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Conference Highlights Women In The Merchant Sector

Posted on 02 Oct 2019

Conference Highlights Women In The Merchant Sector

The inaugural NMBS Women in Industry Conference brought together women from across the industry to share experiences, inspire ideas and provoke new thoughts on where women are in the merchant sector in 2019. BMN reports.

The first Women in Industry Conference was hosted by Georgie Barrat, a TV presenter best known for Channel 5’s The Gadget Show. The event took place at the London Stock Exchange, where around 70 women from merchants, manufacturers and suppliers, across all levels of business, gathered to learn from each other, and from the impressive array of guest speakers.

The event was the brainchild of Julie Langford, NMBS’ Finance and Operations Director, who was inspired to organise the event after reading the book ‘Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’ by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

Welcoming delegates to the Conference, Julie explained: “I was inspired to do this because I believe in equality and fairness, and women are not treated equally. We face both internal and external barriers – we hold ourselves back and often suffer from a lack of confidence – we pull back, we don’t lean in.”

Langford said that Sandberg’s book encouraged women to ‘sit at the table and lean in’, and asked ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid’?

Langford also drew attention to the study ‘Women in the Workplace’, carried out by McKinsey in 2018. The study concludes that women remain underrepresented in the workplace, and that while men are more likely to be promoted based on their future potential, women are promoted on their past accomplishments. 

Confidence was a big topic of discussion throughout the day, with many of the speakers talking about having to overcome their own fears and uncertainties before they could succeed. 

Fighting on the pitch
The first speaker was Karen Carney MBE, a former professional footballer who became the second most capped female England player.

Carney told delegates the story of her impressive career from footballer to TV pundit, as well as the personal challenges she has faced throughout. When she first started playing football there were many barriers in the way because she was a woman, and the women’s game had little investment.

“We used to have to pay reporters to report on our games, and everyone had full-time jobs to make ends meet,” she said. “The renewed investment we’ve seen since 2007 means everyone can now be full-time athletes and people believe in us – the more investment the team receives, the more of a difference it can make.”

Carney has now retired from football and is working as a TV pundit commentating on football matches where, again, she has faced challenging comments from people unused to seeing a female commentator.

She said: “If I don’t know my stuff, people assume it’s because I’m a woman, so I have to work three times as hard to prepare in order to be taken seriously. You have to make your voice heard – if you don’t back yourself, no-one else will.”

Mentor those around you
The morning’s keynote speaker, Sally Beavan, is a Managing Director within the Corporate and Commercial Business of Santander UK plc. Beavan trained as a Chartered Accountant before switching careers into banking 10 years ago.

“Our children learn gender associations early, and my parents were absolute equals,” she said. “They taught me: do your best, be you, be true, work hard, and everything is possible.”

Beavan advised the assembled delegates to challenge themselves, and to ‘do what you won’t regret’.  

Throughout her career, Beavan said she has always had women around her who showed her what was possible, and urged delegates to get involved in the many business mentoring programmes that exist in business – both inside and outside the merchant industry.

“How often have you had people around you who could help you grow?” she asked. “As you grow and develop, be that person for other people. Just by having a seat at the table, we are showing those younger than us that it’s possible. But as senior people within our organisations, we must push back against issues of inequality and make it easier for the people who are coming through after us.”

Beavan also addressed issues of flexible working and equality – something that many businesses struggle with. 

“Flexible working has to be available to everyone – and that includes men and women alike. But until women aren’t always seen as the primary carer we will never have equality.” 

Next on the agenda was a panel discussion, where representatives from across the merchant industry took to the stage to share their experiences and to answer questions from the audience. 

Present were Sam Hanks, UK Sales Manager at Cembrit, Pippa Latham, the Master of the Worshipful Company of Builders’ Merchants, and Glynis Catterson, owner of S&A Builders’ Merchants.

Catterson has only recently joined the merchant industry, but said she has found the industry incredibly welcoming. “This industry is largely male dominated, but of all the ones I’ve worked in it’s the one I’d encourage my daughter to go into,” she said. “By and large, the men are incredibly supportive, and as a woman you stand out and people remember you. Yes, people sometimes assume you’re there to take the minutes, but they only make that mistake once!”

Hanks agreed that there is a lot of support out there for people who want to learn and grow, and take advice, adding: “I was once told while working at a previous company that I would have to be 10 times better than everyone else. Being a saleswoman will get you through the door to a first meeting, but once there you have to really know your stuff, as people will try to trip you up.”

When the panel was asked what advice they would give to younger women coming into the industry, Catterson said “be brave and go for it”, while Latham said: “It is possible to have a career and a family, but it’s complex and you have to juggle and be flexible.”

Hanks concluded: “Do the things that scare you the most, because they’re usually the most rewarding. Don’t hold yourself back, and don’t let anyone else do it either.”

Lessons from the cockpit
Following two lean-in sessions where delegates discussed networking with speaker Asha Pitt, and the importance of mental health, wellbeing and self-care with Dr Dorian Dugmore, delegates returned to the main auditorium to hear from final keynote speaker Mandy Hickson.

She was inspired to become a pilot after hearing her grandfather’s stories as a pilot in World War Two. She spent 17 years as a pilot for the Royal Air Force flying the Tornado GR4, and was one of only five women ever to fly in a combat mission.

Hickson regaled delegates with her fight to become a pilot against incredible odds – not least that women weren’t actually allowed to become pilots at the time, and that there were around 3,000 applicants for every available place. 

She also spoke of the teamwork prevalent within the RAF: “There are 50 trades involved before you can launch a jet in a war zone. People think it’s all about the pilot, but there’s a whole supply chain there – just as there is in all industries,” she said.

Hickson had a number of messages for the women in the audience, including the importance of inspiring future generations, and of promoting examples of the many careers opportunities available in merchanting, especially when Hickson said 70% of girls only go into a career if they’ve met someone who already works in that industry.

“Encourage others to be the best possible version of themselves,” she finished. “And if you’re asked to do something, always say yes and then worry about it afterwards. You’ll never know unless you try.”


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