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International Women’s Day 2024: Women in Sign

In an ode to International Women’s Day 2024, we look at some of the reasons why women might not charge ahead in business, and hear from three women who have done just that

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As another year passes and the time has come around again for us to mark International Women’s Day, I have been looking back over research, statistics, and my own writing on the topic. 

I have to say, I have found more positive than negative reports on diversity within business and the disparity between female and male entrepreneurs and leaders does seem to be improving. 

Two years ago in an article I wrote for SignLink to mark IWD 2022, a common theme that kept coming up amongst the women I interviewed was that whilst the number of women in the signage and graphics industry was visibly increasing, be that within companies or through the number of women attending and participating in exhibitions and industry events, the number of women in leadership or business ownership roles was still lacking. 

However, according to research by the World Economy Forum, the share of women hired into leadership roles has increased by 3.6% in the past six years with the share of women hired into leadership roles increasing from 33.3% in 2016 to 36.9% in 2022. 

Whilst not a groundbreaking statistic it’s still encouraging to see the figure rising. Additionally, a Rose Review Progress Report 2023 found that in 2022, women in the UK established over 150,000 new companies – more than twice as many as in 2018.

There is also plenty of research to back up the fact that a diverse leadership results in improved business performance. This makes sense when you think about the variety of skills and qualities both males and females can bring to a business and when you use these together to complement each other, it can only be a good thing.

According to McKinsey, businesses with diverse executive teams are 25% more likely to be highly profitable. Women-led businesses are also more likely to provide training and upskilling opportunities to their workers (European Investment Bank).

When the topic of women in the industry is raised, there can be a few that question the need for equality and challenge whether there is even an issue in the first place. On that note, I would say it’s worth remembering that despite waves being made and improvements being noticed, Globally, only a quarter of countries have equal legal rights for women and men (World Bank). This can affect women in areas such as their marriages and relationships as well as their careers. 

This also feels a fitting time to mention that celebrating International Women’s Day and in turn championing for equality within the signage and graphics industry and further afield, does not mean that we feel women should take over the roles of men, and it very much does not mean this is only an issue for women. 

We need men and women to be working together to create a diverse and balanced workforce across the industry for optimum performance and success for all. 

Last year’s Sign & Digital UK was a good example of this with the event’s Explains Lounge hosting a Women in Signs and Graphics talk featuring a ‘Men Supporting Women in Signs and Graphics’ Panel. This demonstrated the importance of male team members supporting and championing women in the workplace to create a better balance in the industry. 

Founded in 2020 by Sarah Fenna and Izabella Ivanovici, Women in Signs and Graphics (WSG) has been working to make the industry more equal with the aim being to open up more opportunities in the industry for women whilst collaborating with the education sector to encourage the next generation of the industry. 

Another initiative which was launched by the International Sign Association (ISA) and Sign Builder Illustrated is Women Leading the Industry (WLI). Currently only open to ISA members, WLI is dedicated to inspiring and empowering women in the sign, graphics, and visual communications industries who aspire to achieve leadership roles and was launched at the 2019 ISA Sign Expo.

Adjusting to Holding the Reins 

When interviewing women for this year’s article, a common theme was a lack of confidence in ability when looking back to the start of their careers. 

Funnily enough, this lack of confidence is documented in research with the Global Report on Women and Entrepreneurship 2012 finding that in every single economy included in the study, women have lower capabilities perceptions than men. In every region, women have, on average, a greater level of fear of failure than men.

What’s more, according to the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019, women are less likely to believe they possess entrepreneurial skills. Only 39% of women are confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55% of men. This is a perceived gap in ability rather than an actual gap in skill sets.

This didn’t however put off two women from taking over the business they worked at and taking the leap to run a successful signage company. Sam Morgan and Donna James took over Signspeed in October 2020 in a management buyout after the directors of the company retired. 

Donna James, co-director of Signspeed 

Whilst working in a zoo, Morgan found herself feeling like she needed a change. When the company that was responsible for creating signs at the zoo (enter, Signspeed) was recruiting, she applied. 

James also entered the industry accidentally. “My working life started as many do in our corner of West Wales at the tender age of 12, in Ice-cream shops, and gift shops and working in various bars and restaurants. When I left school after my GCSE’s I dabbled with a course at a local college, but this wasn’t for me. 

“At 17 I had been accepted by a Highstreet banking chain to take a role 50 miles away from home. Following the birth of my daughter, I returned West and after 8 years in the bank, I left and ventured into the world of sales and business development in various B2B environments. This then led to a part-time position at the local newspaper and onto Signspeed today.”

Fast forward a couple of years and having developed a passion for the industry and recognising the potential, Morgan and James seized the opportunity to take over the business and are currently celebrating its 40th year.

