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Wonder Women in 2021 – International Women’s Day

04 Mar 2021

wonder women's day NAj

On International Women’s Day Belinda Morris, editor of The Jeweller, celebrates the many inspirational and successful females in our industry… and discovers a few home truths: just what does it mean to be a woman in this business?

Okay, cards on the table; I have to begin with some home truths of my own. My working life began in the late 1970s – a very different time – and my way of getting by in the male-dominated world of print journalism and the rag trade will have done little to forward the feminist cause. Back then I thought a pat on the bottom was a friendly compliment and mistook patronising middle-aged men for kindly, wise elders. Happy days!


Measures of ‘success’

So, I look back and inwardly cringe a little… but I’m still here, making a living doing the job I love, with my sense of self-worth loosely intact. That, for me, is success. I’m interested to know what the word means to those women in the jewellery industry I consider inspirational, and how their journey was impacted – if at all – by being female.

“My definition of success has changed dramatically since starting my own business, and in fact ties in with why I did it in the first place,” says Kerry Gregory of Gemmology Rocks. “I used to think success was money, titles and power. Now, it’s doing something I love, helping others achieve their success and having a lifestyle where I have the time and freedom to travel, learning about gems, and spending time with people I love. I would by this definition say I’m pretty successful now… by the previous one definitely not!”

Harriet Kelsall, of Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery, agrees that her views have changed and evolved over time. “As a much younger start-up success was about making bespoke jewellery design commonplace – back then it was just for the very rich. Next it was about building my team. Now it’s lots of things, but particularly about nurturing and empowering my team to be the best they can be, sharing our values and doing our best for the different communities with whom we engage. I also have two kids and a partner to fit in!” 

Iris Van der vekenImage: Iris Van der Veken

Iris Van der Veken, executive director of the Responsible Jewellery Council, defines success as “hard work and preparation, meeting a combination of company and personal goals and continuing to learn and adapt to accelerate my and my team’s performance. Driving the sustainability agenda forward in collaboration with so many of my colleagues in the jewellery and watch industry, with a focus on human rights and gender equality, is one of my greatest achievements.”

Success, she says, is also learning from your failures; not giving up. “That motivates me to push myself and grow. Success isn’t just the destination, it’s the journey, and on that journey you need to have fun. It’s about getting a seat at the table, remaining there and enjoying every minute of the rollercoaster. Success is also being able to be yourself, do what you love and work super hard for it.”

Karen Russell, managing director of Clarity & Success, adds: “For me it isn’t about figures, profit or number of customers in our portfolio, it’s about the legacy you create in building relationships within all sectors of the industry whether that be your customers, suppliers or other partners and working together to build a reputation on a personal basis.  No matter how big a business grows, success for me is maintaining those relationships and being available so that individuals and businesses want to work with us.”

For Judith Lockwood of Mesmeric Distribution, success means ‘still’ working in an industry she loves. “It represents all the years of hardwork, persistence, late nights, rejection, sacrifices, discipline, criticism, doubts, failure and risk… and I’m still here, still learning and get up every day with enthusiasm. Plus I have great relationships with many industry colleagues who I call friends, work with a superb team and a trusted brand in TI SENTO Milano and wonderful retailers. That’s success!”

Helen Haddow, CEO of The Houden Group, adds that: “success for me is defined by being given the opportunity to shine, irrespective of my gender or life choices. Being a woman and a mother, in what was (at the time) a male-oriented industry, I carved my own path to success by creating a work-life balance that allowed me to both further my career and be present for my family.”

wonder women's day NAj 1From left to right: Judith Lockwood, Karen Russell, Kathryn Bishop.

Balance also figures in the definition for Kathryn Bishop, vice-chair of Goldsmiths’ Craft & Design Council. “For me success means being able to achieve a healthy balance between working life and non-working life. You need it in order to thrive in both lives,” she explains. “In a business setting it’s also about respect. Do you bring quality, knowledge and experience to the table; am I intrinsic to bringing success to a company or organisation? I think you can’t really have success without respect. I feel I have some way to go before I’d define myself as successful– there’s still a lot I’d like to achieve in my career.”

“I think there’s a sweet spot for everyone between what you’re good at and what you really love doing,” adds Iris. “If you can find that spot, that’s when the magic truly happens. At RJC I can really share my passion, so I do feel lucky to have found my home.” Victoria Waugh of VV Collective, which offers sustainable solutions for fashion and jewellery businesses, can relate: “Success for me means working in a career that I’m passionate about, that allows me the flexibility to spend time with family. It also means being in a position where I can choose to work with businesses that share my values and focus on goals that will drive positive change in the jewellery sector.”

Cathie Osborne of Retaissance keeps it simple: “For me success is being true to yourself and your values, going to sleep at night happy with your actions, and being grateful for your day.” “Success? It’s financial independence that allows me to support the company and community, all while working ethically,” adds Maneesha Humphrey, Sri Lanka-based gemstone buyer for Taylor & Hart.


