"If you asked an everyday citizen what types of jobs are in this industry, you will most likely get the answer of 'making tires,' " said Lakisha Miller-Barclay, executive director of the Rubber Division. And that misconception can make it difficult for the industry to attract talent throughout all demographics.
"Growing up in Akron, Ohio, I heard stories of the workers coming home from the rubber factories covered in carbon black. That image is all that many people have of our industry," Miller-Barclay said, adding that the industry, as a whole, has an obligation to correct those misconceptions.
"The rubber industry continues to evolve and create those opportunities for more women to not just join but lead," she said. "The only challenge that I see related to women is that they may be unaware of these potential opportunities if they are not being exposed to a mentor or our industry does not do effective outreach."
Access and opportunity
In 2018, Forbes released a ranking of North American companies doing just that: engaging women in the work force and building professional environments where they are supported and thriving. Continental A.G. was among several rubber industry companies to be included in the Best Places to Work for Women listing.
Other companies to make the ranking that same year included ExxonMobil Corp., 3M Co., Eaton Corp. P.L.C., Tenneco Inc., DowDupont (now Dow Inc. and Dupont) and Michelin.
Like WCCO, Continental didn't set out to increase the number of women within its work force. Instead, it worked to ensure all of its employees had the resources, training and opportunities they needed to succeed and thrive, both personally and professionally.
"Goals, for us, have not been about numbers," said Tanya McNabb, head of HR communications for Continental in the U.S. and Canada. "It has more or less been about ensuring that women have the opportunity to grow professionally in their careers and in what they want to do. We are making sure that everyone has … access to job opportunities."
For Continental, access to job opportunities entails access to training and professional development tools. Often, said Lisa Thomas, senior HR manager at Continental Tire the Americas, that plays out in the form of networking and mentoring through groups both inside and outside the company.
"Culturally, we are seeing the emergence of professional women's groups," Thomas said. "For me, personally, it is encouraging to see such a large number of women in our company who not only want to make professional contributions, but also want to support one another in their successes and in their careers."
Likewise, Michelin counts on networking and resource groups not only to foster leaders within the organization, but to identify talent throughout.
"Our Michelin Women's Network and Lean-In Circles are business resource groups that help build female leaders and foster an engaged female work force around the world," said Joanie Martin, chief administrative officer for Michelin North America Inc. "The Women's Network is involved to help Michelin identify high-potential employees."
This is key to Michelin's growth and success, Martin said. Because not only is the work force diversifying, the company's customer base is, too. If Michelin plans to best serve its employees and customers, it's going to depend on the ideas, perspectives and leadership of a diverse group of people, including women.
"With more than 20,000 employees in the United States and Canada, Michelin has set ambitious goals focused on building leadership teams with a broader range of voices, views and backgrounds to add greater depth and breadth to the company's approach to management," Martin said. "Women bring different perspectives and approaches to business, resulting in a more inclusive workplace and better performance of the company."
NAHAD was one of the first rubber industry associations to focus on supporting women through networking, mentoring and training. Dubbed the Women in NAHAD—or WIN—the program sought to promote best practices and engage both women and men in discussions about creating opportunities and removing barriers for all employees.
Early on, the Women in NAHAD initiative saw incredible support. Veteran women in the industry stepped forward, offered to share their expertise and helped to foster the next generation. Men throughout the industry also showed great support for the initiative.
But there was one way that the program fell short, Mullins said. And that was in clearly communicating how men could participate with the program.
Since the program's launch, NAHAD has dialed back its focus on the WIN initiative, but that doesn't mean the priority is lost. Right now, NAHAD leaders are rethinking their approach and looking at ways to make sure it has the biggest impact.
That involves listening to a number of ideas and perspectives, including those who say the initiative isn't warranted.
"I have had some women in the industry come to me," Mullins said, "women who have been doing this for a long time, who said 'I don't like to be singled out. I have been working in the industry just fine for 30 years.' "
Last year, the Rubber Division launched its own initiative, intended to offer women throughout the industry the chance to network through educational and professional development opportunities. The program, dubbed Women of the Rubber Division, or WORD for short, was introduced through a pre-conference workshop.
It started with an effort to spotlight the successes and contributions of women during the annual International Elastomer Conference.
"Several years ago, we created a women's wall at our annual conference. The wall showcased dozens of women in the rubber industry and was very well received," Miller-Barclay said. "The staff and I were very well aware of the number of women in the industry and the contributions they were making. However, walking our show floor it was difficult to see the true representation of that."
