Women in the Kitchen & Bath Field
Way back when
Suzie Williford, the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s executive v.p. of industry relations, wasn’t planning on a kitchen and bath industry career in the 1970s when her father asked her to help out in the family’s commercial plumbing and hardware showroom for a couple of weeks. “I was answering phones for two dollars an hour. It was supposed to be temporary,” she muses about the company that was created for the men in her family to build a legacy. “Eighteen years later, all the men were gone and I was running the business!” That legacy business had grown to 13 showrooms and 60-plus sales professionals, she reflects.
“It was difficult for women to even get a foot in the door, so I consider myself lucky to have met a woman contractor who agreed to hire me as a carpenter’s apprentice,” shares Tamara Myers about her late ’70s beginnings. She is now the owner of her own Philadelphia-based construction company, Myers Constructs. “I am grateful to the many clients that hired me when it was unusual to have women working in my field; many included professional women who wanted to give [another] woman an opportunity.” Suppliers were often more challenging, she notes, and would sometimes refuse to wait on her at the counter.
Raven Hoffman also started out on the construction side. In fact, the senior estimator at Syverson Tile & Stone in Sioux Falls, SD grew up in the business. “Outings with my grandparents usually involved stopping at construction sites to check on projects my grandfather was working on.” Being one of only two women in a college-level construction management program 20 years ago didn’t faze her, nor did being one of the only women working in the field after graduation.
“On several occasions, I was the only woman in a room full of men bidding on cabinets,” says Florence Perchuk, “and, yes, I was referred to as the ‘decorator,’” the long-time kitchen and bath designer shares. Her clients were thrilled to work with a woman, she recalls. “I spent time with them, wanted to know food likes of the children, how they cooked, always what the dream was about.” While Perchuk spent most of her career in New York, becoming one of the first women to become a Certified Kitchen Designer and getting published in many of the design world’s top magazines, she’s now based in the Palm Springs area, designing for aging in place.
“I remember when female consumers would tell us how frustrated they were when professionals would talk to their husbands, not them, during a remodel,” recalls Nora DePalma, veteran kitchen and bath industry marketing executive and founder of Atlanta-based Dialogue. It happened to her once, too, she muses, but the salesman had no idea she knew the top leaders at the brand he was representing! Leaders like those are her agency clients now, and they fully appreciate the importance of talking directly with female consumers. After all, many women are spending their own money, not a husband’s, on projects and products these days.
Women have probably always been in this business – on its ‘softer’ sides. “There were a lot of women at my level in sales and marketing when I first entered the kitchen and bath industry,” DePalma recalls, “but not a lot in corporate leadership, engineering or manufacturing. There were, however, many running their own businesses in kitchen and bath design.” There still are!
Perchuk also saw many professional women at the national design magazines eager to publish her projects. “By the mid-’80s, the magazines had many women at the top, and I would say that perhaps that helped, as the editors understood what their audience was seeking.”
Knowing that audience has been a big help to Karen Schroeder, co-owner with her husband of Mayberry Homes, and a leader with the National Association of Home Builders and its Professional Women in Building Council. “I’ve been involved in residential construction since 1979,” she says. “I do see more women getting involved, being promoted in their companies and being recognized on a national level. As a past presenter and attendee of the Women in Residential Construction conference, it is encouraging to see more women in leadership positions throughout our industry.”
“The biggest change is that now there are more women in engineering and manufacturing,” observes DePalma. More women in more diverse decision-making roles has had a ripple effect on how women are regarded on both sides of the desk. “I would like to believe our collective voices have shaped a world where women are no longer limited to pink power tools and we no longer encounter many ‘booth babes’ at trade shows,” the agency head shares.
“The number of women in senior management positions has grown tremendously,” NKBA’s Williford points out, “and I am confident it will continue to rise to a more equal level. I am also quite pleased to say that there are many agencies, showrooms and manufacturer rep firms where women have key executive roles. This industry does seem to believe in meritocracy; if you do the work, you will be rewarded.”
Women industry leaders say get involved, volunteer, continue to train and network to really tap into professional rewards. Before she joined the staff of NKBA, Williford had been one of its presidents. Schroeder is a leader with NAHB and Hoffman is a chapter president with the National Association of Women in Construction. Thanks to the insights she’s gained from members across the career spectrum, the tile estimator says, “I feel I am more well-rounded as a person, thus able to contribute more. Furthermore, I know I have a nationwide team of strong, intelligent, successful women on my side – to encourage me and to help with new areas.”
“There are workshops, webinars and classes that have proven to be invaluable,” Schroeder says. NAHB offers them. So do NKBA, NAWIC and other professional and trade associations.
“Our programs have always been well represented – I can honestly say dominated – by women,” Williford shares about NKBA’s affiliated schools program. Notably, many of the women who graduate from these kitchen and bath design courses remain and grow in the industry, unlike in architecture where many leave the field after a few years. “Architecture is still very male-dominated,” Williford comments. On the other hand, NKBA’s popular “30 Under 30” program for young industry achievers is also heavily female, the association executive adds. “This year’s class is comprised of 21 women.”
“I love the fact that more and more women are getting involved,” Schroeder declares about home building. “While it is still a male-dominated sector, make no mistake, women have a phenomenal presence and will continue to grow,” she predicts.
Growing trends and growing pains
One area where women can enter the field, grow and prosper is the building trades. There is an industry-wide shortage of skilled plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others essential to the creation of successful projects. “Bringing women into the trades in greater numbers is an untapped resource to help with the labor shortage,” construction company owner Myers comments, “and I think our industry leaders need to step up to make this happen.”
But can women transition from being catcalled by construction workers to becoming construction workers? It doesn’t all come up roses – or rose gold. “#MeToo is everywhere, in every industry,” observes marketing pro DePalma. “We’ll probably never know all the stories, because they are so hard to tell, but I’m grateful for the many women who have come forward. Thanks to those women – and the many men who support them – it has become much harder for this nonsense to keep happening.”
Myers is optimistic about the industry’s prospects: “Healthy, strong companies are made up of a work force that is diverse on many levels, and companies that recognize this potential will be well served. Everyone needs to make a commitment to broaden how we see work getting done, who does the work, and set about redefining the future of our industry.”
“When I first started in my career,” DePalma remembers, “there wasn’t an equivalent to the ‘old boys network’ lifting up the next generation of women the way men had always done it. As more women have assumed leadership positions, we set our own rules and have our own ideas about when and how to network.” Now there are networks just for women in the industry.
“The beautiful thing about organizations like NAWIC,” Hoffman notes, “is we are there for each other – to help us gain confidence and build each other up. I know we are all busy and an organization membership takes time, but I also know the more involved I am, the stronger I become as a person and the more energy I have to put into my life overall.” ▪