Cathie OsbornejpgImage: Cathie Osborne

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman… or it’s not

Does gender have a bearing on career progression in our industry? To a certain extent, it depends on the age of the person being asked and, then you have to throw in differing levels of guts, determination, resilience and skin thickness.

Kerry says that in her early days (at the start of the new millennium), being a woman definitely held her back. “I encountered considerably more sexism than I do now; I missed out on a promotion because I was a woman, I was subjected to sexual harassment (which was just the norm) and I was unfairly dismissed by a misogynist. I think the reasons I don’t encounter it so much now are twofold – we’ve moved on hugely, but also so have I. I don’t accept, and actively speak out about, any inequality when I see it. And while I didn't ‘put up with it’ then, I think my increased confidence and self-assurance would make people think twice about trying it now!”

Satta Matturi NEW 7Image: Satta Matturi

“Being female definitely held me back in the ’80s,” adds Karen. “When I joined the NatWest Bank, I was identified early on as one of the first and very few women to be put forward for a management development programme.  Having proved my ability I was then asked the question you could not ask today: did I want a family?  My answer was ‘yes’ so the opportunity was given to a male colleague.  When we founded Clarity & Success, customers who called and got me on the line assumed I was the secretary, but that quickly changed as they got to know me.”

Harriet’s sobering story is similar. “In the 1980s when I started working in high street retailers, I experienced constant and blatant sexism. I wouldn’t have recognised it as that back then – it was considered normal and simply some stuff you had to get through. I was cornered in the staffroom when I was 15 by a 30- year-old manager who made a lot of advances – I needed to duck and run out of the room. I couldn’t borrow The New Scientist from the shelves because I was female. I was bullied and belittled and told that I couldn’t win a work competition because of my gender. I was even told I had to entertain male corporate clients in their hotel room… I refused and was given the cold shoulder by my manager for a month.

“You had to be strong and resilient to survive that kind of rubbish,” she adds.  “These days sexism is more subtle; much progress has been made. The most common thing that still exists, for me, is men claiming that my ideas were actually theirs.  This happens very often and somehow still surprises me.  I’ve learned to be quite blatant about claiming my ideas at any meeting. It feels counter-productive when you do it, but if you don’t, it’s easy for others to take your ideas and ride to success with them while they leave you behind.”

Maneesha and her teamImage: Maneesha and her team

Throw cultural differences into the equation and the story intensifies, as Maneesha explains. “Ten years ago women had no presence in the Ratnapura-Demuwavatha gem market. It made me self-conscious and afraid of what others would think of me trying to make it in the industry. I was so afraid to travel alone to other countries, or of what people would think of me leaving my children to travel for business; letting my husband look after my children while I acted like 'the man of the house'! I had a lot of self-doubt dealing with the men around me because of our traditions and cultural boundaries. But I realised they were just testing my presence. They were curious about me, asking themselves: “what the hell this lady is doing here?” They stared, or commented that no one would sell gemstones to a woman. But after a few months in the business, I was just another gem dealer doing my job. I’ve grown stronger from doing these things.”

“I don't think being a woman has ever held me back.  However, being a mother and needing flexible working hours to allow me to look after my son has definitely held me back at certain points in my career,” says Victoria.  “Employers still favour staff that are full time and available at all hours, regardless of what it says in their HR policies.” “Motherhood is all about guilt,” Harriet adds  “You feel guilty if you work full time, you feel guilty if you stay at home and you feel guilty if you do some of each – are you getting anything done to the best of your ability. I embrace the guilt – I’m always going to feel that I’m not doing my best unless I reframe my thinking. Just feel OK about the balance that works for you.”

Iris explains that her parents instilled in her the confidence to go after something and to speak up. “However, today I still feel that women, and that includes myself, feel a need to prove themselves, probably more than their male counterparts, and it’s something that we need to change. Now that I’m 50, I do feel more fearless and I won’t accept any bias or unacceptable behaviour. But there were times of struggle to find my balance, especially when it came to negotiating challenging personal and tough family circumstances with an international career. I was fortunate to work for a CEO who provided flexibility.”

While she says that her career has progressed unhindered – though it’s involved hard work – Kathryn admits that she has felt condescension from her male peers in the jewellery industry. “While being editor of Professional Jeweller I was spoken down to by men while interviewing them. It hasn’t held me back as such, but your confidence would take a knock because you’d feel like they didn’t perceive you as knowledgeable enough to be speaking to them,” she explains. “I’ve worked to push past that and show myself and other women that you can achieve, own your work and develop. And elevating other women has been key and central to that.”


