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Women in manufacturing: Ideas on how to close the gender gap

These eight women have established rewarding careers in the subset of manufacturing known as packaging. What advice do they have for the generation that follows them?

These eight women have established rewarding careers in the subset of manufacturing known as packaging.
These eight women have established rewarding careers in the subset of manufacturing known as packaging.

Editor’s note: A recent report by Deloitte titled “Minding the Manufacturing Gender Gap” paints a clear picture of how important it is that today’s manufacturers attract women and then retain and advance those women in the manufacturing workforce. Why? Because it’s a sure way of winning the war for talent and boosting the bottom line.

How are women faring in that subset of manufacturing known as packaging? To find out, Packaging World editors talked to eight prominent women in leadership roles on the operations and manufacturing side of the packaging space. Presented here is an edited version of their thoughtful comments. Please note that space constraints prevent us from including a comment from every interviewee for every question.

PW: How did you come to occupy your current role?
Sutherland: I started working for Perfect Fit Meals about five years ago. My job was to help grow the operation by problem solving, finding scalable solutions, and applying new processing technologies. During my work at Perfect Fit Meals, we became one of the first companies to bring a High Pressure Pasteurized ready meal to market. In the course of marketing our HPP product, we discovered that as a processor, we were really talented with product and packaging development and even more so where HPP was concerned.

After spending a year traveling to expand our capabilities with HPP, our CEO and I discussed opening Texas Food Solutions with me as the President of the new company. We just opened a 40,000-square-foot plus facility that is purpose built for HPP tolling. We also opened an Innovation Center that includes a full test kitchen and a range of equipment to showcase multiple packaging formats so customers can rapidly iterate and test products for HPP.

Brock: I graduated from Clemson University with a BS in Packaging Science in 1998. After graduation, I took a position with a corrugated display company in Pennsylvania that I had interned with over a summer. I was their Marketing Manager for four years and was being positioned to move into corporate sales. During that time, George Jameson, Executive Vice President of Plants and Manufacturing for The C.F. Sauer Company (aka Dad), tried continuously to recruit me to establish a packaging department for Sauer. The company was growing fast and had ever-increasing demands for packaging. At that time, packaging was handled through operations and purchasing management, with a heavy reliance on suppliers.

In June 2002, the timing was right to move back home to South Carolina and begin work at Sauer. I was excited about working for a consumer products company, and the diversity of the position was really appealing. I came on board as the Corporate Packaging Engineer and began establishing the department from the ground up. It hasn’t slowed down for a second, as our company continues to thrive. I hired another packaging science grad from Clemson in 2012 and would love to have a few more! It’s been a pleasure working for the Sauer family, and I’m looking forward to the years ahead.

Thirteen years in, I’m still a rookie. My Dad just retired in October with 43 years of service to the company. Needless to say, I was raised on Duke’s Mayonnaise!

Joyappa: This year marks my tenth year at Emerald. I joined as a Process Control Engineer after having spent a couple of years in the Midwest in a similar position within the industry. When I first joined Emerald, I was instrumental in establishing systems and processes to help reduce waste and shorten changeover times while improving the overall OEE. Within a year, I established Emerald’s first-ever Quality Control department and saw returns fall from 2 percent of sales to 0.01 percent. Today Emerald has the most enviable QC laboratory of any flexible film converter on the West coast.

As an Operations Manager and later as Director of Operations, I instituted lean manufacturing practices five years ago and ran the process that got us AIB certified. In recognition of my efforts, I was made Emerald’s Chief Operating Officer in 2014 overseeing $90 million in revenue. In the last year, we have increased operating cash flow by $4 million by leading a program that slashed inventory, added more than $500,000 to the bottom line by strategic sourcing and vendor negotiations, and undertook the largest expansion in Emerald’s history in relation to space and investment in assets. All in all, it has been a busy and exciting year.

