UK print must do more to resolve gender imbalance

By Jenny Roper, Monday 11 August 2014

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In Britain, 2014, the average full-time pay gap between men and women is 10%, women make up just 17% of FTSE 100 board directors, and a quarter of women, according to a recent Business Environment survey, feel they have experienced some kind of discrimination at work.

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Back in April United Nations official Rashida Manjoo caused a media storm when she declared Britain to have the most pervasive, in-your-face “boys’ club sexist culture” she’d seen in any country. Examples cited included the ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’ trend of people taking pictures of women eating and posting them onto Facebook, and “routine” sexual bullying and harassment in UK schools.

To neglect the headway made by women in the workplace over the past few decades, and to say that all women frequently encounter discrimination and harassment, would of course be unfair. But clearly the situation in the UK in regards to gender equality and equal representation, is far from ideal.

Likewise in print. Much has of course improved. The bad old days of women only ever appearing in pressrooms in the form of scantily clad pin-ups, and occasions such as Printers’ Charitable Corporation evenings being routinely male-only events, are thankfully long gone. 

But any industry will be, at least to some extent, a microcosm of its wider society. And print, with a long legacy of being male-dominated, struggles to shift unequal representation – and in some instances the outmoded, sexist attitudes that can go hand in hand with it – perhaps more than most.

The question is, what can print bosses actually do themselves? Discussion of gender equality frequently comes back to talk of legislative matters and industry-wide initiatives- and to dauntingly knotty issues of societal pressures, formative influences and irresolvable debate about inherent gender difference. All very engaging, but not very helpful in giving individuals with power any guidance on how to use this.

“One of the main things we’re getting requests and questions about is managing diversity in the workplace,” reports BPIF chief executive Kathy Woodward of the appetite among print bosses now to be making a positive impact here.

One area very much within print boss’s and print firm HR departments’ control of course, is dealing with and stamping out any instances of sexist behaviour. 

“If you allow sexist behaviour to continue, people think it’s okay. The culture is set from the top,” says Terrye Teverson, managing director at KCS Trade Print, who reports: “I go to different companies quite a lot myself, and you still do get the page-three pin-ups. They are still out there.”

Teverson supports the view that objectification and sexualisation of young women has in many ways become more aggressive in the UK in recent years, and that managers should be alert to this. “Young women don’t want to just be seen as a bit of office totty in the corner. And I think that’s actually gotten worse in our society,” she says.

Proper response

Where someone has been offended by a sexualising or sexist comment, it’s important to respond in a robust, systematic manner, advises Woodward.

“The first thing is you hear the opinion of both people; no matter what it is you take it seriously. If you think you’ve got an issue, you process it through a disciplinary procedure, whatever that is for you,” says Woodward.

“But most of the time you can resolve things at the first level. Most instances are actually about a misunderstanding,” she qualifies.

In fact, it’s best to empower people to tell each other when they’re unhappy, says Dani Novick, managing director of print and packaging recruitment specialist Mercury Search & Selection. 

“Yes, you do have to go through a formal procedure when you’re exceptionally uncomfortable with something,” she says. “But I think a lot of formal procedure is forced upon individuals who, had they felt comfortable to turn around and say ‘I’m not comfortable with that,’ that person would have said ‘I’m so sorry that was not the intention’, and clarified things.”

As always, prevention is, though, the best cure. For PressOn’s managing director Andy Wilson, such prevention is kick-started by the very sorts of people a business hires, and the way it presents itself to ensure it’s hiring the best, most open-minded, considerate types. 

“In other companies I’ve worked at you’d get sexist comments all the time. You’d get it when customers were doing tours – they’d walk in, they’d walk out, and there’d be comments – typical pack animal type stuff,” says Wilson, adding of his strategy to ward against this: “It might sound daft but if the place looks rough and coarse, that’s the type of employee who’s going to accept the position. If you’re ambitious and well presented why would you want to work in a dirty factory?” 

Ensuring political correctness is of course not an exact science. Though certain kinds of derogatory and objectifying behaviours are clearly unacceptable, there can be grey areas. Woodward recommends diversity workshops to help both managers and workers navigate these, and to help scrutinise automatic, subconscious prejudices, languages and behaviours.

“We’re getting more and more requests for these kinds of workshops,” she says, reporting that these are a key part of the BPIF’s new Level 5 Graduate Management Programme.

“It’s trying to get people to stop and think about the fact they’ve got something engraved in their brains, but that’s not
necessarily reality. It’s trying to get them to see that what might seem totally acceptable to them might be unacceptable to somebody else.”

Such courses could be key in addressing one, often unconscious, but still very pervasive preconception, relating specifically to women in positions of power. Facebook chief executive Sheryl Sandberg’s recent campaign to ban the word ‘bossy’ in relation to women, inevitably chimed with KCS’s Teverson, who says: “If you’re too assertive as a woman you’re classed as strident. Whereas a man acting the same way would be seen as assertive.”

Teverson is generally very much against banning certain behaviours and words, though. Preventing sexism needn’t be about stiflingly PC environments where people are afraid to make jokes, she says.

“I am not a fan of being totally politically correct. We occasionally have the odd ribbing. It’s a question of everyone feeling comfortable and having a relaxed, fairly playful atmosphere,” she says.

“There will be grey areas because you’re dealing with people, so interpretations of a situation will always be up for question,” adds Novick. “Which is why it’s so important that it’s a culture created within the business. Then people use their own judgment to intelligently apply that.”  

Bringing balance

All of the above will of course be critical to addressing the arguably much more widespread gender equality issue print still grapples with. That is creating a better gender balance, not just in artworking, sales and customer services, where there are now plenty of women coming through, but in production and management too.  

