This year’s keynote Wolstenholme Memorial Lecture at the 124th SLTC International Conference in the UK on April 23 was titled Leather – The Passion and the Opportunity and given by a woman, Master Saddle Maker Suzie Fletcher.

There was a solid presence of senior female executives involved in this year’s conference, but this does not change the fact that to become stronger, more creative and more advanced, we need to significantly enlarge the participation of women at every level and in particular in the day-to-day technical running of tanneries and research.

Fifty years ago, when I left Leeds University to enter the industry, having followed a woman as President of the Students Union there, I found myself working with a lead female finisher whose skills and judgment were exceptional. The industry also had Betty Haines working at the then British Leather Manufacturers Research Association (BLMRA now Eurofins BLC) doing leading edge microscopy studies on raw material, one of a line of important female scientists employed in the BLMRA. Nevertheless, today women still remain largely absent from staff roles on the factory floor and in the decision making on the technology and processing of leather.

During a recent visit to Northampton, the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London heard that only around 30% of the student input at the ICLT leather school are female, and this was roughly in line with the UK national average for University STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) numbers. Yet I am sure they would agree that too many of their female graduates end up in the service side of the leather industry rather than in the cut and thrust of manufacture, where we badly need their presence.

A major rethink of the workplace

While it is vital that we get more female students entering leather education and apprenticeships we now also need to spend time looking at the working environment in our tanneries to ensure that all areas are adjusted to make all genders able to work comfortably and freely. We have had millennia of male domination in leather manufacture. Facilities, attitudes, calendars, cleanliness, structures, business meetings and decision-making processes and working procedures all require reconsideration in order to attract and retain female staff.

Birth rates have been variable through the pandemic with increases in some countries while in large areas uncertainty about the future has made couples postpone having children. Yet none of this changes the overall trend of decline. Data shows that in the OECD between 1980 and 2019 fertility rates have dropped from near 2.3 to 1.6 and while there is still growth in Africa and India families are getting smaller everywhere as urbanisation and education advance.

So, any industry looking for future staff must be much more inclusive of women, whose role in the workforce has become much more important in recent years. It is well documented that the more balanced an organisation is in its staffing, the better it performs.

Leather is a material consumed by all genders and, to be properly understood and appreciated, should be designed and crafted for the whole population. In emerging markets, it has become clear that the employment of women will be essential for the global economy to recover from the multiple hits it is taking.

Essential role

Leather has an essential role in this since, regardless of whether the output is small numbers of luxury items or large numbers of well crafted, long lasting but affordable items, leather employs very large numbers, pulling them out of unemployment or the informal economy and providing the kernel of an income tax system to create longer term economic stability. There are some two billion informal workers in the world and often over three-quarters of working women are in this informal sector.

Figures just announced by the French Conseil National du Cuir show that France currently has 133,000 people employed in the leather, tanning, footwear, leather goods and glove making and leather goods retail industries, numbers I used in a letter published recently in the Financial Times.

As the leather industry relocated during the late 20th-century, talk was about shoemakers and others chasing cheap labour, but what France and others show is that the skills of handling, cutting and sewing leather are not trivial; that the work is rewarding and can create strong career paths.

The leather industry is exceptional in being able to both create and offer quality employment at every level for female staff. But to make it really work to match the transformation in our tanneries and our communications, we need to trash many old attitudes and transform our working environment, both mental and physical. 

Do that and we will see more female graduates and many others on the tannery floor designing and running the day-to-day. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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