Jo Baker has seen huge change in this industry on the gender balance front, and has advice for women looking to continue smashing the glass ceiling

As managing director of MJ Baker Foodservice, a £27m turnover business, I am responsible for our 115 employees.

Early in her career, Baker was told to have buttons in her desk to help male colleagues

Rewind to the late 1980s, and the mere thought of a woman at the top in the food industry was laughable. My first role was as a personal assistant, and there was one thing I was told to have in my drawer at all times: a sewing kit, so I could put buttons back on a man’s shirt if one came off.

These days, the only thing I would tell any female employee of mine to have in their drawer is belief.

When I entered the industry, which is still male-dominated today, I did not believe that I would lead a team at a successful foodservice business, but it happened. I changed my view and I strive to help change the views of other people.

In my experience, some of my female employees have arrived with us and have been very low on self-esteem. I like to think that I can show them by example that they are more capable than they think. Getting women into leadership roles is good for my business as well as society.

We have fantastic examples of women who have achieved success at MJ Baker. For example, Sarah Monk started out in telesales and is now supplier income controller. She has worked across every department during her 15 years here, and would be able to keep the ship sailing if I went overboard.

Bryony Kemp started as an invoicing clerk, moved to the picking team, and is now a night-shift supervisor.

And I am joined on the board by Elaine Grant, our finance director, which gives us a 50/50 gender split at the top of the business.

The foodservice industry as a whole needs more women who want to progress and are willing to take on roles with more responsibility.

In addition, employers need to be open when recruiting and look for transferable skills and attitude, particularly in positions that are usually associated with men.

For example, five years ago, our night-shift pickers were all male. Now, women make up 20% of the team.

The key for employees – and this is regardless of whether you are male or female – is to understand the core requirements of the industry. If you grasp this, there is no reason why you cannot progress.

For us, it is as simple as delivering products in full, on time and at the agreed price to the customer.

There can be a lot of fluffy stuff on the outside that can distract people from the focus on what the job actually is. You have to truly understand the customer and recognise why it is important we deliver a product no matter how big or small. It may be just a £4 case of water to us, but a retailer can turn that into £48 of revenue. Identifying the nuances is vital.

Do not restrict yourself to classic female roles such as telesales, HR and marketing. Get involved in the cut and thrust of operations. There are lots of opportunities in departments such as logistics.

Jo Baker is the managing director of award-winning Devon-based wholesaler MJ Baker Foodservice

Read more: 15 minutes with… MJ Baker Foodservice’s Jo Baker


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