Tracey was born in Rishton. Her mother was the matron of a council day nursery and her father was a foreman at the Oxo factory in Great Harwood. Tracey did well at school, passing her 11 plus and doing A levels at Accrington High School. Art was her favourite subject, and she was good at it, always coming top of the class, but when it came to careers advice, it was suggested that she keep the art as a hobby and work in an office.
Tracey ignored the advice and began a textile degree course at Blackburn College. However, she was keen to get started on her career path, and when soon afterwards a job came up at Gaskells Carpets as a trainee designer, she took it.
Over the next few years, there were many occasions when Tracey had to stand up for herself to be treated fairly, earning herself the nickname of “Bolshie Walshie”, which made her secretly rather proud. Her determination to work in an environment of colour and design has paid off. Her career has taken her all over the world, which certainly wouldn’t have happened had she done as the careers advisor suggested.
This transcript has been edited for ease of reading. Click on the audio icon to listen to the whole interview, which was recorded over the phone due to Covid restrictions.
My name is Tracey Bentham and my date of birth is 21.8.59 and I am the middle one. I have an older sister and a younger brother. My parents were, I would say working class, my mother was the matron of a children's day nursery run by the council and my dad was a foreman at the OXO factory in Great Harwood. I passed my 11-plus and went on to do A Levels at Accrington High School for Girls. We were very typical - we had a big family in Rishton, lots of cousins, lots of uncles and grandparents close by, very traditional for the 60s and 70s growing up.
I was mostly interested in art and I think I was quite good because top of the class and got As but I also liked English not so much on the maths and sciences, but I think at primary school I did quite well on them all because nothing is that much in depth, but once I got to the High School, yes I certainly did favour the Arts rather than the sciences.
My mother was, or is a bright lady, she had quite a good job, but it was very much in the field of childcare and not so much the academia. I wasn't really driven to think about University until I got to the High School, but that environment fostered learning in order to go to university - it was all about that. If you didn't want to go to University you should have gone to a secondary modern, it was a bit that was the ethos. But as far as family was concerned nobody else in my family had gone to University so it wasn't expected. It wasn't discouraged it just wasn't thought of really.
(There was) virtually no careers advice. In the fifth form when we were all moving on to A levels we were called into the headmistress’s study and we had to queue up outside. I got in, barely sat down and the gentleman behind the desk said: "Are you doing A levels?" And I said yes and he said: "Send the next girl in please."
And then after A levels I went to the Town Hall with my mum because I hadn't got onto the course that I wanted to get on to, so I went to get some advice from them and they said I should forget my art and just have it as a hobby and go into work in an office. So that was the sum total I'm afraid! My mother thought that was quite sound advice! I think they were of the generation where getting a job was the main thing and knuckling down, starting a family, the traditional way. So she did say "Do you not want to consider that?" and it wasn't that she really forced me but I think she was sort of the opinion that seemed to be a good idea -just get an office job.
I applied to Preston University- it was a college then- to do fashion design, but it was a four-year sandwich course and I didn't have the right portfolio. So, they advised me to go back and do a foundation course to give them something to go off really. I think they were trying to judge me on a very slim portfolio which was fair enough, but I didn't want to do another year of studying and then a four-year course. So, I decided to apply for jobs in the area and I had applied to Gaskells Carpets during that summer but there were no vacancies and they just said they would put me on file. But in the meantime, I heard of a course at Blackburn College doing textile design as a degree, so I actually joined that course a few weeks late, but they were happy to have me on the course, so they said it didn't matter. Then I was there for a month and then I got a letter from Gaskill's saying that actually a vacancy had come free and would I like to interview for it. It was a bit of a dilemma, I was kind of enjoying the course albeit only for a month but it felt like an era where there was high unemployment, and I kind of wanted to get on the ladder to some sort of career. So, I went for the interview and I got the job so I decided that I would take it.
I took the job actually because I was promised a little bit of college work. I said to them that I did want to continue with my education, but I also wanted to work, and would they offer anything? And if they hadn't offered it, I said I wasn't really interested in taking the job. So they said yes, we’ll do day release. The Assistant Design Manager had come from the Stockport area and had trained at Stockport College and he thought that college had a good reputation, so I was sent there. But I couldn't drive, I have no car, it was two buses, two trains, a two-hour trip there, a two-hour trip back and there was no qualification at the end of it. And after 6-months the college said they weren't taking any day release students anyway so I had to stop and that was the end of the extra education that I thought I might get.
