I recently had the opportunity to participate in Plex Systems’ second annual Women in Manufacturing and Technology Forum. Held at PowerPlex 2016, Plex’s annual user conference, this year’s forum brought together over 85 women, providing an opportunity for networking and discussion. Plex also put together a moderated panel (on which I was honored to sit) to kick off the discussion. But in spite of the name of the forum, the topic of discussion wasn’t manufacturing or technology, but rather the challenges women face in working in what is still very much a man’s world.
So if the discussion didn’t touch on manufacturing or the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, or any kind of software for that matter, why did Plex do this? I believe it is ultimately because Plex cares deeply about its customers and their success. The depth of interest is evident in the level of customer engagement that strikes me as exceptional every time I meet Plex customers or attend one of its events. And while the software is the focal point of the engagement, customer success is always a combination of people, process and technology.
On the people side, amidst an overall skills shortage in manufacturing, women have so much to offer. Yet while our ranks are growing slowly, we remain a small minority. It is very challenging for a woman to get ahead and make it to the top and we need to support each other along the way. The best way to accelerate gender diversity in the worlds of manufacturing and technology is to create a supportive environment and highlight success. In the famous words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, “There should be a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.”
Plex happens to have some great role models, with three women among its C-level executives: Heidi Melin, Chief Marketing Officer, Lilian Reaume, Chief Human Resource Officer and Elisa Lee, Chief Legal Counsel. These three women actively sponsored the forum. I applaud them for that. I would also like to share with everyone a couple of the main themes we discussed, as there are some good lessons both men and women can carry away from them.
Don’t Limit Yourself
While some women are indeed shattering the “glass ceiling” today, many (not all) of the limitations that hold others back are self-imposed. While no two women are exactly alike (just as no two men are), when asked to rate themselves on skills and accomplishments, women tend to under-estimate their own effectiveness, while men tend to over-estimate theirs. A woman will say she is good at A, okay at B and has never done C. A man with the same skill set will say he excels at A and B and could very easily learn C. It’s all about the presentation and the self-confidence with which it is presented. I am not advocating for shameless self-promotion, but whether this reticence stems from a lack of confidence or an overactive sense of modesty, it is equally detrimental in seeking advancement as it is in interviewing for a new job.
Believe in Yourself, But Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
If you are a woman and have trouble believing in yourself, you’re not alone. Many of the most successful women in the world today grew up believing they could do anything they set out to do. Very often they had the support of family or an early mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams.
I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Condoleeza Rice speak recently and walked away with a quote that I think is priceless. She was talking about growing up with the support of her parents. Dr. Rice and I are about the same age. But while I had the advantage in the 1950’s of growing up white in the northeast, she was a little black girl in Birmingham, Alabama where segregation was the norm. And yet she said, “Somehow my father believed that the little black girl that couldn’t order a hamburger at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, could grow up to be the president of the United States.” That belief system carried Dr. Rice very far.
But just as many women (probably more) didn’t have that level of encouragement growing up and still don’t have it today. But it’s never too late. Seek out that encouragement. It doesn’t have to come from another woman, but it should be someone who is successful in his or her own right, either in business or just in life.
One of the most common mistakes women make in entering a man’s world is trying to think, behave, act or communicate like a man. A piece of advice from someone who has worked in a man’s world for over 40 years … Don’t. Yes, develop your ability to think, analyze and be decisive. Yes, work on your communication skills, both listening and speaking. Yes, be conscious of how you come across (confidently or defensively). The list of skills you should develop will vary based on your role. Regardless of your role, trust me, it will be long. But as you work on that list, work just as hard to be yourself. Don’t try to be a man. It’s OK – even good – to be a woman in a man’s world as long as you remain you. If you haven’t figured out who that is yet, don’t worry, you will. I may not see it before I retire, but if we all do that, perhaps the man’s world will indeed give way to a world of diversity.