After Jean-Marie Tate was promoted to a management job at a DuPont plant in Kentucky in 1991, a male employee who now reported to her visited her office.
He told Tate he wasn’t sure he could work for a woman. Tate told him she appreciated his honesty, but she noted that neither of them was going anywhere, so they would have to find a way to make it work.
“And it did,” she said. “It worked out great.”
“People make assumptions about what it’s going to be like or not like and all that,” she said of women managers. “But you kind of have to go past that and say, ‘We’re here to do a job. Let’s do the best job we can and just work together.’ ”
Tate remained on the management track and has been the plant manager at DuPont’s Niagara Falls plant since October 2010.
Times have changed since Tate had that experience in Kentucky. Women in management positions at manufacturing companies have become more common, but it can still be especially newsworthy when a woman is named to a top job in the sector. The position of chief executive officer at General Motors is so high-profile it would draw attention regardless of who had the job, but the new appointee, Mary Barra, also happens to be the first woman CEO at a Detroit Three automaker.
Scan the top 50 of Forbes’ “world’s most powerful women” for 2013, and you will find the names of manufacturing leaders including Barra, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Virginia Rometty of IBM, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin and Ellen Kullman of DuPont.
But in manufacturing jobs as a whole, according to a May 2013 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, women still have a ways to go. Women’s share of U.S. manufacturing employment was 27 percent, down from more than 32 percent in the mid-1990s and at its lowest point since 1971, the report said.
Why was that share of manufacturing employment falling, even as the sector grew in the past few years? The report said factors that might be holding women back include a perception that manufacturing was stagnant and a stigma that manufacturing jobs required difficult physical labor and were only for men. The report noted technical advances mean many jobs in the sector require “highly specialized technical skills and little physical labor.”
“Manufacturing is still a very male-dominated industry, but I think there is a lot of opportunity,” said Nadine Powell, senior director with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, who works with the partnership’s Manufacturers Council. Powell said one solution is to connect with students – boys and girls alike – at a young age through a program such as Dream It, Do It, which explains to students what modern-day manufacturing careers are about.
The congressional report suggested that one way to attract more women to manufacturing jobs is to increase the number of women in industry leadership roles. The report said women held only 17 percent of board seats at manufacturing companies and made up only 12 percent of executive officers and 6 percent of CEOs, despite accounting for 27 percent of the manufacturing labor force.
Ben Rand, chief executive officer of Insyte Consulting, said he believes women leaders at Buffalo-area manufacturers have become “a more commonplace thing.”
In some cases, women have risen through family-owned companies, he said; for them, taking high-ranking jobs is a natural progression, building on their years of experience. At Eberl Iron Works in Buffalo, for example, cousins Nora and John Eberl bought a company their fathers had run. Nora Eberl serves as the chief financial officer.
DuPont is, by contrast, a big, publicly traded company. But for Tate and Myoshi Aubain, family still influenced their decisions to join DuPont: both of them followed family members into DuPont.
Aubain has been with DuPont for 14 years. In March, the Queens native began her current assignment as production unit manager for Tedlar at the Yerkes plant in the Town of Tonawanda. Tedlar is a thin film used in applications such as solar panels and aircraft.
Aubain’s father had worked as an engineer for DuPont, so her interest in joining the company “was almost through osmosis; it just happened.” Her love for science and mathematics led her to a graduate degree in chemical engineering at Penn State.
Tate is a third-generation DuPont employee; while growing up, she spent eight years in Europe, where her father was working for the company.
While Aubain and Tate – who manages a Niagara Falls plant with 215 employees – have followed different career paths in DuPont, they share some views and experiences.
Both say they emphasize safety on the job. Aubain sees her style as “laid-back but firm”; Tate considers herself “hard but fair” as a plant manager.
And they both see women as generally more inclusive and collaborative in their management styles than men.
Aubain cites an example: With her leadership team, she likes to bring in people from the shop floor to provide input. “I want to not only get their buy-in; they touch the product, they know where the waste is.”
On a previous assignment at a different DuPont plant, Aubain had a male employee admit to her he was unsure about working for a woman. Just as in Tate’s situation, they worked it out.
“I think once you build that trust and that relationship there, it becomes natural,” she said. “We believe in respect in the workplace. It’s about getting the job done. Then everything else will come.”