I was given the title of trainee designer and I was paid £17 a week. I clearly remember that! It was quite paltry even for 1977. I would give my mum £5 of that because I paid board and then a little bit maybe £1.50 was taken out for tax. I actually can't remember what I spent the first pay packet on because I had been earning a little bit more doing a Saturday job in a cafe so it didn't feel like a big treat to get that pay packet. It just felt like, at the end of the day, by the time I paid board I was left with just the same amount so it was just a continuation of trying to earn a little bit of money.
When I got interviewed what they said to me was they'll be many many times in this trainee period where I would be bored, and they were quite right! For the first 2 years I was mixing paint. In those days before computer design, we had to paint out the designs on large sheets of squared paper and each little square represented a tuft of carpet and they all had to be painted. We had to mix our own paints. So I spent many an hour in the corner of the room by a sink, mixing paints. And I would paint them all on a strip of card, wait for them to dry, take them to the Senior Designers, they would look at them against the tuft of yarn and if they weren't quite right, they send me back to mix it again. And I was doing a little bit of design, obviously I was getting time to learn the craft, but I was the general dogsbody and it was accepted that that was part of the training.
Eventually after two years I stood my ground and said that's it I'm not mixing paint for anybody anymore. You can all mix your own paints. I'm just doing my own paints. And my boss, the Design Manager, was quite flustered and she just bloody accepted it and it made me think why didn't I say this earlier? I just needed to take a stand. So, at that point I think I was probably feeling quite confident that that I was doing not quite the same job as some of the senior ones, because I was still learning, and I was happy to learn. They were very good at what they did, they were still teaching me tricks of the trade, how to make my work better, how to look at things differently. I was still learning how to make things commercial, you know, being part of the team. But I felt confident enough to know that I had learnt quite a bit and I needed to be taken seriously.
I remember the (women's rights) marches, I remember them on TV. I was quite young, I was 18 in 1977 and prior to that I hadn't been very politically minded, I had just been doing the usual-sports, pastimes, work, school that kind of thing. But I think when I got to work, I realised that they had a point. I was working alongside men who were paid a lot more than me, and it was accepted and everybody was paid differently and you weren't allowed to discuss your pay, so nobody really knew what anybody else was earning, but you could tell by lifestyles that people had more money than some. And I think yes, there was a general feeling at work amongst the men that it was all stuff and nonsense, what the women were doing, almost a bit of a joke. And if I ever stuck up for myself, I became a bit of a caricature of the Women's Lib and you know, almost a bit of a figure of fun, but I didn't let that deter me. None of that stopped me.
When I was 23 I got married, and went from Howarth to Walsh, and that just was fodder for the office because I was then known as Bolshie Walshie. I think they were just waiting for a name that they could call me. I mean, it was all in good fun and actually I was quite proud of that, because I thought "yeah, well I do want to be bolshie, there's reason to be bolshie, and I'll continue to be that way until I get what I want and be where I think I should be in this environment." So, I mean I would constantly ask for pay rises and usually I'd be given them, I've got to say, you know, the Design Director, although he would have liked to have got away with paying me next to nothing, he would take my case to the Managing Director and always come back with some sort of pay rise. I mean, he did say "You're always asking for pay rises" and I would say "I will continue to do so until I get to equal pay with the men."
At one point, he did say that "You do know you're the highest paid female in the company", to which I just retorted "Well shame on you then." Because I thought of all the women who were working in the company, not in the design department but they’re on less pay than me and I thought I was on poor pay.
(My husband) he was very supportive my husband, he was the same age as me, well a year older, so he'd grown with that same feeling that men and women are equal and we had a very equal partnership at home. There was no me doing the cleaning, me doing the childcare, we did it together and he was very supportive of everything I did. But he couldn't get involved, he had his job, I had mine. I fought my case at work. And my family were too, (supportive) everybody agreed. I had an older sister, a younger brother, I grew up knowing that women had a place in life. My mother had a responsible job, and I wonder if that helped me to feel strong enough to always argue my case.
