Gender imbalance is costing the industry and the country

by Jez Abbot, PrintWeek

Women need work and work needs women, concludes a report from a government-backed industry group that coincides with a new print initiative prompted by the same sentiment.

Equalising the numbers of men and women in the UK workplace across sectors could bump up GDP by a whopping 10% by 2030, says the Women’s Business Council. The independent one-year cross-business working group set up by the government last year aims to encourage the public sector and business to maximise women’s contribution to economic growth.

After all, it says, more than 2.4m jobless women want to work, while more than 1.3m would like to spend more hours in the workplace. And women-led SMEs pump around £70bn to the economy, explains council chair Ruby McGregor Smith, adding the UK “faces unprecedented challenges given the tough economy, but must fully capitalise on the skills of all people”.

BPIF programme manager Ursula Daly is about to embark on an initiative that may help ring the kind of changes in print that McGregor-Smith talks about across sectors. It follows an Ofsted report that found the BPIF promoted equality and diversity well, but that women were under-represented in its training provision, which includes more than 600 apprentices.

The BPIF hopes to put in a bid to the government’s Skills Funding Agency for the initiative. Details of the project and bid are currently being fine-tuned and will be linked to the outcome of focus-group meetings. But two of the aims are to beef up curriculum content and promotional materials to focus on, not just women, but also ethnic minority groups in print, says Daly.

This might jar with some people, including Harrison Scott Associates’ joint managing director George Thompson. He is against print “diverting finite resources to specifically targeting women” and notes the industry has enough problems recruiting anyone regardless of gender. He agrees, however, there are not enough women in print.

Although the majority of these are very successful, Thompson reckons that less than around 8% of the total print sales force is female. Getting the gender numbers to balance is tricky Thompson concedes, but he flatly disagrees with ideas of quotas, legislation or positive discrimination.

“Printing is made up of hundreds of self-made people, many of whom put their houses on the line to secure their businesses. I’m very much against laws or rules that try to tell entrepreneurs how to run their businesses. Maybe market forces should be allowed to prevail.”

A few years ago Diana Thompson, managing director of print specialist Plus Point PR and a former print journalist, ran a campaign to urge the Printers’ Charitable Corporation to open its male-only boxing evening to women. It prompted a hail of controversy, a record ringside attendance of uppity blokes and, eventually, a bouquet of flowers from the corporation. “Ho hum”, she recalls.

“It is not that I had, or have, any objection to male-only clubs and events but when it excludes women from supporting the trade they work in, I do. There have been countless groups to promote women in print – the last I went to was a meeting that Heidelberg held at Drupa 2012 with testimonials from women in different countries – this is not just a UK issue.

“As someone who doesn’t believe in men-only industry events it is hard for me to be in favour of women-only forums. Perhaps the best way for women to change things is more industry involvement rather than branching into women’s groups to whinge about our lot. But I appreciate sometimes helping each other find constructive responses to common issues can help.”

She also appreciates that difficulties persist, but draws attention to industry ‘beacons’, such as the BPIF’s Kathy Woodward, while digital print has ushered in big hitters such as Nancy Janes at HP and Amanda Abernethy at Xerox. Indeed, the chief executives at industry giants HP and Xerox are both female. Others, such as Helen Kennett at Henry Ling and Pascha Turnbull at Inc Dot, head up businesses.

And powerful players, such as Dilu Mukadam at Alltrade Printers, Vanessa Jones at Stephens & George and Veronica Thomson at Thomson Printing & Packaging, have helped prompt a change in attitudes, reckons Thompson. So has technology – advanced automation and materials handling systems take out some of the donkey-work from print, which could bring opportunities.

Kevin Vyse, head of the Institute of Packaging Professionals, agrees: “Digital has made printing cleaner, less engineering focused. You can be a high-tech small business, appealing to people from both genders.

“SME food manufacturers are largely run by women bringing print and packaging in house, while graphic and print courses are merging, possibly bringing more women into the industry.”

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