The rising number of women executives in corporate America has been well-documented. They include the president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., the chairman of United Bank of Philadelphia, the chief investment officer of Lucent Technologies Inc.
But in the plastics industry, the number of top officers at major corporations remains largely a men's club. A quick scan of senior management at more than 25 publicly held processing and supply companies showed less than five with women in key positions.
And none of those women actually ran the company. Primarily, they supervised finance or administrative areas.
Yet, some of the women who have risen through the ranks say the glass ceiling has long been broken. Gender should make no difference in either hiring or access, said Kathleen Bader, corporate vice president of quality and business execution with Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co.
Bader manages Dow's polystyrene and engineering plastics business and oversees the company's Six Sigma program, among her duties.
"In an ideal world, none of this should matter," Bader said. "I would have hoped it no longer made a bit of difference. [Companies] don't care what race, color or sex you are."
Bader, who joined Dow in 1973, added that a less-sensational reason exists for women's slow rise to the top of companies. It can take more than 25 years to move to a CEO slot with a major corporation, Bader said.
Most women were not handed those same opportunities long ago, she said.
"We're certainly headed in that direction," she said. "Whether or not [companies] promote women, they now have equal access to true opportunities."
That non-issue, as Bader presented it, is further bolstered by the few women who have risen to the top of their professions, especially on the original equipment manufacturer level.
Coachmen Industries Inc., one of the world's largest makers of recreational vehicles, is run by Claire Skinner. Albeit part of a family operation that started 35 years ago, Skinner now presides over a publicly held company with sales of $847 million last year.
She said her ascent at Coachmen — from sweeping the factory floor at age nine to running a division of the company in 1983 — was not blocked by any gender issues in the male-heavy manufacturing world.
"I don't worry about gender gaps or glass ceilings," said Skinner, now chairman and chief executive officer of Elkhart, Ind.-based Coachmen. "I don't think it's nearly as pressing a problem as it was to the generation ahead of me. Those women were truly pioneers, and all subsequent women benefited from that."
Skinner said her credibility comes from her broad background before coming to the company. She has both a law degree and experience in advertising and marketing. Both help her sort through problems at the helm of Coachmen.
The largest challenge for her was proving herself to employees because of her family background, Skinner said. She worked hard demonstrating her capabilities to avoid any sense of nepotism, not because she was female, she said.
Coachmen does not have a formal mentoring program for women employees. Yet, Skinner said she seeks out other females for advancement. At the same time, she said she does not see a large number of female applicants.
"They seem to want to go to major metropolitan areas," she said.
But other women business executives said frustration at large manufacturing companies could have some bearing, too. Lamson & Sessions Co., a large plastic pipe extruder, features both a female vice president and controller, Lori Spencer, and a female human resource development director, Eileen Clancy.
Both women said that while opportunities have certainly improved for women at corporations, females must work harder than men to prove themselves. That can include joining golf outings, participating in projects and seeking out mentors.
"You must be willing to fight hard the whole time," said Spencer, a former senior manager at accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP. "It's a much better environment than it was 20 years ago, but you still have to be more assertive to prove yourself."
Mentors, especially women role models, can be especially difficult to find, Clancy added. In male-dominated work cultures, finding support from a senior executive can be more difficult for women, she said.
At the same time, male mentors can sometimes add more value because of their differing backgrounds, she said. While working at U.S. Steel, Clancy was supported by a male executive two years from retirement, she said.
"Unless your department is Neanderthal, leadership at the top usually is one of inclusiveness," Clancy said. "But you have to keep in their sights all along."
Maryam Komejan, who has worked at injection molder Donnelly Corp. for 21 years, got her start as an administrative aide in the CEO's office. That opportunity launched her rise through the company.
But she said that the traditional culture of many manufacturing companies does not always encourage women to be successful.
"Lots of women have made inroads but the doors aren't as open as they could be," said Komejan, who is Donnelly's senior vice president for administration. "I don't think all companies have awakened to the opportunities they're missing yet. It's a phenomenon in general where women end up throwing up their hands in frustration and becoming entrepreneurs."
Women still have to work much harder to gain the same opportunities as men, she said.
"There can be more subtle forms of discrimination," Komejan said. "Like not being included when important meetings are held or not getting invited to outside events.
"That's a sensitivity issue, and it makes women feel like they're not being taken seriously."
Komejan cited statistics showing the difficult rise of women past middle management and that of salary disparities.
In 1996, 13.9 percent of employed women had gained executive, administrative or managerial positions, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.
While that figure is less than two percentage points behind that of men, women managers were underrepresented in manufacturing compared with men, according to the Labor Department.
In addition, median weekly earnings for women managers still lagged behind that of men, according to those figures. Women managers earned a median salary of $565 a week, about 33 percent less than that for male managers.
Companies should become more enlightened about the role of women and what they can add to a company, Komejan said. And women also need to learn to be more aggressive at a young age and not be intimidated by technical fields, she said.
"It's hard to be a little lady when others are not so ladylike," she said. "That conditioning starts early on in preschool and grade school. Boys are told to be more competitive, while girls are told to hang back."
Yet, dramatic changes are taking place in corporations, said Tanny Crane, president of Columbus, Ohio-based extruder Crane Plastics Co. More opportunities are opening up in technical fields, she said.
Crane, who once worked as an executive with both Quaker Oats Co. and AT&T, said women have other advantages: They stand out in a crowd.
"Sometimes, we get the floor more often," she said. "But I always felt I had to be more prepared and work a little harder to pull my weight on the executive level."