I had my first child in 1984 and I went back to work after having him, mostly because of that ethos. My mother actually encouraged me to go back. she said a career is important, she helped me to arrange childcare, being in the childcare field herself. She found me a childminder but it was difficult , very difficult actually, because I was working in a male environment that expected you to have that male frame of mind so to be concerned about your child or to be bothered about maybe a sick child at home was almost a sign of weakness. So I did find it a strain and when I had my second child I decided to stop work for a while, partly because of that, but partly because I wasn't paid enough to pay two lots of childcare. I would have been working for nothing so I thought take time out, see if we can manage and I did take 3 and a half years out and in that time I had a daughter. When she was 18 months old, I got back into part-time work.
I had a maternity leave with my first child, and I was due to go back after 7 months in the new year and in the meantime, I had been offered two afternoons a week at Blackburn College, teaching on the textile course. It was actually quite well paid, and I started to think that doing that for two afternoons a week would keep the wolf from the door as maybe I didn't need to go back to full-time work. So I handed my resignation in at Gaskells, said I wouldn't be coming back and they asked me to come in and talk about it. Well, I thought I owed them that, so that's what I did. And they tried to persuade me to stay and asked what would it take to keep me? I hadn't really thought so I just threw out “Well I don't want to work full time, I just want to work mornings and I want a pay rise.” And that left them slightly speechless and I said I'll leave you gentleman to think about that, and I got up and left and went home.
I had been interviewed by the Managing Director and my Design Director. And the Design Director came up to my house shortly after and said I'd left the Managing Director absolutely speechless - but he'd agreed on condition that I terminated my contract - I'd worked 6 or 7 years previous to that -and started a new contract. Also, that after six months I should return full-time.
I was only young, I was 25, I wasn't sure whether it was legal or not, so I went ahead because it did seem quite a good deal and I thought, well there's more security in that job. The college job was term time only, I wouldn't have got paid throughout the summer holiday, and they also renewed it every year and I wasn't guaranteed to get the college job the year after. So I went ahead- I went back to Gaskells. But I found out later that terminating my contract was illegal, but it was too late at that point. It did mean that when I went on maternity leave with my second child, I wasn't paid maternity pay, because I hadn't worked there 2 years on my new contract. So I gave up my maternity pay.
That was a good point about not being offered that sort of deal to a man -it's just -it wouldn't have been in the same context. A man would come back and if he wanted part-time, he would have got part-time or not, but surely wouldn't have been offered a new contract. I think they had in mind that I have just got married, had one child, people usually have more than one child and I think they were maybe thinking that if I got pregnant again and had maternity leave again, then they would be without me for another 6 or 7 months and they would have to pay. They had obviously thought this through, I was so naive I hadn't realised, but they had this other scenario going on in the background of trying to protect themselves and I came off worse for that.
When I was 20, 21, a family friend had asked if I would do some freelance design work just to help him get started on a different tack. He had a retail carpet shop and he wanted to work with pubs and hotels and offer a small carpet design range. So I did that and then many years later when I had my third child he approached me again and said “Are you interested in working for me? because I've got a design centre now set up.”
I could choose my own hours which suited me. So that was a great way of getting back into a field that I'd done all my training in that suited a little bit more family life, so I went back to work for him two evenings and one day a week, which I did for 2 years and then for a further 4 years, I swapped the two evenings for 2 days a week. And that's because a day nursery had opened up in Rishton which meant that I could put my youngest child into the day nursery - the elder two were at school. So that suited me too. So then for a further 4 years I worked 2 days a week and any extra days that he may have wanted me to. But that wasn't so often because that did mess up childcare arrangements.
When I was working for this family friend I had been back to Gaskells because they had a machine that made small carpet samples and I needed some of those so I was in regular touch with them because occasionally I would need some of these samples and I went back to pick some of these samples up and my old assistant Design Manager asked me if I was keen on coming back to them full-time. He said that he needed somebody. Well, I said really no, that doesn't fit in in with the family, full time is a bit tricky for me, but he persuaded me to eventually and it did take me about 3 months.
