weapons and move away from the curb side – we women no longer need to be protected by the sword, but we do need their support and love and maybe some endorsement of the fact that a feminine business stance is not a sign of weakness but a good investment in building for the future and the economy in general.

So to answer my questions about whether we still need an International Women’s Day in this country – Yes we do, but only to ensure that choice becomes endemic to all and both women AND men are able to keep striving for an effective work-life balance. Maybe it is us women who need to consider our attitude to gender stereotyping from time to time?

Maybe we need to make an effort to ensure there is less discrimination towards men who feel that their place might be ‘in the home’ … allowing us to pursue our careers (either full or part time) fully confident  that our children are being nurtured and loved as they should be. We still have a very long way to go ….

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1 comment for “Happy International Women’s Day, 2013

  1. 22/04/2013 at 6:21 am

    I have no family support in the UK and worked uninterruptedly for 32 years in some demanding positions, sat on board of UK PLC companies and worked on 100s of international client accounts, have a daughter who is second year medical school at Durham and a son on his way to London law school… I knew I would not want anyone else but my husband or I to look after our kids, nannies and child minders could support but not totally take over our child care… I certainly could not achieved my goals as a career woman and and as a mother, without the support and understanding of my husband..i am th.ere with your comments 150% and it makes me absolutely livid when I see career women trample all over their male partners… it is about time someone stood up and spoke for them.. we live in a civilised world and should be able to recognise that in a partnership we all contribute equally… perhaps in different ways but our roles are equally as important.

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