The politics of female identity and achievement in the workplace have given rise to numerous studies over the past 25 years. The Center for Creative Leadership's seminal 1987 report, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” created a powerful metaphor and a benchmark for measuring how women progress and negotiate within the workplace.
Today, we look at women in the workplace in a context that assumes women are more capable of breaking the glass ceiling. However, no industry can divorce itself from its historical predilection. If the previous question was simply can women break the glass ceiling, now the analysis has shifted to examine how a woman's experience is different, what may alter her workplace experience and how many women even get the opportunity to test the glass ceiling.
FORWARD spoke separately with six female executives about women and leadership specific to the metals industry. The participants discussed the impact of woman-to-woman mentorship, how the complexion of the metals industry (and of the greater workplace) has changed—or not changed—since more women have ascended into executive-level positions, and ways to ensure that women increasingly view the metals industry as a strong, viable career option.
FORWARD: Interestingly, all of you moved into the metals industry from other industries. It was your overall career rather than any connection to this industry that got you the job. How can the metals industry make itself more attractive to women so more will apply for positions and move through the ranks?
MARTHA FINN BROOKS: Most of the industry's leadership has risen from the operations side, so if you're not going to spend time in a line role, say in production management or sales, then you will have difficulty rising to senior leadership. That's the next territory we have to conquer: selling and the supervisors/production managers. If we can recruit women into those positions, that's where we start the pipeline and close the gap. But as an industry, this can be hard because the production side is where the numbers have been shrinking, and we haven't been bringing people in. With every job opening, we have to proceed with great care and change that channel on the front end, even though we've been in reduction mode for so long.
MAUREEN KELLY: Before I came to the industry, I wasn't aware of it. Maybe it will take going to job fairs and making sure more postings go through colleges and universities.
PHYLLIS PARAMORE: Human resource departments have to be conscious and focused on always bringing in a diverse pool. We won't close a search until we feel that we have done our best to develop a diverse applicant pool.
FORWARD: Is there anything about the physical or psychosocial working environment of the metals industry that may be keeping women away and/or from rising to executive levels? If so, how can the industry address these issues?
BROOKS: I think it's still very hard to be a female in a factory because it's not friendly environmentally or socially. Even in this day and age you still can see girly calendars on the wall, and those kind of small things are incredibly uncomfortable for women to see and deal with. They don't have to face that in an office environment. I think companies have good anti-harassment policies, and it may just take time for those policies to become a way of life, but we should come down very hard on small symbols you find in factories that are not good for women and get rid of them.
I also think you have to be geographically mobile to be upwardly mobile. To rise to the top, you need experiences at different places and exposure to all of the company's manufacturing facilities across the country or world, and that is often more difficult with a married woman who's got to consider children (if she has them) and her husband's career as well. A sophisticated company will help relocate the family and help the spouse find a job, too. If you want to have the best people, you have to think about having good relocation policies.
MARY VALENTA: By its nature, steel is a dirty product. I always enjoy touring district plants to visit and learn from the operations teams. To attract and retain more females, some facilities need more polish and shine to brighten them up. Promoting or recruiting females to a plant manager position would bring more balance to the operations side.
MAUREEN MASON: There was nothing overt, but it took some of my male counterparts a little longer to accept that I could learn the industry and add value to the bottom line. At times, some seemed uncomfortable discussing problems or issues with me and asking for my advice and counsel. This may be a residual of the old industry picture that may have been more of a boy's network, but with younger male executives, they aren't as culture shocked.
KARLA LEWIS: In this industry, you do have to think about how a person might react based on the fact that you're a woman—will they have an issue with it? I'm very lucky because I think in our corporate office, I never have to think about the fact that I'm a woman, but maybe in regional and smaller companies there may be older gentlemen with less exposure and certain ideas and views, and you may be more cognizant of your gender. But I enjoy the challenge and get a kick out of that kind of situation.
FORWARD: Many professional women still must balance their work and the lion's share of their family's responsibilities. For example, pregnancy discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC have increased by 39% since 1992. Does the metals industry provide the level of work/life balance necessary for today's female executives?
BROOKS: I have been able to keep the work/life balance, but that's not because someone did it for me. I did it for myself. You have to draw your own lines and make enough contributions before expecting concessions from the company. If you are ambitious, and you want to move up the ranks and choose to have a family along the way, to have that continuing momentum, you have to put extra in your work; it's not a day's work for day's pay.
