“I have been told, more than once, that I was not what people expected!”
Queen of the pen, godmother of the Building Regulations and captain of the Smith Goodfellow helm for almost 8 years, for international women’s day we sat down with our Managing Director, Cathy Barlow to find out her experiences of working in both the PR and construction sectors, her journey to where she is today and what advice she would give the next generation of women business owners.
Q: Happy International Women’s Day! How will you be celebrating it?
I will be celebrating it with my fab team. They are what makes running my own business so satisfying, and I love the diversity of talent and characters we have – it makes for some great office discussions. This is how the magic happens, and when the energy comes into the room.
Q: How did you begin working in PR and what inspired you to take the reins of the SG business in 2010?
I actually started at Smith Goodfellow back in 1984 as a receptionist, having taken a paycut to try and get into PR, in the hope that I would one day get a chance to do some writing. That chance came within a year, and I proudly had my first article published in Roofing Contractor magazine.
My career with SG was cut short when a move to South Wales appeared to be on the cards, but I continued to write for the company as a freelancer for some years, before having a career break whilst my children were young.
In 2002, I started freelancing again alongside the part time work I was doing with Stockport Council. In 2003 I went back to SG full-time, and it was at this point that I really started to get inspired by the clients we were working with. I became aware of the importance of the messages we were creating, about sustainability and energy efficiency, long before they became buzzwords in the media.
As my experience of working strategically with clients and knowledge of the construction industry grew, I started to gain more confidence. When the opportunity came to take over the business in 2010 I felt ready for the challenge, although nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster that having full responsibility and running every aspect of a business brings. I certainly could not have done it without the unwavering support of my partner in the business and husband, Paul.
Q: What have been the highlights of your career so far? Have there any moments where you felt like ‘yes. I’ve made it!’?
I think when we moved into our current office space last May, that really felt like a turning point. Here was a space with a look and feel that we created, with room to grow, and that allows us the freedom to explore different ways of working.
There is still a way to go before I really feel I’ve made it. I want this business to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, whether I’m heading it up or not. The day that I’m not needed any more will be the day I know the job’s done!
Q: What, in your opinion, are the current challenges for women in PR?
I think that there is often a perception amongst clients about women in PR – an expectation of how they will look or dress, and an assumption that their interest and knowledge does not extend outside posting a few things on social media and writing the odd press release. It can be hard to have your voice heard, and to be taken seriously, especially if you are a young woman in the profession, and particularly in a male dominated sector such as construction.
I have been told, more than once, that I was not what people expected!
Being confident, knowing your stuff, learning about your client and their industry, and not being afraid to speak out if you believe they are going in the wrong direction – these are all things that will help to win the respect and trust of your clients.
Q: What can businesses do to show their commitment for gender parity?
Parity of pay is the obvious one, but also of opportunity. Understanding that women are often still the primary carer when it comes to children and may need some flexibility of working to get the best results.
Basic stuff like making sure that facilities on site are suitable for women as well as men, and that women are given the right equipment, not something improvised from a male version.
Also, don’t assume that because a woman has had a career break to raise a family it means that she is inexperienced, incapable or not up to speed, it is often quite the opposite!
Q: Your boundless passion for and knowledge of the construction industry is evident. What has been your experience as a woman coming into a male-dominated industry?
See answer above!
In truth, I have not found it to be much of a problem, except with a few rare individuals. That passion and knowledge has stood me in good stead, especially once I have been able to demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about.
As communicators we have an advantage. A good PR understands how to use language and what messages to get across to break down potential barriers. Of course, you will always get some people who are dismissive, or who may even feel threatened by dealing with a woman in a position of influence – but this applies to both men and women.
One of the great advantages of running your own business is that, by and large, you can choose who you work with. We are also extremely fortunate in our clients, who are all open minded and supportive.
Q: What advice would you give to young women hoping to one day own and manage their own businesses?
Go for it! It is scary and hard work and exhilarating and liberating, and it opens up all kinds of opportunities. But the best thing you can do is build a good team around you. Nobody is good at everything. Recognise your strengths, recognise your weaknesses, and bring somebody in to help you with the bits you aren’t great at.
Q: Which women inspire you and why?
My mother is my greatest inspiration. She left school at 15 with no qualifications and went through 19 jobs in the five years before she got married – one of them only lasted 2 hours! She was a ‘stay at home’ mum (as I was also privileged to be), raising three children, and she created a home that was always full of warmth, laughter and immense hospitality.
Our friends were always welcome, and however short the money was, there was always food on the table for anybody who turned up. She and my dad fostered babies – 21 in six years. She was always given the poorly babies, and the problem cases because she gave them such amazing care. Whenever we had a black baby in the pram, many of our white middle class ‘friends’ would cross the road to avoid us – one of the few things that would make my parents really angry.
When she was in her 40s she started a career as an Information Officer – her true vocation in life, which was helping people. She became the manager of five information offices across Stockport, running a large team of staff, before retiring to nurse my dad who had become seriously ill.
She taught me that accepting and caring about people is one of the most important things you can do in life. She taught me that you don’t need qualifications to have a successful career, and that a career can blossom late in life. She taught me to appreciate the beauty in simple things, like spending time with family, taking a walk or having a good sing. She taught me that you don’t need to have a lot of money to have a rich life.
Oh, and she once brought a man off the streets and into our home for Christmas, but that’s a tale for another time…
We’ve been celebrating International Women’s Day since March 1st and we’re not stopping here! Check out our Instagram page to see more or read our previous blog which looked at The Suffragettes.