Charlotte CorneliusImage: Charlotte Cornelius 

The positive spin

There’s obviously a flip side to the gender issue; being a woman arguably comes with many advantages. Camaraderie for one, says Kathryn, particularly among the millennial and Z generations. “We recognise that by working together and elevating each other we can achieve so much more.” Women, she feels, tune into community and positive traits like empathy and creativity, although she’s quick to point out that we shouldn’t, of course, dismiss men as ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ business people… any more than women can be! “I think it’s more a difference between generations than genders,” she adds. “I’ve seen many men in the industry celebrate and champion women, whether it’s apprentices coming into the trade, or male retailers better supporting women in their teams who want to upskill or take maternity leave then come back and keep moving forward in the business.”

Having an earlier career that saw her joining Honda Motorcycles UK as a retail operations manager, managing a team of 13 men (as well as running a race team), Judith has her own perspective. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t hold those roles or learn those skills,” she says. “I was just me, got on with whatever needed doing and was accepted. I think everyone has their own strengths, skills and weaknesses regardless of gender; I’m a believer in the right person for the job whoever they may be.”

“As female leaders we have our own traits, especially things like soft skills,” adds Iris. “We should utilise these qualities such as perseverance, empathy and passion. Women in the leadership race are sometimes faced with unfair stereotypes, especially when they are characterised as being too emotional or too cooperative. For me, it is not about being a woman or a man, it’s about who you are, your value system, and how you engage with people.”

Flora Bhattahcary Shakti Cushion Cut Pink Diamond RingImage: Flora Bhattahcary Shakti Cushion Cut Pink Diamond Ring

Harriet recognises that this is something she has developed over time. “When I first grew my business beyond just a handful of people I thought I needed to behave in quite a male way, not show my emotions, be a bit cold… But I soon learned that wasn’t the way forward, because when men are like that everybody thinks it’s fine, but when women act like that it’s unacceptable. So now I manage some of each and embrace my femininity and see it as part of who I am.  It sounds corny but I learned over the years to be myself.  This gets easier when you’ve had some success – when you’re still feeling unsuccessful as a start-up it’s easy to blame all kinds of aspects of yourself.” 

“Although [soft skills] are not exclusive to females, I understand that traditionally women are viewed as being more empathetic and can display high emotional intelligence,” adds Helen. “However, with empathy now understood and appreciated as a major leadership skill, it is, or should be, a highly desirable attribute of any leader.” Cathie concurs: “I think the natural slant to the right side of your brain is an incredible asset for inspirational leadership. It allows us to be creative, delicate, intuitive, nurturing, receptive and tender. I think empathy is under-used in business – listening, learning and feeling allow us to understand others without explanation.”

Long experience working with gemstones has given Maneesha a particularly aesthetic perspective: “Women have a knack for seeing colours and beauty better than men,” she says. “And never forget how good women are at negotiating. Most of the wonderful female buyers that I work with are tougher negotiators than men (no disrespect to the male buyers in the industry, of course!) Women can work under pressure and still keep a smile on their face. Without a doubt, I think being a woman is an advantage in this industry.”

Victoria agrees: “My ability to multi-task, juggle numerous projects at a time, and see things from different perspectives is an advantage – I feel like that comes from being a working mum.  Being a woman in the jewellery sector is obviously beneficial given that the primary market for jewellery is women.  Hopefully, I can resonate with the customer.”

“The funniest positive advantage [to being a woman] is actually other people's antiquated perceptions,” says Kerry. “I’ve made an awful lot of money, and had huge advantages over the years, from people who’ve underestimated me, or dismissed me as a ‘weak woman’ or assumed I didn’t know what I was doing. It amuses me greatly to allow people to continue to think those things, whilst all the while having the upper hand, because I know who and what they are, and they have no idea what I’m capable of.”


Sonia CheadleImage: Sonia Cheadle

Spotlight on the jewellery industry

Does sexism (an ‘old’ word says Kathryn) exist today in the jewellery trade? “Quite the opposite,” says Karen Russell. “I think the vast majority of people in our industry recognise performance rather than gender.  There are so many successful women in the industry that it’s become the norm and, in fact, those woman have often proven themselves to such an extent that it has balanced any sexism that may have been present previously.”

“As many of the family jewellers within the Houlden Group have been passed down from one generation to another, predominantly the male of the family is the leader in the company,” explains Helen. “However, I’m proud to say that Houlden boasts some fantastic female industry players and one third of our Board of Directors is female, so while there may be fewer women with principal roles, there has been a shift. With new generations emerging and more and more women remaining in the work force for a longer time, there are changes afoot – and welcome ones for sure.”

Sheila FleetImage: Sheila Fleet

While sexism is an issue “pretty much everywhere”, Kerry feels that the jewellery industry is “probably more progressive and accepting than many other sectors. But we need to continue to move forward, to work on equality, and make sure we don't just focus on ‘our equality’; we’re only equal when everyone is, not just people who are like us, whoever ‘us’ are.”

“I have never seen, or experienced [sexism] in our industry,” concludes Cathie. “Inclusivity is really about being mindful; we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions… all day, every day. It’s down to every single one of us to play our part in creating an inclusive world.”

Read more inspiring jewellery articles


Source: The National Association of Jewellers