The First Female President
Frances Soar, President of Sheffield Junior Chamber of Commerce 1984-85
“You’d enjoy Junior Chamber. I’ll get you an application form.” Liz was herself a new member of Sheffield Junior Chamber and we were chatting at a charity event in 1976. Soon afterwards I nervously presented myself for formal interview by two Chamber Officers, and was later relieved to find that I had been accepted. The following Wednesday evening I pushed open the door at the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce to find a room full of heavy oak fur– niture and men in suits. No one had mentioned that women had only re– cently been admitted to membership after years of debate. But everyone was very welcoming, and a Past President sitting next to me not only whispered a warning that I would be expected to stand and introduce myself, but helpfully scribbled down a list of possible headings for my short speech. In this, as in every stage in my SJCC career, I was – and remain – hugely grateful for the guidance and encouragement from other members.
For this piece I was asked to write especially about being the first female President. As I had already learned at British Steel, there are advantag– es of being a woman in a man’s world. When every meeting opens with someone pointedly saying, “Gentlemen, ahem, LADY and gentlemen” you can’t help but get noticed.
In Sheffield Junior Chamber, everyone knew that a woman member must be new, so we were singled out for welcome. There were tricky moments. After the meeting, most members retired to the nearest pub. It was still unusual for women to queue at the bar, but the men who initially demurred at being bought drinks by a woman managed to get used to the idea fairly quickly! However, when tickets went on sale for the Annual Dinner, a grand affair held at the Cutlers’ Hall, the organiser informed that “lady members” were NOT expected to attend. That was one piece of advice I chose to ignore.
Junior Chamber had a strong career structure backed up by formal management training. I began by helping with a variety of projects, then chaired project committees before serving over the years in various Officer posts. It eventually seemed natural to seek nomination as President. I was stung when one older member, previously very encouraging, backed off, saying, “I don’t think SJCC is ready for a woman President”. Naively perhaps, I hadn’t expected my gender to be an issue – there were plenty of women members by this time and it one of us would inevitably become President before too long. But this comment opened my eyes and I adjusted my campaign strategy!
Once elected, I don’t recall my gender being very significant. I do remember that the kindly Clerk to the Cutlers’ Company thoughtfully gave me the option of sitting with the (mostly male) guests of the Master Cutler at the Cut– ler’s Feast, or joining the (all female) guests of the Mistress Cutler. I chose to dine with the chaps, and enjoyed the evening in my comfy frock whilst all around me were trussed up in razor sharp starched white collars.
The whole year was amazing, exhausting and inspiring. Thirty years on and I’m still recovering!
Categorised in: Charity
This post was written by Ryan Pilkington