The Gender Gap Widens, But We Can Fix It

Will the powerful female economy change the way furniture is designed and sold?

In researching the historical and current roles of women in the American residential furniture industry, I’m puzzled to find that groups for women in furniture design and the home furnishings industry may be more divisive than they are helpful. Calling attention to gender-related issues is a delicate matter. Some women argue that the women’s movement has done more harm than good for our cause; that men perceive us as too loud, too inquisitive, and too demanding.

In their new book, Work With Me: the 8 Blind Spots Between Women and Men in Business, Barbara Annis and John Gray interviewed more than 100,000 men and women about working together. What they found is not surprising. Most men feel put off by women who ask too many questions. Most women feel under appreciated by men. Gray’s advice to women, as he promotes the book is disturbing, to say the least: We as women need to learn how to soften our approach. And so we are still learning to dance the male part.

What of the potentially divisive role by women’s “groups” as it relates to the furniture industry?  Will it make a difference to talk about the fact that women are still not tapping on the glass ceiling in an industry that sells primarily to women make a difference?  Or, will all this talk shut the doors more securely, keeping us at the fringes like decorating and merchandising? I prefer to argue that the more statistics we disclose about the power of the female consumer, the less hard we have to press for more female leadership in the industry.

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The 2008 Harvard Business Review case study, “The Female Economy,” by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre, demonstrates that 95% of all home-furnishings purchasing decisions are made by females. Today women control the global consumer economy, yet many companies underestimate this power.  This study is a great read and can be downloaded here.

The numbers are in, yet the furniture industry has yet to promote women to C-Suite positions.  Although there is a great need to gather more data, which I am in the process of doing, there are some fascinating studies such as Se-Yeon Yoon’s and Ji Yoong Cho’s 2009 research that demonstrates the differences between men and women in making decisions about furniture.

Yoon and Cho demonstrate that furniture is more important to women than it is to men.  Whereas women are more influenced by style and color, men are more concerned with price and construction.  Females prefer casual and traditional styles where men prefer modern styles.  The study also contains a great bibliography for reading materials on the furniture industry. I will be following up with more data through hundreds of surveys.

And we all need to remember the sheer weight of the 95%, as we advocate for female leadership in the industry. This adjustment would certainly cut out the time and expense of much useless research and development by going straight to the source!

In light of the 95%, it should it be instinctive that women need to be industry leaders, and designers.  But rather than recognizing the females who buy the product, the industry continues to support a fraternity-like structure. I’m not saying that men are incapable of designing for a female audience, rather, it seems reasonable that more women are needed to  join the men who design.

Both the Kendall College of Art and Design and the Savannah College of Art and Design graduated more female than male furniture design students this year. The well of great female design talent is starting to fill up.  This gives me hope that the industry will welcome the fresh female perspective in developing products for the future.

Female designers like Diane Granda, Monty Simpson, and Catina Roscoe have cleared a few pathways for women. Yet their names, like those male designers’ names, are not known in the residential industry, which does not recognize the names of designers, even though the contract sector does.  When this situation begins to change, young female grads from design schools will find role models in the women who have made inroads in the industry.

Paula Scott Fogarty holds an M.A. in art history from Savannah College of Art and Design and served as a leader in the furniture industry for 20 years. In her many roles at Kindel Furniture, including president, she led the sales, marketing, design and operations teams and with them, developed the most successful programs for the company.  Paula also ran a successful marketing and communications firm, Paula Scott Unlimited, and is now a freelance writer on the arts and the role of women in the furniture industry. She is the past chair of the board of the David Walcott Kendall Memorial Foundation and president of the Irish Georgian Society Board of Directors. Paula lives in Savannah with her Jack Russell terrier, Charles. 

Read more from Paula S. Fogarty here

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