You are currently reading Issue 98: Changemaker, April 2018

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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Building a gender balanced business – Jon Rhodes, Co-founder of Paper - Paper

Jon Rhodes is a co-founder of Paper, a Sheffield-based user research and design studio. Jon has been managing digital projects for over ten years for clients across the UK and Europe, including London Luton Airport, HSBC, learndirect, BigHand, Direct Line Group and Irwin Mitchell. The Paper studio exists to provide a supportive environment for research and design specialists to work with clients, to learn, to create, and to have fun.

Jon Rhodes

Starting a studio

Paper is a user research and design studio based in Globe Works, an old cutlery factory in the Kelham Island area of Sheffield. Cam Spilman, Mark Goddard and I set up the business in 2016 after working together at various digital agencies.

We kept seeing the same mistakes being made again and again – clients would throw money at new digital products (apps, websites, chat bots etc.) but without listening to users first. The digital agency would take the money and happily suggest the technology they were most comfortable with rather than the solution that users actually needed. This bias is inherent in an agency that does development – they want to work on the stuff they like.

So, we decided to launch a business that figures out what users need, that doesn’t do development, but can help find and manage the technical partner to deliver it (free from any pre-existing bias to one solution or another). I’m so glad we did and I am immensely proud of what we’ve achieved in two years.

Our principles

When we started the business we knew we had an opportunity to do things differently and set up Paper the right way. For us, one important thing was to publish the four principles that shaped us:

  1. We value our principles more than money
  2. Our profit funds innovation within the business
  3. We value leg-ups and free work
  4. Paper is independent and self-funded

These principles weren’t created post-launch and shoehorned into the business. They were crafted from the things we talked about in early morning visits to coffee shops and late nights in the pub when the idea of Paper was being formed.

Creating a digital mentoring event

We used elements of our second and third principle to create, a free-to-attend digital mentoring event for small businesses, charities, and social enterprises. Since launching in January 2017 over 150 people have attended the events to date.

The first event worked really well, but we had an issue – there wasn’t a good mix of male and female mentors and mentees. It was a tough thing for us to admit to, but we simply had to be better. We asked for more female mentors on social media, and also signed up to the Diversity Charter, a brilliant place for encouragement, advice, and support all aimed at creating inclusive events.

These two things, combined with not shying away from the issue, had a massive impact. We’re still working hard at this, but I’m very proud to say we’ve now got 35 mentors who give up their time for free, with a near equal gender split. 

Growing our team at Paper

In mid-2017 we knew it was the right time to start looking for our first employee. We had an opportunity to do this differently, not for the sake of being different, but to try an approach that felt more ‘us’. The job advert we put out wasn’t helpful – it didn’t have a job title, mention a salary or say whether it was full-time or part-time, or even say how to apply.

After posting the article on Twitter, the Sheffield Digital website and Slack channels it got a good reception, with various people commenting our approach was honest and refreshing, but there was a problem. In the first few days we had 12 applications and all but one were from men. We weren’t appealing to a wide mix of people and this needed to change. We had no agenda other than to opening up the opportunity to as wide a group as possible to find the best person for Paper.

To tackle this Cam was invited to talk at a Women in Tech event at the Google Digital Garage. He talked about the job, asked for advice and asked people to spread the word about how we were tackling things.

Next, we spent time looking into the language we’d used in the advert and how it was structured. By giving a broad range of things in the job advert, we learnt that by being slightly vague in the remit of the job we were appealing to men (who are more likely to think “yeah, I can probably do most of that”) than to women (who are more likely to think “hmmm, there’s something on this list I can’t do – I might not apply).

After tidying up the language, we republished it again and actively encouraged people to apply even if they weren’t sure. It worked and we’re very grateful to each and every one of the 26 people applied (15 men and 11 women).

Jon, Cam, Urška, and Mark – Team Paper, 2018

Fast-forward a few months and we’re really happy and proud that Urška joined Paper in February.

“It was quite spontaneous, from the way I found Paper on Twitter, getting to meet them, and seeing how they worked. At the time of applying the guys were understanding of me being in another country (I was in Slovenia writing my dissertation at the time) and not being able to come in studio to have the interview with them. We did it through a Google Hangout and it went well. After that I joined them for a week in the studio, before finally becoming a member of the team.” – Urška Tičar, researcher and designer at Paper

I recently had the pleasure of talking at the inaugural Womanthology Business Networking Lunch in Sheffield. It was a real privilege to be asked to speak about how we’ve spent time understanding gender balance within business.

If you’d like to understand more about what we do, or how we could help we’d love to hear from you. You can email any of us in the studio at

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