Some mobility trade professionals feel that more could be done at all levels of the supply chain to encourage more women to enter the sector and to support them in climbing the career ladder. We invited women working in various roles across the mobility industry to share their experiences and offer their views.
Key figures on our panel:
Clare Brophy, Managing director, Handicare
Charlotte Gillan, Managing director, Classic Canes
Heidi Millington, Owner, Millington Mobility
Karen Sheppard, Director, People First Mobility
How well is the mobility industry doing at attracting women and providing opportunities for them to climb higher up the career ladder?
Clare Brophy: There is very little being done by the industry as a whole to attract women or indeed men, which I feel is a missed opportunity given millennials’ increasing desire for work roles with social impact. We must promote our sector to young people if we are to avoid the skills gap and talent shortages that have affected other sectors such as construction and technology. At Handicare we work with a number of organisations to promote work placements and apprenticeships, and have launched a new initiative to recognise and develop talent within the workforce and establish a much stronger, more efficient and more diverse management team.
Charlotte Gillan: Many of the retailers Classic Canes supplies are smaller independents, often run by a woman or by a husband and wife team. These women certainly don’t appear to be lacking in authority or opportunities in any way so I don’t think there are many problems there. With some of the larger retailers and suppliers, I think the opportunities are there for women and I am not sure there are many barriers, but some firms do seem to lack appeal for female employees. Perhaps it is all the macho zooming about on scooters in matching team polo shirts at trade fairs that alienates women. Or perhaps the style of some mobility companies is a bit aggressive and oriented towards a no frills, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap approach? I suspect many women find this rather boring professionally.
Heidi Millington: I think the industry still has a very dated image, certainly concerning the retail stores. Where women are employed as store managers the salary is very low compared with other retail roles. Unfortunately this will either attract people with little ambition or force women working in these roles to apply to other industries. I spent six years as a manager and later deputy area manager in my first mobility role and low pay was the only catalyst for me leaving that role. I loved my job.
Karen Sheppard: I feel a lot of mobility shops will employ a female in the role of sales assistant and perhaps a few may consider a female to become a manager. But I do not think many of the larger businesses would think about bringing them to the board room to become a director. For some reason it is still thought of as a more male-dominated business. A lot of the customers in the mobility industry are also ‘old school’ and are not used to women being in higher positions. I think some male employees may also find it hard to have a woman in charge of them.
Why do you think that women only make up around 10% of retail executive boards?
Clare Brophy: Because it’s still a man’s world. Boards and management teams are still male-dominated in terms of numbers and attitudes. The proportion of women on retail boards is relatively good compared to other industry sectors. But there is still a lot of hard work to be done persuading our male counterparts that we are more than capable of sitting around the table with them.
Charlotte Gillan: Most companies, unless they are run by complete dinosaurs, just want the best person for the job, regardless of gender. I think the shortage of women in top jobs is simply because many women don’t or can’t persevere in developing their career in the way men do. If you want to be a director, you have to put in long hours and a lot of commitment but many women are subject to the demands of childcare and other domestic responsibilities that make this difficult. Taking a few years off to have babies will often affect a woman’s career progression and not many people can afford a full-time nanny so they can return to work two weeks after having a baby.
Heidi Millington: To be honest, I’m surprised women only make up 10% of retail executive boards. Certainly in my last employed role the ratio was 50/50. The women on that board were very strong businesswomen. I suppose generally men are seen as being more ruthless with decision-making so that could be a factor.
Karen Sheppard: We are still very much in the dark ages where women on boards are concerned. There are still different views between male and female in the workplace. For example, a man can work long hours and is seen as being supportive of his family. A woman might work long hours and she is said to be neglecting the family. There is a lot of pressure on women to still keep the house in order and to be the main parent at home and they feel a lot of guilt if they work long hours. I think because of peer pressure a lot of females do not even try to go for the executive board jobs, they do not feel they can climb the ladder and be thought of as being successful. Many companies won’t employ females when they are young and support them to climb the ladder because they can sometimes leave to have babies.
What do you think the industry can be doing to support women looking to further their careers and reach senior levels?
