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Last week I met with a group of academics who are researching "Gender, Power and Materiality in Early Modern Europe" and whose current area of focus is on gloves from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. This involves looking at their historical lifecycle from commission and construction, through consumption and gift-giving to their later transmission and archiving in modern day museums.
This appears to be a very narrow, esoteric, subject and, yet, the position of women in our industry is a large and a very pertinent issue. It is well recognised that company Boards perform better when there is properly balanced representation from women. Yet, even a glance around the leather world and it is hard to find women in senior roles, and where we do - from the large company such as ECCO to an SME such as Dents Gloves - the outcomes have been pretty good. Marketing, HR, Finance and inheritance have provided the main routes into senior roles and it is only recently that we have started to see a few women going through technical pathways and into factory floor jobs.
Given what we know of the last two hundred years, we quickly assume that men always did most of the managerial, technical and production jobs and women were confined to a limited range of lighter tasks. In gloves, men tanned and produced the leather and were totally responsible for cutting it, while women worked in the sewing rooms at much inferior rates of pay.
But this appears to be an incorrect view of how things really were, particularly if we look a bit deeper into history. In quite a number of periods and situations, men did not necessarily play a dominant role. In glove making in the 16th and 17th centuries it appears there might have been much greater gender parity in both the formal and informal sectors. We certainly know that there were a number of female glove factory owners and managers. The sewing room situation described above came into play only at the end of the 18th century, and especially later when factories were built.
Even in 12th century London records show that women owned and managed tanneries. So, despite leather making in those days being a difficult and "noxious trade", it was not always the sole domain of men.
We should not assume that the recent past defines what we must accept today. We need to use all the skills and talents available in the leather and leather using industries. That most certainly involves encouraging more women to become involved in tanning.
2nd November 2016
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