Celebrating Women in Senior Positions at Shirley Technologies Limited: Sarah Stone
International Women's Day
Sarah Stone is General Manager of Shirley® Ireland. She’s also our resident globe trotter, loud laugher and a seriously talented piano player. Sarah’s the owner of Instagram handle @benchmarkstreetart spreading a smile everywhere she goes. In 2018, Sarah relocated to Ireland to open our Dublin office, she now lives on the coast and has reportedly taken the residents of Ireland by storm! In between sunrise walks along Port Beach and long-time hobbies that include painting, sketching and photography; not to mention new (lockdown induced) hobbies like baking blueberry muffins over FaceTime with her ten year old step-daughter, Sarah sat down with me for a chat.
Sarah and I talked about how she began her career in the technical textiles industry, “I progressed from engineering into a textile manufacturing setting as a Quality Manager, I’d always been interested in a career in auditing but knew there was a significant level of knowledge and experience that was required that I’d since gained through internal and second party auditing. After being made redundant I decided that it was time to seize a new opportunity in 2016 when Shirley® and BTTG® offered me an Auditor role.” Sarah’s 35 years’ experience in manufacturing and process control clearly present a wealth of insight, she tells me, “No processes within a business are isolated, everything is linked and inter-related. I have experience working to standards and ensuring their understanding; they’re often viewed as very esoteric but it really is just a process of interpreting the information, determining the requirements and applying them. I’ve been lucky enough to work in a variety of industries with exposure to a wide array of processes and regulations. This has meant I’ve been able to gain a lot of extended knowledge and as an Auditor at BTTG® and Shirley® I’m competent to be able to audit under the many schemes on our accreditation schedule - ISO 9001, PPE Regulations , Construction Products Regulation, Marine Equipment Directive, and also OEKO-TEX® STeP and STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® audits.”
I asked Sarah if she could recall any bias or challenges she’d faced as a woman in industry, she explained,
“I’ve worked on many factory shop floors, and continue to do so, but in these settings during the early days of my career sexual harassment was normalized at a time when I was often the only woman on the shop floor, wolf whistling and derogatory comments were common occurrences.”
On what’s changed, Sarah said: “I think people now acknowledge that this is inappropriate. So much has changed over the years with regards to the general management of work appropriate behaviour. There’s definitely been a shift. Looking back, within the textile, engineering and manufacturing industries, there weren’t many women in senior management roles. I’ve tried to never allow myself to be overlooked as a woman and have actively made decisions to work for companies where my gender doesn’t come into it – maybe I’ve been lucky.”
People often wonder about the differences between how men and women lead, I asked Sarah for her thoughts on that, “Women tend to be empathetic, I’ve only worked for a few senior males that have had empathy, it’s a very powerful quality to have. I think women are great at making decisions that benefit the many and they’re probably more likely to seek counsel before making big decisions.” Sarah leads a team of five auditors, made up of one trainee and four longstanding members of staff, based all over the globe. Responsible for the recruitment and subsequent training of new Auditors, Sarah told me about this process: “It’s very practical and it’s essentially a process of gradual immersion into the role before finally taking on audits independently. I like to ensure that staff feel supported and gain real world, varied experience so vocational training is key; new starters accompany me to audits and observe the process before gradually beginning to participate. There are strict competency criteria that must be met before trainees can reach the point where they conduct a formally witnessed audit to be signed off.”
When it comes to the writing of audit reports and their approval, the buck stops with Sarah. This is a task that requires a significant level of responsibility at the best of times but added challenges have been brought here due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restriction on travel – audits must still be conducted where possible and where they cannot ongoing monitoring and risk assessments of client activity and the effects of the pandemic are of even more significant importance. Data must still be collected but reacting to COVID meant this had to be performed in a very different way to demonstrate we were still monitoring manufacturing activity effectively and upholding our obligations as a Notified Body. About this process, Sarah said,
“You know, it’s been so encouraging to see how clients have responded to the pandemic, many have been successful because they’ve utilised the skills and innovation that are endemic in the manufacturing industry and they’ve secured the long term survival of their businesses through diversification and the manufacturing of new types of PPE such as masks and surgical gowns alongside their existing products”.
