Women like Amelia Earhart, Margaret Thatcher and Oprah Winfrey… have always inspired me. Strong, determined women who achieved more in their lifetimes than most of us can even dream of give us hope for the future. They were and, in many cases, still are “pioneers” for all women who want to get ahead on an equal footing with their male counterparts.
I don’t profess to being in their league but I’ve been known to do a little pioneering in my time too.
I would have loved to become an Area Manager but it wasn’t meant to be.
If getting my dream job, at DFS Furniture, when I was 26 was luck then becoming a manager was more a matter of judgement. On the day that I would receive my Certificate of Excellence in Sales and be “signed off” as a salesperson by the founder of the company, Sir Graham Kirkham, I explained to Trainer, Peter, that although I was super proud to be the first woman to collect this certificate, what I really wanted was to be the first female manager in the company.
“How can I let GK know that?” I asked.
“Tell him exactly what you just said to me!” he advised.
So I did. At 27 years old, I told Sir Graham about my ambition.
His response? “Louise, go and prove that you can do it and I’m behind you all the way.”
Wow! His endorsement sent my confidence through the roof. I worked harder than ever and offered to take part in new store openings. The Poole branch opened in December 1997 and I commuted each week from my home in Devon to be there all over Christmas and into the new year.
Then, my opportunity presented itself. I received a message to say that Jon M, Sir Graham’s right-hand man, wanted a meeting with me at the Poole store to talk about Management Training. I drove through the snow to meet him on the appointed day and I was terrified!
I’m sure he asked me many more questions but the only one I really remember was:
“How will you deal with getting people who are older and more experienced than you to do what you say, as a manager?”
The only answer I could think of was: “I’ll apply what I do as a salesperson. Our customers come in all ages from youngsters wishing to furnish their first home to elderly couples replacing their furniture for the umpteenth time. With my team members, I’ll think about what’s in it for them and use my skills to show them the benefits of doing what needs to be done.”
When he told me that I would have a place on the Management Programme starting in just a few weeks time, I was so thrilled and excited that I remember grinning until my cheeks ached, all the way home to Devon!
I completed the programme and was given the keys to my first store in sunny Cheltenham. I felt like I’d arrived but, of course, I still had so much to learn.
The New Girl
In fact for about the next 10 years, I still felt like the new girl! Constantly trying to prove myself by working harder and longer hours… I loved my job and I was paid fair and comparable pay to my male colleagues. I believed that if I worked hard enough, my efforts would be recognised and when the time was right, I would be offered the next step on the ladder: Area Manager.
But that didn’t happen. In fact, when the opportunity arose, I wasn’t even considered! Why?
What had I done wrong? What had I done to deserve being overlooked? I ran over all the possibilities in my head and got myself more and more wound up over it. I was very hurt and disappointed by the way I felt I’d been treated.
Was it sexism? After all, the news was awash with debate about the importance of getting more women onto boards and into senior levels in organisations. I was already part of a group to try and bring more women into the company. I was one of only 3 female managers in the whole company. What on earth had happened? Why didn’t they want me?
With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I’m glad I was overlooked back in 2012. The right man did get the job and I wouldn’t be living this wonderful life now if things had been different. If I’d become an Area Manager, I would have even less time with my family, I’d have had loads more responsibility and a lot more time on the road.
I wouldn’t be The Dream Job Coach, (and now The Dream Biz Coach too!) working from home, to my own schedule and with such a wonderfully diverse range of clients. (You can read my career change story here.)
I also have a pretty good idea, looking back, of what I could have done differently, to give myself a better chance of progression.
Look Up and Speak Up!
I could have done what I had done back in 1997. I could have made it clear to the person who made the decisions that I wanted the next step. You can’t break a glass ceiling without making an effort. Beavering away in the room below without looking up and letting the right person know that you want to get up there will not yield the results you want.
The chaps looking down will simply see you beavering away, seemingly content, and look at the person who is making eye contact.
So, if you’re like I was, running around, doing your best and hoping that someone will notice and declare that you’re destined for higher places, look up! Talk to the person who has the say and let him/her know what you want.
If you don’t ask, the answer’s always no.
As we began management training, I remember one of the guys asking me:
“So, Louise, what’s it like being a woman in this company?”
I replied, “It’s pretty much the same as it’s been my whole life!” and laughed.
Being a woman in a man’s world can be tough. In spite of evolution, some men are still more in tune with their Neanderthal than with their New Man. Across the world, women are being mistreated, trafficked for sex, bullied and abused. It’s a disgrace and I applaud all those men and women who are working to put an end to misogynistic attitudes.
Fortunately for me, being a woman is great. I like working with other women and with men. I love a bit of banter and a laugh. I prefer to take a conciliatory, win-win attitude to solving problems and I have a healthy competitive streak which drives me to do better today than I did yesterday. I live in a relatively free and forward thinking country and I’m grateful.
So, this week, this month, this year: Whether you’re male or female, be the best you can be. Do what you love. Be one of the pioneers! For yourself, your family, your colleagues, everyone. After all, we’re all equal.
International Women’s Day
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I wish you every success! – Louise.
Copyright: Louise Jenner 2018 – Updated on 3rd March 2018. (Original article published 6th March 2017)