With insights from MKM Building Supplies, we’re looking at the role women are playing in the merchant industry and what can be done to encourage more women to choose this as a career.

International Women’s Day is about creating a more gender-balanced world. The issue of imbalance extends into all aspects of life; as such, IWD gives us an opportunity to reflect on the opportunities for, and participation of women in every part of the economy - including the builders’ merchant sector.

In a famously male-dominated sector, how are merchants giving women the opportunity to succeed? What roles are women playing, and what can we do to encourage them to take up careers in this diverse and exciting industry?

MKM was founded in Hull in 1995, and has called the city its home ever since. Stoneferry Road is the base for MKM’s Hull branch, with the company’s marketing headquarters also located onsite. Behind the scenes, at the centre of the business, is the internal team. It consists of marketing, HR, finance and credit control teams, which are predominantly female. Women also occupy key, senior roles in MKM’s product management, property and commercial teams, also providing crucial administrative support.

Across the UK, MKM operates 60 branches. The challenge of attracting women to the most senior positions in these branches is well-documented - and this is representative of the wider merchanting industry.

However, despite this, women take up a variety of diverse positions. Many women provide administrative support for branches, in addition to occupying sales roles, face-to-face customer relations and kitchen design jobs. Women in these kitchen specialist roles have played a major part in growing revenue in this category to over £20 million per annum; their expertise is seen as invaluable. MKM also has a female Branch Director at its York location, Vicky Carrington.

Women occupy a number of key roles in MKM’s internal team. Linda Clarke is MKM’s Digital and Marketing Director, and Rachel Waugh is Head of New Branch and Brand Development. In 2017, Linda was named as the Woman of the Year (Large Business) at the Barclays Yorkshire Women in Business ceremony. She comments that “MKM could not operate without the women who run or support so many parts of our business. At MKM, we’re proud to have women making careers for themselves at every level, and want to continue offering this opportunity to other women who are interested in the industry.” Other women in MKM’s ranks have also attracted award recognition, too; Joanne Thomas was the runner-up for a Women in Merchanting award at the Builders’ Merchants Awards 2018.

With the customer-facing element so important to merchanting - especially for those merchants who place pride on their high level of customer service - many argue that women’s propensity for customer service is very valuable. That’s not forgetting the studies showing that diverse workplaces are the most effective. We all know that builders’ merchanting is a rich, rewarding industry packed with interesting, inspirational characters - and it’s hard to disagree that women have something special to add to that mix.

So how can builders’ merchants attract more women into the industry? For MKM, it’s about promoting a culture of positivity and encouragement, particularly in branches. The industry needs to sell itself, at a national and regional level, promoting the fantastic careers it offers in a way that resonates more with women. To encourage women to progress, training opportunities should be available, and all the necessary support in place.

Merchants themselves can make the industry more accomodating for women. As mentioned, the most efficient, effective workforces are those that are diverse; many merchants may be missing out on the expertise on offer from the women out there. Championing women in merchanting means making jobs more accommodating for their lives; this could include part-time and flexible hours, job sharing, child care vouchers and weekend or evening work options.

Many women have carved out fantastic, successful careers in the merchant industry - so it’s time to get the message out there to others who may be considering it.