Doman: I was an intern at Herman Miller during my last term in Packaging Engineering at Michigan State University, and now I’ve been here for 21 years. After I had my first child, I came back part-time. I worked as a Product Engineer, so I was working with products such as tabletops and legs, or I was purchasing complete products. It was strictly engineering, and I sat in front of the computer all day. I started to find it rather boring. It didn’t offer the variety you get in packaging, where first you’re involved in the beginning phases of package design where you determine how you can get product shipped to the customer while figuring out if there’s anything that can be done to reduce waste. Then you get involved with the parts coming in, so you’re working with suppliers, you’re getting involved with the production floor, you’re getting involved with shipping and distribution, and then later with the end user if there are issues that need to be resolved.

Morris: I studied industrial engineering in college, and L’Oreal USA came to our career fair. My junior year of college I began working for L’Oreal as an intern during the spring semester, which got me hooked onto the company. I continued working with L’Oreal throughout my senior year on a part-time basis, and then when I graduated, I became full-time. That’s when I went into the rotational development program, which began with two years as Product Engineer with L’Oreal USA, designing and developing packaging machines. I worked with machine vendors to design the parts and the machines that package the products. A large part of that role was also centered on continuous improvement of existing machinery, because we’re constantly challenged to figure out ways to innovate and make the process more efficient and productive.

At the beginning of this year, I moved into a Launch Coordinator role. Now my job is more focused on strategy. I’m responsible for managing product launches from an operational standpoint. I still work out of the factory, but now I’m more involved with our package design employees as well as the purchasing and development function. The job involves coordinating and planning product launches from the operational standpoint and seeing them through across L’Oreal Paris and Garnier, among other brands.

Larralde-Valdes: I joined the company as a Quality Control Analyst in 1999 after working in the environmental industry for 17 years. I occupied different positions in the QC department and eventually became Associate Manager of the QC laboratory. When I started working toward my master’s in QA Manufacturing, I approached the then Vice President of Quality and asked him to give me a project to execute in the manufacturing area. After I worked with him for three years, he promoted me to my current role as QA Compliance Specialist.

Cozzoli: I am the third generation to run Cozzoli Machine Co., which was created by my grandfather, Joseph Cozzoli, in 1919. I started at CMC at a young age, working with my father and brother through different areas of the company to learn the business. Along the way, I developed a background in business administration, management, and sales and marketing. I’m lucky because my father was my best role model, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, as CEO, I carry on the traditions of excellence and quality as established in 1919 while meeting new challenges in the 21st century.

PW: What challenges have you had to overcome?
Larkin: I majored in Conservation Science, which is defined in the traditional sense of preventing waste. With my degree in one hand and empty job prospects in the other, I made a choice to switch the focus of my crusade from saving the land, air, and water for future generations to obtaining an advanced degree with a focus in Food Microbiology. This would offer me the opportunity to save current and future generations from food poisoning. If we look at my career as a project, I could say I narrowed my scope considerably. This narrowing of focus is what became the cornerstone of my career progression. By developing a strong subject-matter expertise in a topic that was still my passion, but in a niche that was under resourced, my options for a career path opened significantly. These early positions in R&D allowed me to develop considerable skill in becoming a Compliance Sentinel for my company.

Niche marketing your career is strong protection in the job market, but it is not foolproof. My second major challenge was my first experience with corporate downsizing. Even though I knew my role in the company was important, I reacted the way that most people do when they sense the downsizing coming. I refused to acknowledge it until it happened. This experience heightened my sense of awareness about the nature of the social contract between employees and companies. From that point, I understood that I am 100-percent responsible for my career. This temporary setback was quickly turned into a significant promotion by capitalizing on my Compliance Sentinel skills and detecting niche openings caused by GMP compliance initiatives. Expertise in remediation initiatives is a skill that is in high demand today.

Joyappa: Manufacturing–no matter the type of industry—is often perceived as an unskilled and labor-intensive job. This outdated and inaccurate perception of manufacturing has had a negative impact on women’s desires to join the ranks of manufacturers. In addition to this myth, the “mechanical” nature of such jobs often renders a woman without an engineering background, or the ones who have never run machinery, as misfits in manufacturing roles. This archaic thinking requires a complete overhaul and needs a systematic shift in the culture within the organization. I have been fortunate to work for a progressive and egalitarian company that has recognized my achievements and offered growth-centered roles from time to time. And yes, having an engineering degree helped!

