An Open Letter to Women Working in Manufacturing and Those Who Will One Day Join UsHonoring the Past, Present, and Future of Women ManufacturersAs I write this, there is so much going on around me. Globally, we are facing a pandemic; in the U.S., we are experiencing a social justice movement and an election year with polarizing political division; and personally, we are each impacted by all of this at home and at work. While the cumulative effect may appear daunting, I'm here to tell you that we are living in a time full of opportunity for women manufacturers -- from the shop floor to the C-Suite.
This year, I have the privilege of serving as the chair for the Manufacturing Institute's 2020 STEP Ahead Awards, which recently recognized 130 women in manufacturing, each offering unique and impactful contributions to their own companies, our industry, and to other women growing their careers. I have witnessed a (virtual) front-row view of how the STEP Ahead Awards reinforce the exciting opportunities available in manufacturing and help inspire more women to pursue these careers. A natural evolution of the manufacturing workforce is taking place as more women enter into leadership roles, bringing innovative ideas, and transforming how we work, and increase productivity. BASF, the leading chemical company in the world and my employer, has developed goals around increasing the number of female leaders within the company. BASF is not alone in this effort, and here's why: it's the right thing to do, and it's good for business. A study from MSCI shows companies with strong female leadership enjoyed both higher returns and superior average valuation compared to companies without it. The statistics are clear: Women in Manufacturing create and drive business value!
To increase the number of females in leadership roles, we must increase the number of females entering the manufacturing workforce. According to the Manufacturing Institute's Women in Manufacturing Study published in 2017, women constitute one of U.S. manufacturing's largest pools of untapped talent. Women totaled nearly half of the total US labor force in 2016, but less than a third of the manufacturing workforce. To address this issue, the Manufacturing Institute offers the STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production) Women's Initiative, the nation's marquee program to close the gender gap in manufacturing. STEP works by empowering and inspiring women in the manufacturing industry through recognition, research, and leadership, as well as by motivating alumnae to pay it forward by mentoring the next generation. Likewise, BASF has implemented programs to attract, develop and retain female talent, including sponsorship and participation in the STEP Ahead Awards, engaging with young girls to foster their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field, and addressing misconceptions about working in manufacturing.
My time as chair of the STEP Ahead Awards has given me an opportunity to reflect on my own career in manufacturing over the last two decades, and I want to share what I have learned with you in hopes that you will take advantage of this time to make your mark and help others make theirs.
One day, as a young engineer taking over a new position responsible for ensuring safe and profitable operations of a manufacturing unit, I was called to dig deeper into a problem impacting distillation operations. I walked to the control room and chatted with my fellow (female) control room technician, Donna, about the problems we were experiencing with the unit. I asked her permission to run a little "test" together, opening and closing various valves while also recording various process flows and temperatures along the way. Donna and I chatted about all kinds of other things – the weekend, her children, and recent family events, to name a few. After about 20 minutes, I thanked Donna for allowing us to run the test, and I shared the solution with the next steps for implementation. Later that afternoon, my boss asked me (with some degree of surprise and curiosity) to explain how I figured out the issue with the column in such a short amount of time. They had previously struggled with the operation of that tower for a long period of time before I took over the job. Had I worried about how my solution measured up to previous ideas, the issue may have been left unresolved, and my boss would not have experienced the value a different perspective offers.
Lesson learned: Don't underestimate your abilities in comparison to your counterparts.
I had moved from manufacturing to another part of my company, where I was working in a marketing role called product management. The business was restructuring, which is a difficult situation for anyone. I tend to be a positive person with a "can-do" attitude, but I had grown weary of the work environment and decided that it was time for me to move on to another position. In a conversation with my boss's boss, where we were discussing the next steps for my development, he felt compelled to let me know that my salary was "much higher" than my counterparts. As the only female in the group (as was normally the case throughout my career), there were many times I had to remind myself that I carry the "flag of representation" for all ladies, all the time, so his comment immediately triggered a message from my inner voice to stay calm. I responded that since I was, apparently, overcompensated compared to my peers, he should consider placing me in a role that is commensurate with my compensation. It is important to note that I had done enough research to know my salary was nowhere near the midpoint at that time and that this person was known for making statements to startle people or to catch them "off guard." He was quite surprised at my response, and he had no commentary to add. To this day, I am proud of how I managed that conversation, though I was incredibly disappointed that a leader would behave that way.
Lesson Learned: Be prepared to be tested from all angles. Don't be alarmed when it happens, but do stay calm. If you don't stay calm, no one else will. Worse, people will use the moment as an example, justifying why they question your readiness for bigger roles in the future.
I can think of many examples where the ability to ask for help ended up positively impacting my chances of success. The larger the scope and role one takes on, the more important it is to rely on your colleagues and team members to achieve the goal. You will very likely experience situations in your career where you will not know all the answers, and that is okay. The key is to be confident in what you do know and comfortable going to others to ask for assistance in solving a problem. Being willing to consider multiple perspectives in the presence of strong rationale, and becoming adept at forging strong alliances in your organization, is key to driving progress and innovation. Letting go of the ego allows for clarity of thought and action, and it certainly sets you apart from others.
Lesson Learned: Listen twice as often you speak and become comfortable with not being the expert in the room, especially if you are representing a team.
Finally, one of the greatest lessons I've learned is the value of paying-it-forward to the next generation of women in manufacturing. To continue to cultivate female talent, we must all have an intentional focus on sharing our knowledge and experiences, as well as recognizing the abilities and potential of others around us. This can be done in a variety of ways, both formally and informally, and not just by women. Our male colleagues play a critical role in mentoring, engaging, and sponsoring females at work and in their personal lives. If you aren't sure how to pay-it-forward, start by simply looking for women making significant contributions to your company and consider nominating them for the STEP Ahead Awards. And don't only look at those in leadership roles. Odds are, there's an operator, instrument tech, welder, pipefitter, millwright, electrician, or any other craft and technical role doing great work within your company and community.
Many of us who have worked in manufacturing for a long time know that women have a seat at the table. By showing up with the right educational foundation, being brave enough to be, in some cases, the only woman around, and trusting we have what it takes, we have furthered the work of the women who came before us to help shape the state of women in manufacturing as it is today. And now, it's your turn.
With gratitude and hope for the future,
Erika M. Peterman
Senior Vice President-Chemical Intermediates North America
Erika M. Peterman is the Senior Vice President – Chemical Intermediates North America for BASF and is the 2020 Chair of the Manufacturing Institute's STEP Ahead Awards. Born in the state of Georgia, Erika is the oldest of three siblings--all female-who grew up in a military family that moved all over the world throughout her formative years. She graduated from high school in South Carolina, US, and by that time, her love of science and math led her to pursue a chemical engineering degree at Georgia Tech. She is married and has two children.