Flexible working, tackling unconscious bias and attracting and retaining talent were just some of the themes debated at the second Women in Wholesale (WiW) conference at The British Library last week.
Almost 200 men and women from across the food and drink wholesale and manufacturing industry gathered to hear a raft of inspiring speakers discuss the challenges of embracing diversity in the workplace, the positive steps being taken to address gender parity as well as listening to advice on networking skills and effective collaboration.
The education and networking event was introduced by WiW founder and organiser Elit Rowland and chaired by director of Immediate Impact Clare Bocking and managing director at Country Range, Coral Rose.
During the day, one overarching theme was inspiring change.
Chief operating office of JJ Foodservice Mushtaque Ahmed described how he aims to have 20% women in the company’s warehouse as his next target, having gone from zero to 13% in the last seven months.
“Having women in the warehouse was a tough ask but we addressed the facilities for women and the toolkit to make life easier,” he said, adding that advanced technology has made it more possible for females to take on this traditionally male role.
Also disrupting the status quo was Laura McKechnie, Field Sales Director at Coca Cola European Partners (CCE) who stressed the importance of supporting families with flexible working options, particularly after maternity leave.
More than 50% of all CCE employees are female, but this drops to 17% at director level. She asked delegates ‘Do you have your best team on the pitch? Here advice to women on the day was to embrace working with other females, don’t feel the need to “act like a man” and develop your own “strong business networks.”
Other inspiring role models on the day included Co-founder of Propercorn, Cassandra Stavrou (pictured solo, below), who revealed that the snack brand and its fine seasoning was born in her garage using a steel-lined cement mixer and a car spray paint gun. It now sells three million units per month across 10 countries.
“I’ve always wanted to run a business for as long as I can remember, but I was a young girl with no proven track record and continually patronised. To this day, I’m often asked the question, ‘so who runs the business?’” she said, stressing the need for women to be bolder.
Attracting and retaining talent
Attracting and retaining talent was addressed by president of the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA), Julie Dunn who said: “Any company that invests in lifelong learning will foster an attractive culture.”
She described how in her own family business, Dunns Food and Drinks, at which she is a director, turnover is up and profitability has also increased following the introduction of a structured career path, Pathways to Progress. The mentoring scheme set up by the SWA is also helping to nurture both men and women throughout the Scottish industry.
Similarly highlighting the need to make wholesale an attractive industry to both sexes, Ian Diment, HR director at A.F Blakemore said the company had made steps to address the language in job advertisements to attract people from across gender talent pools.
Blakemore has also changed the structure of their apprentice training scheme so that candidates put themselves forward rather than via manager endorsement – a move which has generated more female applicants.
“This year we had 50% women on the programme. If we are to crack board representation and women in leadership roles, it needs to start at the bottom through the talent pipeline,” he said.
The challenge of flexible working
Following research presented at the WiW report in April, a dominant discussion during the day was the challenge of flexible working. Insight from research company HIM showed that 52% of women viewed lack of flexible working as a barrier to a career in wholesale.
To address the challenge, chief executive officer of flexible working consultancy Timewise, Emma Stewart, announced a pilot programme to be carried out alongside the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) to shape what flexible working might look like in the industry.
She said: “The way we live has changed and the way we work is changing. The challenge is that the way we design jobs isn’t really changing. There is a massively underestimated demand from people who want to work flexibly.” One talent bottleneck is rooted in only 20% of adverts for jobs referencing flexible working as an option. Organisations needed to be given the tools to be proactive in promoting flexibility, she added.
Tackling unconscious bias
During a lively panel debate the subject of unconscious bias was discussed with general manager at Parfetts Becky Webster stressing that the stereotyping of women in the workplace was holding them back.
“There are too many assumptions made of women, particularly after they have had children, for example that they won’t want a promotion that includes travel. Let women decide what they can and cannot do,” she said.
In his speech, A.F Blakemore’s Ian Diment added that companies must deal with people as individuals. “Unconscious bias is when there’s affinity to people of the same class background, race or gender. For us it’s all about inclusion. Having the right people in the right roles and dealing with people as people,” he said.
Other speakers throughout the day included HR training and development manager of Costco, Dominic Flanagan; managing director of Bolt, Tom Fender, managing director of HIM, Jill Livesey, customer development manager of Nestle, Samantha Howard, consultant, Janet Standing and Enfield branch manager of JJ Food Service Sedat Kaan Hendekli.
The day was rounded up by a speech by former managing director and honorary chairperson of Isuzu, Nikki King.
Photography by Samson Images; article written by WiW Content Editor Helena Drakakis