It is still an inconvenience to your colleagues when you can't work. If you are comfortable staying where you are, and completing your job satisfactorily, your company should understand that from time to time you can take a day, and you should definitely expect maternity benefits. But there still is that struggle to continue to progress versus taking the time your family needs and deserves. I put in almost seven years before I had children, and by then, I didn't owe anybody anything. It gave me the personal space to do what I needed to do, and the company I worked for wanted it to work as badly as I did. But when you're brand new, you don't have that momentum.
LEWIS: I just got married recently. I tend to work quite a few hours and before, I prioritized my work. My CEO will be thrilled if I decide to have kids, so some of the waiting may have just been about me. But I often think, “Would I have the position I have now if I had not decided to postpone kids way back when?” I don't know.
I'm sure I'll manage, but children will still be a big change for me. At a CFO position, you have to be able to make yourself available whenever you're needed. But at that level, I also have a responsibility to the company to make sure I have a system in place when I can't be there for those things. I think flex-time is great, but it does impact people, especially on the client side.
VALENTA: O'Neal is very family oriented, and it could stem from the fact that we're a family owned company. We have all kinds of ways to incorporate our families into our working environment. It's not discouraged to have pictures of your children in your office and not frowned upon like it may have been in the past.
Because flex-time has filtered down to men, everyone enjoys it. There is a whole culture and acceptance in our company, and in the industry, I think, that recognizes employees as part of something other than work, and officials respect that children are a top priority. That's a big shift.
FORWARD: Do you participate in any formal or informal female-oriented peer groups?
VALENTA: The Association of Women in the Metals Industries has been helpful to network with other females in this business. I am a member of several professional and community associations that have open membership. As busy as we get at work, it's important to be a contributing member to these type groups in order to network, receive education and to help others along the way. I never really had a female mentor. When I started working, I had to be self-motivated because I didn't have anybody pulling me up.
MASON: I tend to participate in groups that represent my professional field, such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). But based on your functional role—if you're in sales or purchasing—an industry-based peer group may be more relevant. But I did seek out another female executive at my company who gave me advice and counsel as I came in to the industry. I needed to gain traction and I valued the ability to talk to her about things I couldn't talk to men about, such as how to dress when you're visiting a plant. We try to get together about twice a month, and we talk frequently.
Lewis: Based on my experience with a similar kind of group at the company I was at before Reliance, I think I've been a bit turned off to some all-women groups. The women there would complain about being excluded from things, and meanwhile I was like, “I go golfing with my clients. I go to baseball games with my clients.” I think it's up to each individual to progress themselves, and it seemed like they were blaming being excluded on the fact that they were women.
Mason: I expect my company to treat me like a businesswoman. It's up to me to seek out individuals and orchestrate those types of relationships. In a big company you may want to have a formalized process where you introduce women to such groups, but in small companies like most of those I know in the industry, letting these relationships happen on their own gives it more value.
Forward: How has your company been successful in putting women in leadership and executive positions? What lessons can other companies in the industry learn from your organization?
Paramore: If you've already got women in leadership positions, it may be just as simple as making sure people know that. Showing that you have the women in key positions helps the recruiting process.
Lewis: The industry has been addressing how to make itself more attractive irrespective of gender, but maybe getting women to do more recruiting would help, too.
Mason: Companies and top executives have to believe in the power of diversity, and believe that creating a diverse workforce impacts your bottom line. I have no doubt that I wouldn't be in my position had my CEO not been committed to this vision. He understands that diverse viewpoints and orientations yield successful business strategies, creative programs and a better operational foundation.
Brooks: As just one perspective of diversity, having women helps with innovation, change and coming up with new ideas that I hope lead to new ways to create new product and a broader perspective of the consumer world, which are both good, necessary things.
Valenta: Thinking about how other people perceive your company is also a big impetus. The community, our customers and suppliers look at us and say, “Hey, they're open to diversity,” and they respect us. It's refreshing for them: They like that difference and that becomes an advantage.
Forward: Moving forward, do you believe there will be more women in executive and leadership positions in the metals industry?
Kelly: Definitely. As generations change, the men in the industry are now very used to seeing women work—their wives have worked, their daughters have worked. It's just a matter of finding the best people to do the job.
Valenta: There's definitely a shift compared to when I started working more than 20 years ago. I feel women at all levels are more respected, and it took a few pioneers to break that glass ceiling to make it easier. But we still have to work harder to prove ourselves.