I thought about it, I had to try and line-up childcare. I did ask if they would let me work 9 till 3 school hours but they said no that would be setting a precedent. Although I argued that it wouldn't be because I knew two women who worked in the offices who worked school hours. He said well that doesn't fit in with the Design Studio. But eventually, because my youngest by then was 7, I thought it would be good to get back, it would provide a bit more income and more options. So I agreed to go back to Gaskells. When I returned, I returned on quite a good salary. I would say it was slightly above average for this area, which was encouraging, and I was given the title of Senior Designer. Also, they had two other female designers. They were trainees straight from A Levels and it was nice to have a mix and we had a secretary who was a young woman, so yeah it was a general mix between men and women, and it felt more enlightened. I soon realised that that was probably not really the case. There was still an attitude where it was mostly dominated by men in the senior positions and it was a bit of a boys' club. If you stayed there long enough as a male employee, you will get promotion. If you stayed there long enough as a woman, you just stayed the same. You had to be absolutely outstanding so even get to something like a team leader and that was about the highest status that any woman had got to when I returned.
I applied for the Design Director's job. Our Design Director had retired, and we had a Design Manager at that point, but he was probably around 2 years off retiring himself, so they decided to get a new Design Director. Previous to that, the Sales Director had taken the position, which wasn't working. I already knew those that there was a man younger than me, who I had worked with previously, moved to a sister company, who had been given the job. But they had to appear to be fair and they had to advertise the job to the rest of the employees. I had to apply knowing all this - and the thing was I couldn't tell anybody how I come by this information without getting somebody into trouble, which I didn't want to do. So I applied for the job because if I hadn't, they’d have just said you know you don't put your money where your mouth is, you want promotion but you won't apply for the job. So I went through the rigmarole.
Of course, I didn't get it because I knew who already had it. But I had to appear indignant. I was indignant. But it was for show mostly and it was also tongue-in-cheek because I knew that their hands were tied -they had already picked the Design Director to be. So I said “This was your chance to put your money where your mouth was -you talk about promoting women, here was your chance and you haven't done.”
Later I was speaking to the Sales Director and he said well I don't think that there's any woman here who is good enough to be promoted to that level , which I was furious about and I just said "Any woman who walks past here", because we had a glass fronted office, leading out to the corridor, "the first person to walk past here would make a better director than some of the male directors. I could guarantee that!"
So that was a bit of a shock really because that was again that ethos that had been bubbling along under the surface amongst the men. And the Sales Director who told me that was my age, so you couldn't even blame them for being from an older generation. I would say this was the late 90s, yes late 90s.
There was a company that they brought into assess the efficiency I suppose of the company, and to see if personalities were getting in the way of good work. The consultant who came in, he talked to me and he did acknowledge that there were shortcomings in our company with regards to the women. He acknowledged that women weren't given the chance to be promoted, certainly when in high positions. All the men in the company who were managers had a company car, there was not one woman who owned a company car. But he did tell me that we weren't the worst company, because he had just been to an engineering company and they had shown him an office layout. They were revamping the office and they were so proud of it, he said, that they had put names on the desks. And he said there was a name with say a Stephen, a Peter, a name with a John, and then another desk with "The Girls". They weren't even given names. That was another company, it wasn't our company. But he was saying you know it could be worse, but he did acknowledge that we as a company weren't doing the best we could for the women.
I was asked at one point to be assistant Design Manager which I was. Actually, this was before the incident with applying to be Design Director and at that point I had asked for a company car. I said well I'll do the job, but I need a car. Because I was expected to go- we had a sister company in in Skipton and one in Bamber Bridge - and I was expected to go between the two, checking off work. I had a very responsible position and I was always on the lookout for a company car tomorrow to get me to these places. Previously the Assistant Manager had always had a company car, so this position was well known for coming with a company car. And I didn't get one so I turned the job down, and they said at the time well you know, this would look good on your CV and in 2 years when the Design Manager retires, you'll become Design Manager. So I went along with it and I thought well it would look good on my CV. So there I was, promoted to Assistant Manager but that's where I stayed because later the Director came in above me, slotted in above me, which took me down to third in line instead of second in line. Design Director, Design Manager, and me. And because the Design Director was younger than me and they have chosen him for that job I felt like my pathway was blocked at that point.