Cozzoli: As CEO of CMC, some of the challenges are ones any business leader has to face: increased competition in other countries, economic recession woes, environmental sustainability, staying technologically advanced, etc. As a woman, working in this industry from a young age gave me a unique perspective as to gender roles in the workplace. It has been difficult at times in an industry historically dominated by men, but because I had the wonderful opportunity to learn the business from men in my family, I also felt a unique sense of empowerment and hope, which most women never learn.”

Doman: In terms of getting respect from the men in operations, that goes back a long way, back to the days when women would wear high heels and skirts in the manufacturing facility. It’s kind of funny because you could get a lot of attention just by the way you dressed. Now it’s down to jeans and plant shoes. So the perception has gone from being all dressed up and cute to, “Okay, let’s get down to business.” It just goes back to how the workplace has changed. People don’t dress up as much, unless they’re in sales roles. It’s jeans and T-shirts on a daily basis. I’m crawling around on the floor. I’m looking at things. I’m trying not to be any different from the other people working there.

Probably the biggest challenge, and this is advice I give to our interns as well, is don’t take things too personally when they don’t go your way. A lot of times I think women will internalize when someone doesn’t like something, because we’re always pleasers. So I think that when you have ideas and suggestions, and people basically knock them down, you take it very personally instead of looking at it as, “It’s just business; it’s what’s best for the company.” That’s probably one of the hardest things for me personally to get over—it’s not a hit on me, it’s a hit on what’s best for the company.

Sutherland: There have been plenty of challenges, but at the end of the day, I am the type of person who works hard to get good projects funded. Regardless of age or gender, we all win when we work together on new projects that move forward our businesses and the industry.

Most of the challenges that I’ve faced have come down to a combination of recognizing a market need, designing a solution, productionizing that solution, and getting it into commerce. Every time we’ve had an idea for a change in product or process, it generates a complete new set of problems for us to solve and learn from.

Morris: Starting off on the engineering side of things, everything is very male dominant. Women aren’t necessarily thought to have the technical experience that men have. Coming into the company as a young person just out of college, as well as being a female, I had to work a lot harder to earn the respect of the male employees; it was a combination of age and gender. But once I had their respect, the dynamic was much better. The biggest challenge was being taken seriously. It got to the point where I would ask vendors for change parts or for a quote or something else, and I wouldn’t get a response until my boss, who was male, would send a follow up e-mail. It took a good six months before I started gaining their respect and being able to actually do my job without the constant supervision, from an authority standpoint, of my boss. But I’m very lucky it didn’t take longer than six months, and I still have a great relationship with all of the men I worked with.

PW: What advice do you have for the next generation of young women and girls?
Sutherland: Hustle and wear comfortable shoes. If an opportunity arises, even if at first glance it doesn’t seem like a fit, explore and see what new path or interest can develop. Also, always make women in your field allies rather than competition. Push them to be better, and you both win. Little girls with imagination become women with vision.

Cozzoli: My advice to the next generation of young women and girls would be to never hold back on your dreams. Make contact with people who are doing what you want to do. Ask a lot of questions and ask for help to get where you want to be. There are so many resources who will help you, if you ask. Don’t be afraid to jump into the manufacturing industry. It can be tough yet so rewarding!

Brock: Be passionate about whatever career you choose. If you love what you do, you are destined to excel. A positive attitude is the most important trait you can have in life. Treat people with respect and remember everyone is your customer. Support the people who work for you, don’t hold them back, teach them, encourage them, and help them achieve their career goals. Networking is critical. Learn to play golf.

Larkin: Follow your passion while simultaneously being willing to refocus or narrow your focus to stay competitive. Look for how your skills tie to emerging or niche business needs. There is more stability when you have the expertise to qualify as a big fish in a small pond.

