Faith Roberts, Ltm, MFC, IFM, owner of Ham Lake, Minn.-based Banner Canvas, can think of several examples of gender-based discrimination she’s encountered over her 40-year career.
Some struck her as blatantly offensive when she experienced them. Others were less obvious until she really dissected them years later.
“Some things I didn’t know were discriminatory until I was older,” notes Roberts. “But I kept wondering why I was fighting and not getting anywhere.”
To illustrate, she mentions how multiple banks declined her loan applications two decades ago as she tried to buy property to house her then 15-year-old company. Her bank of record told her it “didn’t do that kind of funding,” then loaned $2.3 million to a male entrepreneur running a similar business next door.
Eventually, a customer working in banking helped her facilitate the loan she needed, after which she transferred all her business holdings. Her next hurdle? An all-male city council denied her a construction permit even though she met all the requirements. She had to enlist her state senator to intervene so she could move forward.
“Here’s the problem when women are rejected [for career advancement]: Is it because you’re a woman, or because you’re not qualified?” asks Roberts. “Historically, people have come up with alternate reasons to explain away why women weren’t qualified.”
Similar anecdotes shared by other women suggest that Roberts is not alone. Like those in other traditionally male-managed industries, women in industrial textiles have sometimes struggled to overcome gender-related stereotypes as they try to climb the career ladder.
It’s hard to say how many women now hold executive-level jobs among U.S. industrial fabrics firms, and whether that number is growing. It’s true, however, that while women account for 51.8 percent of all management, professional and related occupations nationwide, they’re underrepresented in the manufacturing workforce at 29.4 percent.
To learn more, we asked four female leaders in the industrial fabrics industry to discuss their career progressions. They shared gender-related challenges, and, in some cases, advantages, they’ve encountered along the way.
The road to success: bumpy
All of the women interviewed reported facing some form of discrimination, sexism, harassment, lack of respect or other challenge as they’ve progressed in their careers.
Rachal McCarthy, president of NTI Global in Amsterdam, N.Y., says that in the past she sometimes felt disrespected by clients who would go around her to try to negotiate with her dad, the company’s founder. During one in-person meeting with Korean suppliers with whom she’d been negotiating by phone, they ignored her and directed all conversation to her now-retired father.
That frustrating experience rings a bell with Jennifer Fennell, director of supply chain for Topeka, Kan.-based Polo Custom Products.
“It can be a challenge to secure engagement with newly introduced male counterparts from other cultures who may be dismissive to my role as a female,” she agrees. “Sometimes when I’m introduced to a new supplier, our male COO [chief operating officer] will make sure he’s involved with the call so he can legitimize my position and kind of hand the business off.”
Apurba Banerjee, principal textiles engineer at Milwaukee Tool, headquartered in Brookfield, Wis., says she has been treated with respect and offered ample opportunity during her career, partly because she holds a Ph.D. But she has noticed other female scientists in her field being challenged more than their male counterparts. She recalls one conference where a male audience member challenged data presented by the female speaker by citing research published on the topic. The speaker just smiled and informed him that she had authored the research paper he was citing.
“He wasn’t expecting a woman in her 30s to write such an amazing paper,” says Banerjee. “In his mind, he was seeing an older man.”
In addition to the issues of discrimination, disrespect or unrealistic work-life expectations, some of the hands-on work in industrial textiles can also be physically grueling for women.
Roberts, who weighs 120 pounds, frequently requires hydraulic tools, forklifts or help from stronger assistants to lift heavy materials or manipulate bulky products.
“This is not for the faint of heart,” she advises. “But I run every day and lift weights twice a week, which makes a difference.”
Nevertheless, they persisted
How have these women managed to propel their careers in spite of those kinds of roadblocks?
Fennell notes that her assertive personality helps her go toe to toe with men in her industry, as needed.
“I tend to be a little more outspoken and not easily intimidated,” she explains. “But counterparts who aren’t as outspoken have been intimidated into not-so-favorable positions.”
McCarthy attributes much of her success to drive and hard work. Along the way, she’s adopted assertive language skills, with fewer tentative questions and less use of the word “please.”
“I had to work twice as hard to prove my worth as a second-generation employee, and then twice as smart because I was a woman,” she explains. “It took a lot of late nights and extra hours to earn the respect of some colleagues.
“A lot of assumptions used to be made about women in textiles and women in manufacturing … this was an old-world industry up until about 15 years ago, when technology really forced the industry to change. Suddenly, not everything was shop-floor politics.”
The silver lining of being female
These women leaders all say they’ve sought ways to turn their gender into a workplace advantage.
“I’m definitely bringing a woman’s perspective to an area mostly dominated by male energy,” says Banerjee. For example, she’s able to factor in her experiences as a woman when designing safe, ergonomic and comfortable personal protective equipment (PPE).
She adds that being a woman and a person of color often makes her stand out enough among male peers that she seizes attention when speaking.
“I’ve had instances of being dismissed or overlooked, but I think more good opportunities come my way,” she says. “I get a lot of public speaking opportunities.”
Roberts and McCarthy both note that being underestimated has sometimes worked in their favor.
“If I’m going to trade shows, people will definitely talk to me, give me info and go the extra mile to help me out—and I’ve gone after some pretty technical stuff,” Roberts reports.
“I think what women are doing is leveling out the playing field of men’s testosterone. It’s the women who collectively get together and try to solve problems that help mankind. It’s not ‘My way or the highway’; there’s compromise and negotiation.”
Fennell views women as more empathetic and more “tribal-minded” in terms of managing people.
“We’re the strength in our teams, but also the shoulders to cry on and the support. We’re not just here to hammer problems through, but to factor in work-life balance and other considerations.”
McCarthy observes that women often seem to act as bridges to collaboration in workplace settings.
“I feel women are naturally more inclined to ‘jump in’ and offer help to colleagues,” she notes. “When managed properly, I find it offers a much-needed balance across departments.”
What challenges remain for women seeking executive positions in industrial textiles?
Fennell sees a female-friendlier future.
“I think everybody is becoming a little more evolved to the fact women are as big of contributors, if not more, than men are,” she says. “A lot of that comes from continuing education and social media.”
McCarthy also thinks the future looks bright.
“I feel I’m living in a period of great opportunity for women. We’re able to effect change in our industry on a much larger scale than 30 years ago, on the product level and culturally.”
Michelle Miron is a Minnesota-based freelance writer with a 30-year background in journalism and content marketing.
Show [interested women] we have a lot of successful leaders. Establish clear paths to success with mentoring on how to move to the next positions.
Apurba Banerjee, Milwaukee Tool
Network through associations, trade shows, seminars, conventions … all have places to help women, and they’re open to disseminating information. You won’t find the male attitude of ‘This is my way, and women don’t belong here.’
Faith Roberts, Banner Canvas
If there’s something you have your mind’s eye set on, don’t take no for an answer. Pursue the education, do the networking and find the opportunities. Just because you’re told no doesn’t mean it’s not feasible—you just need to know where to look.
Jennifer Fennell, Polo Custom Products
Speak up if you have an idea, whether it involves communication flow, production, finishing or packing. It may not stick to the wall the first time, but five iterations later it may be applicable to something, so don’t get discouraged. Go to seminars, learn from your peers and colleagues, and don’t be afraid to go to someone who’s your senior and ask a question.
Rachal McCarthy, NTI Global