Having taken over the reins, James says one of the steepest learning curves she encountered was transitioning from a purely sales and admin role to a managerial position. The new role required moving focusing solely on site visits, quoting, and following the processes to overseeing operations, managing teams, and making strategic business decisions.

“This shift required an entirely different skillset that I am still working on,” James explains. “The balance of the demands of leadership and business management and still carrying out my day-to-day role had been a significant challenge.

“I have learned to understand the financial aspects of the business and the impact of the decisions that we make. Over the last three years, I have certainly developed a broader perspective and understanding of the industry.”

Sam Morgan, co-director of Signspeed 

For Morgan, the learning curve was similar and being a business owner, leadership skills became paramount. She says leading a team effectively, fostering a positive work culture, and making decisions that benefit both employees and the company has been a “transformative experience”. 

Morgan says: “Whilst the learning curve has been steep, the challenges have also been immensely rewarding. Each hurdle has presented an opportunity for growth and improvement, and the experience gained has contributed significantly to the success and resilience of our business.”

Looking back over their careers so far, for Morgan, her proudest career moment has been those instances when a project moves from concept to reality. “It reaffirms that we are not just providers of a service but contributors to our clients’ success.”

Whilst there have been quite a few milestones and moments, James’ proudest career moment so far is the takeover and relocation of the company. “Taking over a company is hard enough but adding in finding a new location and actually moving 37 years’ worth of business, within six months of taking over and still trading was a pat on the back moment for sure.”

Mastering the Ropes 

Someone else who entered the sign industry by accident (a common theme) and went on to run the business, is Megan Woodcock, owner and managing director of Firstlite LED Systems UK. Not knowing what she wanted to do as a career, Woodcock started working at Firstlite at the age of 19 in admin and admits she absolutely hated the role!

Rather than bidding Woodcock farewell, the company saw her potential and she was quickly moved into sales. “This was where I could flourish and give it my all,” she explains. “I worked really hard on internal sales for five years until I was given the opportunity to work out on the road as a sales rep, which was very much my goal at that time.

“I absolutely loved it but quickly learned that if I was going to be successful I seriously needed to improve my admin and organisational skills. I think knowing the benefits that these skills would bring to my sales role meant I was much more able to take on admin tasks more effectively, and this further improved my sales performance.”

Woodcock was appointed as sales manager and developed the company’s yearly sales targets and became more involved with the behind the scenes running of the business. Aware that the current owner David Holmes would be looking to sell the business in the next three years, Woodcock set her sights on running the business. 

Megan Woodcock, owner and managing director of Firstlite LED Systems UK 

“I was extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to complete a management buyout with the agreement that David Holmes would stay with the company for the first two years to ensure I had all the skills needed for the role of Managing Director.

“It was a perfect scenario to essentially be thrown in the deep end of running the company, while still having all the knowledge and experience of David, who had built the company up from scratch, to support me.”

Woodcock has used the past two years to soak up as much knowledge and experience as possible and she says she feels she has learned and grown more during this time that ever. 

For Woodcock, one of the main challenges was learning the fundamentals of accounts which is something that has to be done very quickly and effectively. However, she says she has been very lucky to work with some very talented individuals who took the time to get her up to speed in the time frame required.

Looking back at her proudest moment, Woodcock says: “To have worked hard for an established, respected and successful company for ten years before my 30th birthday and then purchase it is a huge achievement that I will forever be proud of. 

A bronze statue of political activist and homegrown suffragette Annie Kenny for the Women's Social and Political Union in the centre of Oldham, England

"What made everything so special was to see how happy everyone was around me. This really meant the world to me, as I couldn’t do it all without such an amazing and supportive team around me (at work and at home).”

When asked the question of ‘if you could go back to when you started out in your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?’ all three women gave similar responses.

For Woodcock it was:” Learn as much as you possibly can from everyone around you. Also have more confidence in yourself that you can do anything you put your mind to!”

James’ piece of advice was simply: “To be more confident in my abilities”. Elaborating, she said: “I have worked alongside some fantastic people in my life so far and I wish I had the same belief in myself that they had in me and to be open to continuous learning. Just because it’s always been done that way, doesn’t mean that change is a bad thing. The world and industry are a changing place.”

For Morgan the advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; view them as valuable learning experiences. Invest time in building a diverse skillset and developing a network of mentors and peers who can provide guidance and support. Be patient with yourself and celebrate the small victories along the way.”

So as the landscape continues to improve and more women make their mark in the business world, it’s clear the opportunities within the sign and graphic industry are bright and exciting, and there are plenty of skilled and accomplished peers paving the way to turn to for inspiration if those doubts start to creep in. 

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