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Want to change perceptions in the plastics industry? It's going to take work

By: Rhoda Miel

February 19, 2019

I see a lot of emails and news releases every day. A sizable number of them deal with personnel changes and hirings.

So in October, when I saw an email from French materials company Solvay SA on its selection of a new CEO, I scanned past it, planning to come back later.

When I did, and opened the full release and photo, I saw that the incoming CEO was a woman, Ilham Kadri. Kadri, the former CEO of Diversey Inc. is set to take office March 1.

My first thought: Hey, that’s a surprise, they picked a woman.

My second thought: Shame on me for not thinking there was a good chance that a woman would be the choice in the first place.

After all, women are increasingly taking over corner offices. Here in Detroit, where Plastics News is based, I can glance out the window to see the Renaissance Center, home to General Motors Co., which has been led by Mary Barra since 2014. Ellen Kullman led DuPont Co. from 2009 to 2015. Constanze Flindt was a key to bringing Battenfeld to the U.S. and ran the company for nearly 20 years.

And smaller — but still pivotal firms in plastics — like Cascade Enginering Inc., Proto Labs Inc. and Tasus Corp. are led by women.

These days, there’s a good chance that a second generation molder and mold making company will be handed down to a daughter, rather than a son.

But yet, there’s still a perception that women aren’t a big presence in manufacturing or plastics. As that incident with Solvay’s incoming CEO proved, I’m just as guilty as anyone else as falling back into old stereotypes of what a “typical” CEO will look like.

Open your eyes, though, and you can see how that has changed. Just take a look around the room at an SPE event and see how many women are on the floor. At trade shows, they man booths looking for sales leads in between visiting with existing suppliers and customers.

Women lead research teams looking into future automotive materials and sustainability at Ford and are leading commercialization of 3D printing at HP Inc.

So how do we change the perception?

Visibility is the easy answer, but the work of increasing visibility isn’t always easy. We all have friends in the industry, and it’s easy to reach out to the same people all the time, whether you’re looking for a quote or setting up a discussion panel at a conference.

But we need to reach outside that easy, comfortable and reliable network. Ask around. I’m sure you have contacts who would tell you about an impressive presentation they’ve seen, which just happened to feature a woman. Or a meeting with someone whose passion for the industry really made people sit up and take notice.

That outreach is key for raising the profile of women in the industry. But the same work is needed to find people representing a diverse workforce in every sense, including the next generation of employees that everyone is trying to reach.

Sure you could keep waiting for the right person to just appear out of the blue, but what are the chances of that happening?

And for women ourselves? We need to make sure we speak up and make ourselves visible. Sure you may be thinking: “I hate speaking in front of crowds.” Pretty much everyone does.

But as Anoosheh Oskouian, president and CEO of Ship & Shore Environmental Inc., said at the 2018 Plastics News Women Breaking the Mold forum: “The worst thing we can do as women is be quiet. ... We have so much to share. Don’t ever stay quiet. If you know your stuff, then speak up and talk about it.”

Which brings me to this point.

Plastics News is putting together its annual profiles of women in the plastics industry. Women Breaking the Mold is a way to shine a light on women in every area of the industry, from CEOs and researchers to people on the manufacturing floor and even people just entering the field.

If you know women who should be recognized, go to www.plasticsnews.com/wbmsurvey and nominate them for a profile. You can also nominate yourself.

Don’t be shy. Don’t sit back and think “someone should really do something about this.” Get those new names and faces out there.

Let’s all work together to change the perception of what the plastics industry looks like.