This IWD, Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold CBE gives us some insight into how tough you have to be to hack it at the top...
Climbing the business ladder as a woman has its challenges – even in 2021 – and when you get to the top, it doesn’t get much easier.
No one knows this more than Jacqueline Gold CBE, CEO of Ann Summers, often credited with freeing the sexuality of women.
‘I originally joined Ann Summers for work experience. I had no intention of staying,’ Jacqueline recalled. ‘It was a really male-dominated business – most of the customers were men and only 10% of the women actually went in the shop.’
‘Women wanted to buy sexy underwear and toys to spice up their marriages,’ she explained of the need to bring female products to the high street. ‘But they were fed up with what their husbands were bringing home, and were too embarrassed to go into a sex shop.’
When she took her idea to the board however, she was met by the response from one man: ‘Well, this isn’t going to work is it? Women aren’t even interested in sex’.
Jacqueline’s response? ‘It said a lot more about his sex life than it did my idea – I was only 21 though so I couldn’t turn around and say that, or I thought I couldn’t!’
But being Jacqueline, she persevered and transformed Ann Summers from a company with an all-male board and an £83,000 annual turnover to a now board of 70% women, with a turnover in the region of £140 million. ‘God,’ she told us. ‘We’ve come a long way’.
Our Women Who Win interview series celebrates strong and inspirational female trailblazers, shaping the future for us all, and Jacqueline Gold and her refusal to let anyone or anything stand in her way is that in a nutshell.
When it comes to overcoming career challenges, Jacqueline has earned her stripes, from getting arrested for selling sex toys to receiving a bullet in the post for trying to open a store. We were therefore desperate to sit down with her to pick her brains on how to overcome challenges and discrimination in daily life…
Have you been discriminated against?
I faced challenges, serious challenges, in my early career – I have been arrested twice, I’ve had a bullet through the post – but even today, I still experience discrimination for being a woman. I was a keynote speaker at the retail week live conference a couple of years ago – of course it’s mainly men that speak at these events. I was on the stage rehearsing and some guy came over and asked me if I had sorted out his slides yet. I was like ‘No, I’m a speaker’, and he just stomped off. It has happened multiple times. There’s still this stereotypical view that a women at a conference on the stage must be part of the production crew, and can’t possibly be one of the speakers.
But even in daily life – I was recently coming back from filming our six-part series Brief Encounters in Sheffield, and I went to sit in the First Class section of the train back into London (it was full of suits) – and one man asked if I had a ticket to sit there. Well I was incensed – he hadn’t asked anybody else on the carriage if they had a first class ticket – he asked me because I was a woman – and I was furious.
What would you want to change for women?
I would like to not only give women the freedom to pursue their dreams but also the confidence to realise them. I personally think the problem is very much around social conditioning – we bring boys up to be brave, and we bring girls up to be perfect, so it’s no wonder that women, as I often see it, underestimate their own achievements.
When you’re brought up to be perfect you’re always looking to validate – we see a job profile and think ‘God, I don’t know if I could do that’, and a man would go straight in and say ‘Yeah – tick, tick, tick – I can do it.’ I like helping women believe in themselves, and I want to change that stereotypical view that so often holds them back. I’m the mother of an 8-year-old and I’m so aware that it’s just so important that we let our girls be brave, and that we let them make mistakes and learn from them – it doesn’t always have to be perfect.
What do you struggle with?
In the early days there was a lot of prejudice, and that’s really been a fundamental challenge of my career. I was sent a bullet in the post when I was trying to open a store in Dublin back in 1999 and ended up having a fight with the Dublin council. Their parting words to me were, ‘We cannot be held responsible for what might happen to you.’
I have also been arrested twice for just doing my job. The most notable one was at the Women’s World exposition in Bristol. I had a few toys discreetly displayed on my stand but somebody obviously didn’t like what I was doing. One woman slapped her hands down on top of my catalogues in disgust and they all fell on the floor. Shortly afterwards I was arrested and to be honest they didn’t really know what to do with me – I’ve always been a bit of an anomaly. ‘You’ve got to shut this stand down or we’ll press charges!’ they told me. ‘Pack up now and leave!’ I hate anything that’s unjust and I hate being bullied, so I thought ‘No, I really believe in what I’m doing here, I’m not going to pack up and go.’ So I just carried on – that was one of my early victories.
But today if that were to happen, it would just be a red rag to the bull for me. I feel so passionate and am so proud of what we have achieved and how far we’ve come – changing those perceptions and the whole culture. I really can’t say it held me back in any way though – it’s probably driven me forward in a perverse way.
What do you refuse to compromise on?
I refuse to compromise on my brand. I’m passionate about it, and there have been many times where I’ve been asked to compromise and I couldn’t. I even took the government to court to resist compromising my brand. Out of the blue they wanted me to stop advertising in job centres, trying to label us as part of the sex industry. I had no choice but to take legal action and it ended up going to the high court.
It was very intimidating – I thought ‘Oh God, I’m ticking off the government here!’ It was a two day court case but the judge voted in our favour, and do you know what’s funny? The case brought us so much publicity that we didn’t actually have to advertise in job centres for some time after!
When were you proudest?
Definitely receiving my CBE. It’s been such a colourful journey and there have been so many challenges, so going from getting arrested in 1995 to being recognised by the Queen in 2016 for doing that very same thing that I have always been passionate about, it was a really proud moment.
What piece of advice meant the most to you?
There’s nothing more to fear than fear itself. I think my dad actually said that to me, and whilst it’s a well-known saying, I think it’s so true in business – particularly when you start out. It’s a scary world.
What is your superpower?
My superpower is resilience. I’m definitely a super-resilient person and I think you have to be. When I look back at everything that has happened – getting arrested, being discriminated against, being sent bullets – you can’t get through those types of things unless you’re resilient.
How can we all ask for more?
Women tend to play down their success, and as a result, bosses don’t often hear why they deserve the promotion or pay rise in question. We have to think about how we are selling ourselves. Don’t mumble your way through the discussion or apologise for even being there – put your case forward with conviction and pride and remember you deserve this.
How can we be our own cheerleaders?
A lot of women suffer from impostor syndrome, but there’s a trick that I did for myself when I was younger, that could be useful. Regularly email yourself a list of all of the awesome things that you’ve done, all of the achievements, whether that be in your personal life or in your business life. No matter how small they appear to you, constantly update the email. Then every time you have an important event, whether it’s a job interview, a promotion review or a presentation that you’re worried about, read the email back to yourself – and just remind yourself of how awesome you really are – I promise it will give you such a lift.
What should women always do?
Women should own their success. If we are to be good role models to the next generations, we have to empower ourselves. I’ve got a daughter so this is close to my heart. We need to be proud of everything we accomplish and we need to boldly celebrate our success.
Interview originally published in 2019.