Copy of Looking for a more inclusive role for women in home furnishings industry

Clockwise from top left: Laura Aldrich, Lorri Kelley, Andrea Lillo and Laurie Tokarz

HIGH POINT — With several women in senior leadership roles at various companies in the home furnishings industry, younger women just starting their careers today have role models and a new vision of what’s possible that weren’t available a generation ago.

But the panelists who spoke during the “A more inclusive role for women in home furnishings” segment during Bridgetower Media’s recent Empowerment conference also agreed that there is more room for growth and the role of diversity in the workforce needs to be discussed more often.

Moderated by Andrea Lillo, the managing editor for Designers Today and HFN, the panel included Laura Aldrich, executive vice president of licensing for Scott Brothers Global; Laurie Tokarz, president of Restonic; and Lorri Kelley, president of WithIt and founder of Lorri Kelley Advisors.

All three panelists have been in the home furnishings industry for most of their careers and say they’ve seen a great deal of change.

“When I started in this industry, the only women were at the reception desk,” Tokarz said. “When I shifted from being a buyer into sales, there were no women in sales. Management took a bit of a risk on me at that time but very much supported me.”

Tokarz said management treated her differently since she was a pioneer in the role. She feels that since women make many of the decisions about home purchases, having women in sales positions is more important than ever.

“Women often approach sales roles differently since they are relationship builders,” Kelley added. “At WithIt, we recently instituted a sales excellence award and made a big push to get women more involved in sales roles and really make a difference in the field.”

The panelists all agreed that companies need to make changes to keep women at work since data shows that more than 2 million women left the workforce during the pandemic.

“The main reason women leave is that they feel they are failing at everything: being at home, juggling work responsibilities and making sure they are ‘on’ at work. It’s become too much,” Aldrich said. “Companies need to provide resources to help working parents, provide flexibility in work hours and honor off hours on nights and weekends so employees can take time off.”

One of the other important things both women and men in the home furnishings industry can do is be a mentor to those who are just starting out.

“This is huge passion of mine,” said Kelley. “The idea of mentorship wasn’t well-defined years ago, but I had some amazing mentors who knew what made me tick and encouraged me to reach beyond what I thought I was capable of. I believe no matter how old you are you can benefit from having a mentor who can help you see things you can’t see.”

The challenge isn’t that women aren’t entering the home furnishings industry, according to the panelists; it’s that they aren’t promoted at the same rate as men, according to recent data.

“Only 38% of women are promoted to managerial positions, which means that 62% of those promoted are men,” said Aldrich. “Companies need to find a way to keep women inspired and engaged and show them what’s possible. I recommend that women join support groups like WithIt so they can network and find support and guidance.”

For smaller companies that may not have the option of being as diverse in employment, the panelists recommend being diverse in how customers are approached so that marketing and advertising isn’t off the mark.

“Companies need to make sure that they have a female that they can call and ask if a particular ad is one that she would respond to,” Tokarz said. “It’s important to be aware of how things are perceived by women and other minorities. Before you put an ad in a magazine, you need to find out if it’s offensive and make sure you‘re being diverse and welcoming in your brand personality.”

Anne covers the evolving landscape among retailers and manufacturers in the bedding, technology, e-commerce and disruptive retail segments.