More and more, Miller-Barclay heard from women at professional conferences and attended panel discussions focusing on the unique perspectives that women bring to their jobs. It became more apparent that the Rubber Division could continue these discussions and create new professional development opportunities for its members.
"I thought it was important to keep up the momentum from the wall and create a place for the women in our industry to network and tackle issues that were relevant to them," Miller-Barclay said. "WORD was a success, and our goal is to take feedback from the participants and continue to develop a program that is led by the women in our industry. WORD will be a permanent part of our programming going forward."
A more diverse industry
In recent months, many industry companies and associations have engaged in difficult conversations about diversity. Following the death of George Floyd, millions of Americans took to the streets to demand change and that the voices of minorities be heard.
Continental is among the companies having conversations about race and diversity. It is looking for ways to listen to those voices. While there still are many questions to answer, there are ways in which these discussions about diversity dovetail with conversations about gender equality and representation.
"We are working at it every day, especially in light of the topics that are going on right now in the political system and social system," Thomas said. "Companies are all at different stages at how developed they are in this arena.
"We feel this is the right time for us to listen as much as we can and develop an understanding. We know that the situation is not the same for all minorities or those that belong to groups of diverse employees," Thomas said. "To develop an understanding helps us with the nuances of that, and we can learn and shape and impact within our local business group."
WCCO is listening, too. But the company also recognizes that, in order for every voice to be heard, everyone has to have a say.
"Anytime something is different from what we would consider 'the norm,' I think the concept of diversity comes into play, whether it be gender related or any other diversity related subject," Voorhees said.
"For instance, we have more than 10 languages spoken within our employee population. One of the programs (the employee suggestion program) ... ensures that people have a voice in the organization and ensures that they feel they belong. That's important, whether it's women in manufacturing or any other group that people may come from."
The employee suggestion program has been hugely successful at WCCO. It allows all employees to share concerns and ideas about the jobs they do every day. The communication can range from something small, like ensuring each workstation has a broom, to what Voorhees calls "cultural- and company-transforming ideas."
Since 2014, employees at WCCO have submitted 2,710 ideas through the program. In that same amount of time, the company has completed and implemented 1,599 of them.
Truly listening to your work force also requires flexibility and a bit of humility. It means understanding the needs of the individuals and their families and being willing to break business paradigms to embrace the practices that create a welcoming and supportive company culture.
At WCCO, that meant nearly eliminating rotating shifts. While there are some instances where employees are asked to rotate shifts, the company, for the most part, is able to ensure that employees stay on the shift for which they sign up.
There are many reasons WCCO opted to make this jump, but among the biggest was continuity of scheduling for families.
"That is something that means a lot to the community as well as the individual family," Voorhees said. "It's a lot easier to provide and procure childcare, particularly if you are a single parent. It is far easier to be secure in that, and we also ensure that people have time to serve their community in their own ways as well."
Michelin also has taken steps to help its employees meet family needs. For new parents, this includes parental leave and additional support for working mothers.
"Recognizing the importance of time off and job stability as employees grow their families, Michelin expanded its parental leave benefit to offer full pay for 12 weeks and provide a Dependent Care FSA program with a company contribution," Martin said. "Michelin also offers two weeks of parental leave for fathers to help split parenting responsibilities more equitably. Milk Stork is a complimentary service for Michelin employees to ship breast milk home overnight while traveling. Employees also have access to pregnancy support, infertility benefits and adoption assistance."
As companies evolve, listen and learn, they will continue to push the rubber industry forward through innovation and discovery—the contributions made by all their employees. When that happens, the make-up of the rubber industry will continue to change.
And women, Miller-Barclay said, will help propel it forward. They always have. Even if we couldn't always see it.
"Women have always been a vital part in the rubber industry, but historically, were delegated to a capacity behind the scenes," Miller-Barclay said. "With the exception of a few early pioneers, many women served in roles in administration or as secretaries. … In the last 20 years, the statistics have continued to slowly increase with women being promoted to key leadership positions.
"In academia as well, there has been a shift of more women running engineering and science departments. Women's roles have extended from not only leading traditional departments, such as marketing and human resources, but now to running entire plants and global production lines," Miller-Barclay said. " As more women leaders are promoted and hired to work in prominent roles and even run rubber companies, I believe we will continue to see an increase in women into the rubber industry."