So I got an offer again, within a few months of that, to move and leave Gaskells. And I took it up because I couldn't see a future where I was. I felt like I'd worked for 10 years with this career pathway and mind and it sort of got blocked off right at the end. So I left then. I actually went back to work for the family friend. I felt like I had boomeranged, I had gone from one to the other and back again, but he just wanted me to run the studio. He had a studio, there was no one else but me so I was manager of nobody but me, but I became creative manager. So anything to do with carpet design or anything creative I had a say. And actually, that job was very good, and the family friend really appreciated me. I felt valued there. I felt like I'd finally got to the point where I was where I should be, but in a slightly smaller company. And obviously I wasn't in charge of anybody, but it still felt good. I felt happy to have got there. I was in my mid-forties at that point.
Unfortunately, I was only in the position with family friend for 4 years, as the administrators came in and took over right at the start of the recession in 2008. It was such a shame because the banks just pulled on him, even though he'd got a good order book. And Jack Straw, Member of Parliament for Blackburn, even brought up his case on Question Time on the TV programme, because he was a good friend of this chap. But that was it, we were all out of a job. I then got a job for 18 months at a company called Bulls of New Zealand in Ilkley. It was a bit of a step-down, but it was a job and then I got made redundant from there. So I was 50 at that point and that's when I decided to go freelance. I didn't have any option, I had one offer, but it was to move down to Wiltshire and that wasn't practical. So I thought well I'll give it a go, I'll do my own thing and I had a few criteria as to how I should go about it.
One, if I made more than I could make claiming what was the dole, don't know what the word is for it now! I would carry on. And I did. My next goal was if I could earn more than minimum wage I would carry on, which I did, and after that I was just a little bit more than minimum wage, so I carried on. And I've since worked for various companies, done quite well, I wouldn't say it's a lucrative way of working but it has kept me in the career I was trained for and I'm still doing that now.
I think women today possibly have a little bit more support. They know the system is with them. It may not always work that way, but they know they can fall back on it for help. When I was working there was no one to fall back on. We didn't have personnel departments, you either spoke to your boss or you kept quiet and hoped that your boss was a reasonable chap. So I think it that way that women these days do have a little bit more of a chance of finding some sort of a good lucrative career. It's not all about money, but it's important to know that you are valued in the same way that men are and also that, you know, if you don't want that traditional “gets married , have children, be supported by a husband,” you can make your way in the world. You can fund your own living expenses and your own life because you are paid in the way that men are paid.
(If I could do things again) I would have gone to university, I would have pushed on with that. That would have given me more options later so that when you do have a family, and and I did want to do. I was happy, I was in love , I wanted to get married and I wanted a family. But it would have helped me to have options after the family had grown up a little bit as to what I did. Having a degree to back you up, for me, would have been you know, a possibility of going into teaching maybe. But I don't live with regrets, that's the only thing that I would have liked to have had, just a little bit more of- formal qualifications behind me.
I think that gives you the synopsis of the life of a carpet designer starting in 1977! I think on the whole my career has been a good one, I've travelled all over the world. I've met people from all walks of life. I wouldn't have had that opportunity have I chosen any of the office jobs at the careers advisor told me to take and for that reason I'm very grateful. I've worked in an environment of colour and design which has been exciting, I've spent many days and weeks in London talking to top designers and architects. I've done great installations. I did the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, carpeted that all out with scenes of Paris through clouds-the jobs I've had have been so creative and so interesting but it's exactly what I wanted to do.
I may have suffered a little bit along the way to get where I wanted to be, but I can't deny that- I've been to China, I've been to Canada, I've been to America, I've been sat at the Chicago Yacht Club drinking champagne with people and wondering how on earth I got there! because of my job and it's been fascinating. I've been in factories you know in China at the back of beyond and wondering how I got there too! but equally fascinating. So I can't complain about anything and I’ve no regrets. And some of the things that happens to me along the way regarding you know the imbalance of power between men and women have been quite funny, because I was strong enough to treat it that way, to hold my own and power through it anyway and feel quite satisfied and good that I achieved what I wanted to achieve. So big learning curve - nothing is ever wasted in life. I never feel like a bad experience should be dwelled upon, you always learn something from it. I guess I'm quite a positive kind of person.