The UK furniture industry remains a male-dominated environment, but women are increasingly making the decisions which shape the sector. In April's Furniture News, we asked some of the trade’s leaders to offer their views on gender politics, female recruitment and the rate of change – here's what Wayfair's Saskia Meier-Andrae had to say …
Saskia is the director of Wayfair’s EU brand, creative and promotions. Boasting a PhD in bioinformatics from the University of Oxford (yet “not a nerd”), Saskia worked as a consultant for 10 years before joining the global ecommerce giant in 2018.
Day to day, how aware are you of the furniture industry’s gender balance? Is equality important to you?
Like in most industries, there is still work ahead of us to ensure genuine equality between men and women. That said, I believe that great strides are being made, and I am incredibly proud of our work at Wayfair to champion women in the workplace.
In some businesses, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are an afterthought, but at Wayfair, we make it a key focus area of our working model. Equality is essential to me and, as a leader, I have worked to ensure that we have a high proportion of female leaders and staff within my organisation. I also sit as a panel member on our Women at Work Employee Resource Group. We seek to empower women with careers advice at every level by having a meaningful framework and forum for women+ communities to celebrate, learn and amplify their actions. Externally, I have also very much enjoyed speaking at female-focused events, such as the Female Future Force conference, where women can access information and inspiration to help them nurture and drive forward their careers.
At the start of your career, were you made to feel welcome by the trade, or did you have more obstacles to overcome than a man might?
The furniture trade is traditionally a pretty male-dominated sector. I was quite senior when I joined, having worked for 10 years in consultancy following my PhD. I think that made it easier, since I had some street credibility due to my academic and professional career.
Is there anything you know about women and the workplace now that you wish you’d known sooner?
It is comparatively easy for a company to say “we support women” – but it’s the actions that count. What behaviour do you reprimand? What language do you use (I’ve stopped calling my teams “you guys”)? Do they have hiring targets for women+? Is their recruiting team actively seeking out women? How do they think about diversity more broadly (I feel in 2021, having dedicated women-support programmes should be a given – what about helping people across all gender identities, ethnic backgrounds, with physical or mental disabilities)?
I would advise my younger self to choose to work for companies or, more broadly, work in environments that don’t just say they support women, but act upon it.
Can you share an anecdote/example of a time you felt held back or discriminated against due to your sex?
I am a tall, blonde woman who always liked dressing glamorously. At the beginning of my career in consulting, I got the well-intentioned advice to change my look and personal style preference entirely to be taken seriously on a professional level. I thanked the person for their candid feedback and chose to ignore it. They responded that I’d either get fired in the next six months or be very successful – a chance I was willing to take.
Conversely, can you identify any stand-out gestures of fairness/equality?
I am particularly impressed by the work we do at Wayfair to help ensure fairness, equality, and inclusion. As well as launching an annual DEI report to help us truly understand where we fall as a business, we have also launched several tools to support the vital work in this area. A great example of this is our Performance Review Bias Analyser Tool, which flags biased language to employees, to complete annual reviews in real-time. The tool acts as a pulse check for potentially gender-biased words and phrases that may require additional consideration, helping to root out unconscious bias. This is a great step in the important work we are doing on the DEI front to help create a more inclusive workforce.
Do you feel things are generally heading in the right direction? How can other people/the industry make a difference?
We have taken steps in the right direction, but we also know we are still on a journey. Having robust diversity analytics and a dedicated DEI focus is key, because equality is then front and centre of your agenda and you know both where you sit on the baseline and what you have to work towards. In terms of making a difference, I think an integral component is a consciousness – both of gender equality and diversity, as well as inclusion more generally, whether that relates to women at work, LGBTQ+ communities, ethnicity, and more.
What would you tell young women who are thinking about entering the furniture industry?
The furniture business is an exciting, thriving, and creative industry with a huge total addressable market of more than $300b in Europe, as well as abundant and scaling opportunities. At Wayfair, we have amazing, smart and powerful women working in every kind of role, from engineering and analytics over brand to operations. There is a wealth of opportunity available for women at every level, and we are just getting started!
Read the complete feature in April's Furniture News.