Clare Brophy: As employers, organisations must do more to build and nurture their talent pipeline by creating a workplace culture that values women and their contribution. We must also provide good maternity leave and return-to-work programmes if we are to ensure the middle-management tiers are not lost to organisations. As an industry, we must celebrate the women who are achieving in our sector and do more to share their experience with those in the early stages of their career. But we must also do more to celebrate the men who are working flexibly, so they can be role models for shared parental responsibility, for example. We need to promote inclusive and diverse workplaces for women and men. Some industries have networking groups specifically for women. These groups connect women in the sector so they can support women wanting to work in the industry, those who are already employed in it and employers looking to recruit talent. Perhaps a ‘Women in Access and Mobility’ group would be a good starting point for the industry?
Charlotte Gillan: Supply them with nice house-husbands, or failing that, childcare options and flexible working hours. Even child-free women still find it is often they rather than their brothers and husbands who are expected to help elderly parents and take the dog to the vets. I do also think that some potentially very competent women come from backgrounds where they have not had many appropriate female role models. Sometimes you do have to spell it out to such an employee that they could be doing so much more than working within the narrow horizons they have set themselves.
Heidi Millington: I think the industry needs to recognise some kind of qualification needs to be rolled out for its sales staff. It’s a specialist product and it needs committed people with a genuine interest in the product and providing good aftercare to build long-term customer relationships. Maybe an apprenticeship scheme covering all aspects of the role? It would certainly give more encouragement to the women in the industry if they have a goal to work towards and the opportunity to earn more as they pass each level of the apprenticeship.
Karen Sheppard: Large businesses could offer childcare in-house or offer to subsidise childcare. Offer training in-house so that they don’t have to travel away from home for any courses. Now we have the internet training can be done at home. Also, equal pay for everyone doing the same role. I have done some research and am staggered to see that women sometimes still only earn 73% of what men do for the same job. I also think that we have to start at a young age and let females know that they can climb the career ladder and be successful and to be proud of that achievement.
What advice would you give to any women wanting to pursue a senior role in the UK mobility industry?
Clare Brophy: Go for it and enjoy the journey! Pursue your passion and don’t be side-tracked or side-lined. Be determined and prepared for a lot of hard work; it’s unlikely you’ll be an overnight success. You need to earn your position, don’t expect it to be handed to you just because you are a woman. Have confidence in your ability. Ask for support if you need it. Ask for promotion if you think you deserve it. Deliver more for your company and it will deliver more for you.
Charlotte Gillan: Ask yourself whether you really want to work in a big company. By making yourself really useful in lots of areas within a smaller company you can carve out a more senior, challenging and rewarding role in no time. Alternatively, if you don’t mind the responsibility, the ultimate answer is probably to start your own business. You can organise your own hours to suit your life and you can control the company ethos. Then you can generate interesting and flexible jobs to suit other women and help solve the problems of women in the mobility industry yourself.
Heidi Millington: From my own experience, I would say firstly you need to be passionate about the product and be interested in learning every aspect of the industry. I started off as a store manager but was determined to learn the technical side of the role too and asked very loudly to attend the engineer training courses. Be prepared to learn everything! Knowledge is power. You have to be very tenacious and resilient in a male dominated industry.
Karen Sheppard: Stay committed and passionate, love the job and be prepared to put the hours in. Keep knocking on those doors and most importantly, believe in yourself. I am the sole owner of a mobility company and it isn’t always easy. I started the business with my husband and when we split I had no hesitation at all in buying the other half of the shares. I always wanted my own business from as long ago as I can remember. I had enthusiasm and passion and determination. I am a fighter and a positive thinker. As the purchase of the shares were going through I got diagnosed with breast cancer and had to use a lot of the skills I had been learning in business to fight the cancer and go through chemo which is one of the toughest things I have had to do. I was not going to let it consume me and beat me, after all, I had just taken over the business so had to still work daily to keep that going. To achieve the senior role you have to have the determination that when things start to get tough you have to get even tougher. You cannot just give up after a bad day. You have to find ways to do things differently, to cope and to succeed.