Just over two years ago, Sarah relocated to Ireland to oversee the establishment of Shirley Technologies Europe Limited: an Irish branch to the UK operations to ensure the company could still offer CE marking after Brexit. Sarah was responsible, as the woman on the ground, for ensuring that processes were place for Shirley® Europe to become a European Notified Body. Due to Brexit, this was essential for the future of the business, within the realms of CE and Wheel Marking, as the implication of the UK leaving the EU meant that the UK operations could no longer offer these services and UKCA Marking would otherwise be the only option for the UK-headquartered business going forwards. Working with our Quality and Certification teams, Sarah was integral in ensuring that the business in Ireland would gain accreditation. This proved an incredibly difficult process, made all the more so because of the pandemic, and involved working with INAB (Irish National Accreditation Board) to achieve accreditation, the HSE for PPE (personal protective equipment) , Ministry of Housing for CPR (construction products) and the Ministry of Transport for Marine Equipment to bring together the requirements from each of these bodies to ensure a successful application and notified body status. On this achievement Sarah said, “It was an incredible project to have been involved in. There was the physical relocation of my entire life as it were, then there was the physical search for and opening of our office premises and the associated recruitment activity; not to mention the mammoth hurdle of gaining notified body status. At one point, due to the pandemic, our accreditation audit was pushed so close to the Brexit deadline, despite us having been ready for our initial assessment back in April 2020! But we did it - thanks to hard work, dedication and a lot of teamwork and Shirley Technologies (Europe) Ltd. received accreditation status in December 2020.”
We discussed working from home as COVID-19 restrictions become increasingly severe in Dublin, and the challenges women face, Sarah explained, “Having emigrated for work my family are based in England, so for me WFH presents challenges not in the form of distraction but rather loneliness. Feelings of separation and displacement have been very real. In normal circumstances I’d be travelling back and forth really frequently and would spend a lot of time with my partner and step-daughter but due to COVID I’ve only spent two long weekends with them over the course of a year during periods when national lockdowns have been mutually eased.”
We chatted about Sarah’s role in leading audits, and the challenges women face, as well as the qualities female Auditors bring to the table: “I have known occasions where things have become hostile if a client doesn’t feel an audit is going to plan, there have been instances where bribes and even threats have been made; European market trading for these special textile and textile related products is entirely reliant on successful certification, allowing manufacturers to mark their products, and the audit is a critical part of the assessment process. If clients do not meet the requirements they cannot be approved and so it’s of great importance that audits go well for them. As a woman, perhaps there is the perception that you may be vulnerable under threat but acting with integrity is absolutely paramount in this role, there is a great responsibility that comes with ensuring that goods that enter the market are manufactured in a reliable and repeatable way to ensure they are fit for purpose and safe for use.”
I think women make good auditors as generally they’re more naturally able to put people at ease. When you visit a client to conduct an audit they’re often nervous as there tends to be this preconceived idea that they’re about to be painstakingly scrutinised or dissected. Our approach is always: ‘Ok, show me everything you do that demonstrates you comply’ and from this positive starting point we’re able to make sure people are comfortable enough to demonstrate how well they perform, then we pick up on areas for improvement in a constructive way as the audit progresses. Auditing is such an ambassadorial role within a business, you are truly client facing and you can spend days at a time with any one client. The auditor’s attitude, behaviour and specific knowledge tells the client everything they need to know about that certifying body. I think women are good listeners and human instinct means that people want to be heard and understood, they want to tell you what they do and the importance and purpose of their role within an organisation; during audits people are incentivised to tell you more about their operations or processes if they know you’re genuinely interested and invested.”
This approach in leading by engaging others, acting with integrity, having productive and honest conversations, and being open about weakness or vulnerability in rectifying failure - skills that allow a professional culture to flourish - reminds me of a quote I once heard, coined by Dame Minouche Shafik, Director of LSE (former Deputy Managing Director of the IMF and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England as well as the youngest vice-president in the history of the World Bank):
“In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart.”