Larralde-Valdes: Never give up on your dreams. It takes hard work to achieve goals but the rewards are many.

Morris: Be curious and explore different career paths within STEM. It’s definitely a growing field. I never expected to work in beauty. I was a tomboy growing up, played sports, but the opportunity to do engineering from this side of the business, where it involves relatable products that affect men and women around that world, has been fun and rewarding. It’s also given me a chance to help leverage innovation to help people around the world feel confident and beautiful.

It’s also extremely important to find a mentor. When I started off as an intern at L’Oreal, there was a girl who was also in the rotational program at the time who took me under her wing, and that made all the difference in how I perceived L’Oreal and how I perceived engineering. There are stereotypes attached to engineering, to traditional male engineers. I’ve also always wanted to challenge that, and I’ve found so many women—like me—in engineering who either need a role model or should be a mentor. We need to help push each other. Find a mentor and realize that there are always other opportunities outside of your typical career choice—like working as an engineer for the biggest beauty company in the world.

Doman: I’ve had a lot of interns over the years. Some female, some male, and the funniest story I tell is about one intern, who, when she was done working with me, said, “I do not want to be an engineer,” and she went off and did something completely different. I have to laugh about that one. I think I either chased her away or I gave her a reality check by showing her what engineering is really about. I recently told one female intern, “You just have to jump in with both feet. Like the duck analogy, just look calm and cool on the top but down below, paddle like crazy to stay afloat.” Other advice: Have confidence in yourself, but know when to step back and just listen. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because we all learn through the mistakes. And when you do make a mistake eventually, you need to learn to laugh at yourself, because if you take yourself too seriously, you’re just going to put yourself down more and more.

Another thing I always tell our interns is never feel you’re ever above any job you’re given at that level. I tried that once, and it backfired on me. I got nailed on it. The other thing is, learn to think on your toes and be an effective problem solver. That’s generally what Operations is. You walk into a room full of people and you have to come up on the spot with, “Okay, this is what we need to do.”

Finally, as a female, don’t be afraid to ask for things, such as working part-time. Don’t be afraid to ask that question of your employer. Because eventually, when you do have a family and you have kids, having part-time status is wonderful. The worst thing they’re going to say is “No.”

Joyappa: Studies have shown that companies with a diverse workforce post higher profits when compared to male-dominated companies. This collective intelligence mix—of both men and woman—makes for better, smarter, strategic decisions. So the good news is that there is a place for a woman in the boardroom. My advice to young women/girls is to not shy away from perceived male-dominated STEM degrees. It is also very important to question the status quo and take on challenging and interesting assignments that others may be reluctant to take. This approach will help you gain the confidence to succeed in the industry.

The interviewees:

Cecilia Brock, Corporate Packaging Engineer, The C.F. Sauer Co., a maker of condiments and seasonings headquartered in Richmond, VA.

Pallavi Joyappa, Chief Operating Officer, Emerald Packaging, a flexible film converter based in Union City, CA.

Cindy Doman, Senior Packaging Engineer, Herman Miller, Inc., a maker of office furniture based in Zeeland, MI.

Erin Morris, Launch Coordinator, L’Oreal USA, a French cosmetics and beauty company based in Clichy, Hauts-de-Seine.

Ivette Larralde-Valdes, Senior QC Compliance Specialist, Noven Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a fully-integrated specialty pharmaceutical company based in Miami, FL.

Jasmine Sutherland, President, Texas Food Solutions, a Houston-based provider of HPP (High Pressure Processing) services for chilled foods and ready meals.

Laure L. Larkin Associate Director Global Stability, R& D Analytical Science & Technology, Ethicon, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that designs and manufactures medical devices and surgical instruments.

Joan Cozzoli Rooney, CEO, Cozzoli Machine Co., a manufacturer of packaging machinery largely for the pharmaceutical industry that is based in Somerset, NJ.

Look for Women in Manufacturing Part 2 in an upcoming issue, where we ask about signs of hope (or discouragement) for the future, what it has been like to balance work and family, and what the packaging community at large should do differently.

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