Many who have created perfectly egalitarian and welcoming workplaces will counter, however, that still the problem of a dearth of women in the board and press rooms persists. They might also counter that this is an issue for industry bodies, who have more far reaching capacity to recruit and attract women to the industry. But there are also some things individual businesses can do.

Childcare is still cited as a key reason for many women not working production shifts, and for why still far fewer women than men progress to senior roles. So a more open attitude to flexible and part-time working could be key.   

“It is sometimes quite an effort to map out how that would work, but actually there are many ways to do that, to get job sharing and get people working from home,” says Novick.

“We did have two people who job shared; you’ve got to have good communication to make that work,” says managing director of Artisan Print Solutions Daren Elsley. “We made our emails joint, no one has a particular email. We’ve got a good MIS so any quotes go into that. So if someone’s away the next day the customer can call with the quote number, and we can pick it up.”

Another issue can be confidence. Whether the result of nature or nurture, studies find time and again that women are likely to underestimate their abilities. Take HP’s review of why it struggled to get women into top management positions for example, which found women applied for promotions only when they felt they met 100% of the criteria, whereas men applied when they felt they met 60%.

“We see it all the time- that women will only apply for roles or promotions when they’re 100% confident, whereas men will take a punt and will always push to take the next step,” says Novick.

“So we need to be providing our employees with the tools to say ‘I’m confident, I can do it,’ perhaps giving them that physical certificate, but certainly providing the training that will make them confident in their own abilities.”

Although such steps certainly shouldn’t constitute positive discrimination, which Novick is resolutely against, they will be highly effective particularly in encouraging women into positions of power, she says. As will ensuring women and men are genuinely paid the same for the same work, notes Woodward.

“I think at most senior levels you’ve still got mega discrepancies on women’s pay in print,” she says. “I think you get many situations where you have female managers that have come up from a customer service route that are probably paid less than some of the people that have come up from a production and operations route. The argument of different skill sets is used, but they really are doing the same job.” 

Long-term approach

Many print bosses may still counter, though, that there just aren’t the same numbers of female employees coming through the ranks to promote to management positions. Here, print bosses will need to take a long-term approach to feel like they’re making headway, says Teverson. She is a great advocate of apprenticeships and initiatives with local schools. 

“We had 40 children in the other week; we taught them about the first printing press, we had them doing potato cut-outs and foiling; we showed them digital printing processes,” she says. “The girls and
boys are treated equally. It’s all about role models, it’s about the girls seeing me running a factory.”

Of course certain issues that affect the number of women coming into print and the sorts of jobs they do when they get there, will be out of the control of individual print bosses. Looking after a family, for instance. Here more affordable childcare and the more equal paternity and maternity rights slated for 2015 could help, but are largely within the control of politicians.

But there’s still plenty for print bosses to do. In a society where casual sexism persists to the level where a UN official feels compelled to speak out, there is clearly much to be vigilant about. Creating a culture where the line is drawn between light-hearted banter and more judgmental comments about a woman’s looks or ‘inferior technical capacities’, say, is a delicate task. And one print bosses should give serious attention.

They should also appreciate the importance of encouraging women into their businesses, say those who are lucky enough to boast fairly equal numbers of men and women, such as PressOn.

Creating accepting, welcoming workplaces will go a long way to doing this. And will go a long way to ensuring people of all genders, backgrounds and types are drawn to, and passionate about, UK print.  


Lucy Collins and Chloe Marshall, senior print finishers at PressOn

collins-marshallBoth Chloe Marshall and Lucy Collins started out on a fairly informal basis at Kent-based wide format printer PressOn. The pair were recruited through Marshall’s boyfriend who operated a Zünd cutting machine the company used at the time. They both started out in part-time manual finishing roles. 

Progressing to become the only two people in the company trained on PressOn’s Kongsberg cutting table was a matter of being pushed by PressOn to have a go, report the duo.

“As the business grew and we got busier, the company said ‘we’d like you here on a more permanent basis’; then they said ‘we’d like you to be trained on the Kongsberg,’” reports Marshall. 

“When I first came here, I looked at the machine and thought ‘there is no way I’m going to be able to run that’. But now I instruct other people how to run it,” says Collins.

“It’s nice that people come to us and say ‘we’ve got this material, we want to know if we can make this out of it, do you reckon we could give it a go?’ We’ll be the go-to people for that,” adds Marshall.  

The fact it wouldn’t have occurred to Marshall and Collins to have a go at a more technically demanding job, or even to enter print, without encouragement, makes them fairly typical of a lot of young women, says BPIF chief exec Kathy Woodward. She is passionate about securing funding to train up women who work in manual finishing.

“You’ve got loads of women in the binderies that are very skilled and very educated who just keep their heads down, where if you could only move them across into the digital arena you’d move their careers forward a lot quicker,” she says.

Marshall and Collins report the atmosphere at PressOn to be inviting and diverse. But the kinds of comments they still experience from clients and suppliers coming into the business from the outside, makes the idea of working elsewhere in print slightly daunting.

“With people coming from the outside we do get comments every now and again along the lines of ‘how on earth do you run that?’ Sometimes it does get quite offensive. You’ll get people looking for the man who’s in charge of saying ‘who do you run that with?’ It’s always meant as a joke but when you get it so often it gets quite boring,” says Collins.

“It’s nice to feel unique and like you’re flying the flag for women. But I do feel if I ever did decide to get a job elsewhere I think it would be difficult. There’s that preconceived idea that you might not be able to do it,” adds Marshall.

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