Elizabeth Pantling-Jones, kbbreview100 member and director at Lima Kitchens in Milton Keynes says that despite her success in that role she still finds stereotypical attitudes among clients and industry peers but believes things are slowly getting better
Q: What’s been your experience as a woman in the KBB industry?
A: I love the industry we work in and the wide range of people we meet and get to work with to improve their homes and lifestyles.
I have been in the industry since I was 18 and set up Lima Kitchens with a colleague at the age of 21 after being made redundant. As a young woman in what is a very male-dominated, older industry, I have encountered my fair share of questionable behaviour and responses from peers, reps and clients. Over the 15 years we have been operating, I have managed to adapt, address and squash these occurrences. Although I have now been running my own business for 15 years, I still face these stereotypes, although thankfully much less than before.
I dread networking and supplier events. I attend along with Matt, my business partner, and have often felt almost unworthy of speaking to, or having a valid opinion on, the industry. The presumption is that we are married and this is his business. It is common that male company owners will bring their wives along to events, but this should not be the default assumption. There are female owners out there, we are just rarely seen. Over the past five years, I have become more confident with these events and have become more active in creating relationships and being heard.
I have lost count of the number of times sales reps will not speak to me or expect Matt to be the one solely responsible for decision-making. I just laugh at this these days. The suppliers we have the best relationships with treat us as equals and understand that we make joint decisions where necessary and taken on split responsibilities. The thing that has surprised me is that it has not only been male reps that have done this, but a lot of female reps over the years too.
As a designer there are often comments along the lines of, ‘great that a woman is designing the kitchen, they know best’. Which is not necessarily true. After all, being a chef is another male-dominated area and some of the best designers are also male.
On the other hand, people have literally looked past me when presenting to ask Matt questions – who has not been involved in the appointment – and ask to speak with the ‘boss’, clearly assuming I am not the decision-maker. I have had clients continue to look and direct questions over my head to Matt even when I am answering. This is disrespectful and infuriating. Thankfully, Matt fully supports equality and my approach, so will not entertain this behaviour.
I have lost count of the number of times sales reps will not speak to me or expect Matt to be the one solely responsible for decision-making. I just laugh at this these days.
Q: What advice would you give to other women looking to emulate your success as a business owner and designer?
A: Do not allow your own insecurities to get in the way. There are some amazing people in the industry who will support, guide and respect you, so long as you perform. Approach things your way, whether that is in line with the norm or not. Support those who support you and reflect equality throughout your team.
We have both male and female trades, a project manager and operations assistant. All, including myself, assist with tasks such as waste removal, deliveries, cleaning, etc.
As a designer, find your style, develop a system and an approach to follow. Being able to do this will help you love your work and your passion will shine through. As a designer, I have not really felt being a woman has hindered me. It has definitely more help with sales, technical detail and as an owner where this has become apparent.
As a woman, it will be likely that you will still experience out-of-date stereotypes. Find a way to address this and manage this with the support of your team. Do not feel the need to give in to these stereotypes or refrain from participating in anything because of these perceptions. Aim to help others learn and grow out of these preconceived ideas.
Q: Do you feel women are under-represented in the KBB industry?
A: Generally, yes. Industry events are heavily weighted to a male attendance, currently all but two of our reps are male.
I think that it is really worth mentioning companies such as Blum, which appears to have good diversity based on skill and experience. When visiting the Burbidge factory, I was really impressed to see so many female joiners, quality checkers, sprayers, etc, showing diversity throughout the business.
I believe that people and companies need to be represented for their achievements, not to fill a quota. With more acceptance and more women in the industry having the respect that they deserve, this will naturally improve this situation and does appear to be changing.
Q: How do you think the KBB industry as a whole would benefit from having more women in a variety of roles?
A: For the KBB industry to be more inclusive and representative as a whole would benefit the end user. A wider range of viewpoints, experiences and background would diversify design, stylings and usability of the spaces created.
Q: In your experience how do consumers – male and female – react to female designers?
A: This varies from client to client. Some people prefer female designers, as they feel women understand kitchens and family more. Others feel that women are not technically minded enough to understand electrical loads, construction, etc – or even have the experience to negotiate deals.
On the whole, it helps if you you understand your products and designs. Clients do not treat me or our male designers differently.
Q: In your experience, who makes most of the decisions when it comes to the design and purchase of a kitchen?
A: I would say that most final decisions on where to buy from still come from the man in the relationship. With a general viewpoint of society being that big-ticket purchases and negotiations are a male preserve, this can be a negative for women designers, even if the viewpoint is that a woman is better placed to design a kitchen. So, even providing a better design, service, product and price can still lead to male competitors winning business. We work as a team in the showroom, so if we suspect this is happening we will step in and try to break down these unconscious biases.
Q: As one of the few women that holds a prominent role in the industry, do you feel you have a role to play in encouraging other women to pursue a KBB career?
A: I think that the area that needs addressing is equality in the industry at all levels. I feel that acceptance and respect for women at all levels of the industry needs to be a norm rather than minority – being a part of an industry that is a welcoming one for all people despite gender, backgrounds or stature.
Q: What do you think is the future of the KBB industry when it comes to diversity?
A: Diversity is happening and there is hope. In recent years, we have all seen women being represented and given opportunities in higher management and decision-making roles.
The industry still needs to diversify much further. Simply opening the discussion and acknowledging that there needs to be greater equality will help others identify this, if they have not already, and work towards creating an industry where diversity is standard and no longer needed to be discussed and addressed.
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