(From the Women in the Rubber Industry special report in the Aug. 20, 2012, issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
AKRON—The last three U.S. presidents have appointed female secretaries of state. At 18 of the Fortune 500 companies, women are the top executives. Women make up 46 percent of the American work force, and 41 percent of its managers.
And in the rubber industry—has the glass ceiling shattered in a traditionally male-dominated industry? Can a woman achieve all that a man can in the business, in responsibility and salary?
Statistically and anecdotally, the answer is yes, women are more of a force in the rubber product business than in the past. Overt discrimination based on sex is a rare issue, and even the subtle prejudice against women working in a basic manufacturing industry has dissipated, according to a number of female executives.
Compared with other businesses, however, the percentage of women in major decision-making roles at rubber manufacturers remains low. Given a choice between a career in rubber or another field, they often—like qualified men—are picking the latter.
Times have changed
Being a woman no longer is a barrier to success in the rubber industry, according to Robin Graves. She should know—a senior account manager for executive search firm Midland Consultants, Graves has been recruiting people for the rubber industry for more than 20 years.
“Quite a few women are in the industry now,” she said. “Presidents, chemists, sales, marketing Ã it runs the gamut.”
Graves said from her experience women in the rubber business are in the same salary range as men. Job-wise, she said it still is easier to match women with sales, engineering and chemist jobs, rather than in a production management position.
“I can't remember placing a woman on the production floor, in that role,” she said.
Rather than being confined to business development and commercial areas, it would be better if more women were running operations, according to Tribby Warfield, Gates Corp. president, North America, commercial.
When she returned from a stint in Europe to become Gates' president of power transmission, North America, running operations and plants, she found herself in an unusual position for a woman in the rubber industry.
Warfield said companies need to work to make sure a woman in power is successful, rather than just stand on the sidelines and see if she works out.
“Because I think the company can be losing when they're not helping any of their associates—again regardless of gender—be successful in a new role.”
By the numbers
Statistics bear some witness to the change in the role of women in the rubber industry.
Direct comparisons are elusive, but figures from 1999 and this year's Rubber & Plastics News ranking of the top 50 U.S. rubber product manufacturers offer some insight.
In 1999, 7.2 percent of the members of the boards of directors at publicly held U.S. rubber product companies were wo¼men.
Today, such companies in the Top 50 have 11.2 percent female board members, compared to 16.1 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
Women now account for 11.3 percent of the executive officer posts in the Top 50 ranking, compared with 7.4 percent in the 1999 report.
Another gauge is the listings in the RPN Rubber Directory & Buyers Guide, an annual publication generated from information provided by North A¼merican rubber industry companies.
The 982 rubber product makers themselves designated 2,958 men and women as “key personnel,” from owners, presidents and CEOs to sales directors and plant managers. Fully 15.7 percent of these leaders are women.
Turning to government information, statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the Department of Labor, shows that wo-men now account for 14.5 percent of the work force in tire manufacturing, and 33 percent of the employees of companies that make non-tire rubber products. For all of U.S. manufacturing, women make up 28 percent of the work force.
Working in a man's world
Women who have succeeded in rubber company management say they recognize the industry remains mostly male, but that hasn't stopped them.
“Nobody likes to work for a woman. Of course they don't,” said Nancy Siwik, CEO of Jedtco Corp., a silicone product maker founded by her father. “They accept it, but they don't like it.”
Siwik's company, located in Westland, Mich., employs 30, and all but four are men. She and her sister, Ann Elliott, were thrust into running the business when their father was diagnosed with cancer and told he had three months to live.
Siwik said she and her sister had grown up with the family business, and many of the men knew her from childhood when she worked at the firm in her high school and college years. That made them more accepting of the two sisters' management.
“In the beginning they were worried about what would happen with the company. Most predicted failure in a year or two,” she said.
More than a quarter century later, Jedtco is doing well.
Goodyear's Laura Thompson, vice president of finance for North American Tire, also joined a company where her father worked, in a supply chain position.
Her path started in the corporate mailroom at the Akron corporate headquarters in 1983, while she pursued her undergraduate degree in accounting at the University of Akron.
She never thought she'd end up at Goodyear, but became intrigued by the business.
“The mailroom was quite an extensive operation. There was no email, no fax machine for 4,000 people. Everything went through the mail,” she said.
Thompson said she saw the scale, the magnitude of the company, how large and diverse it was, from raw materials to the end product. That changed her mind. “Why would I not work here?” she said.
She appreciated the team-oriented corporate culture fostered at Goodyear. The complex problems in manufacturing and distribution the tire maker faces couldn't be solved without that approach, Thompson said.
“Goodyear was a good fit for me,” she said.
The executive said she's experienced no barriers to advancement at Good-year, “not even gray areas. I see nothing but a company that values performance.”
In May, Thompson was named to Treasury & Risk magazine's 2012 list of “30 Outstanding Women in Finance.” One of her current tasks has been working on the financing of the new corporate headquarters for Goodyear, under construction in Akron.
That special assignment involved her in financing issues with state, city and county officials, a financing company and the developer for the project.
“A lot of people had to make compromises to make it work, including Good-year,” she said. The tire manufacturer is scheduled to move into the site in the spring.
Thompson has advice for women who want to succeed in the business—be able to talk and listen.
“As long as I'm interacting with other people, outside as well as inside the company, being an effective communicator is key. You can build your credibility, or limit it by not being clear and concise.”
Gates' Warfield said she never faced many obstacles at Gates because she “didn't sit around and think of myself as a woman. I thought of myself as a highly capable individual with a lot of aspirations and goals.”
When people focus on their gender they can always come up with an excuse, such as they were not given opportunities because they're a woman, she said.
“I didn't even look at it that way,” she said. “I'm just one of those who sort of blew through the door and said, 'I think I'm the right person and here's why you should put me in that job.' ”
How to get qualified women
Tire manufacturing, at least historically, hasn't been a field that attracted women, Thompson said.
“If you were female you went into an industry in products that are very female oriented,” she said. Cars and tires weren't those type of goods.
However, that's a narrow viewpoint, and today women are more open to broadening their opportunities beyond just a product.
Gates' Warfield said executives at companies in the business need to talk to young and upcoming individuals about the opportunities their companies offer.
She said sometimes where firms recruit has a lot to do with it, and it may be beneficial to focus more on technical colleges rather than just at top universities.
People coming out of the top schools with an engineering degree, Warfield said, may be more reluctant to take a field sales job at the grass roots level in the rubber industry when they wouldn't have to do that in other industries.
At Freudenberg North America L.P., company President Leesa Smith has been one of the key people behind a push to seek diversity at the manufacturer.
“One thing I have taken up is to develop a division of leadership program,” she said. The activity allows employees throughout the company to explore different businesses and interact with the company's executives.
“I feel like we're building a wave and the wave is starting to crest,” she said.
Warfield has this advice for women who want to succeed in the rubber industry.
“I always have to look back and see that as a female, I want other women to see that they, too, have an equal chance. They have to be willing to step through the door, they've got to push it open, because it's not always going to come to them,” Warfield said.
“But if they initiate and they put that foot forward, there are companies like Gates that I believe will embrace that,” she said.
Rubber & Plastics News staff members Bruce Meyer and Allison Strouse contributed to this story.