When I go to plastics industry conferences, I'm not usually the only woman there. But I am definitely one of the few.
In November, during the Women Breaking the Mold Networking Forum, held Nov. 10-11 in Nashville, Tenn., and organized by Plastics News, I was one woman among nearly 200 others. It was refreshing — and a little strange.
I waited in lines for the restroom. We all did. And each time, we made comments to each other about it: "This is so unusual, huh?" and "When have you ever attended a plastics industry conference and had to wait in line for the women's restroom?"
It's a rarity at plastics industry events and often automotive-related events as well.
A few years back, when I was covering the sheet metal and heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry — yes, another part of manufacturing where women are underrepresented — I asked a source what the industry could do to get more women involved in sheet metal and HVAC or, at least, to make them aware of the job opportunities in the field.
The source — a woman in a top leadership role at the company — told me that exposure was key. If more young women are exposed to other women working in various roles in a male-dominated industry, it can spark interest and open up their eyes to new opportunities, she said.
But beyond finding role models throughout their education and careers, it's also about mentorship and sponsorship — both of which were key themes at this year's WBTM event.
Amy Beasley, North American regional inclusion leader at Dow Inc., spoke about the two concepts in a morning presentation at the conference.
"A mentor is an experienced person who provides hope and support, builds your confidence. Sometimes it's that shoulder to cry on when the interview doesn't go well," Beasley said.
For Beasley, her mentors expect very little in return and offer her strategic knowledge, skills and empathy. They build her confidence.
"The mentor is really investing in your growth," she said. "And that can be personal or professional, or an overlap of those things."
The sponsorship relationship is a little bit different, Beasley explained.
"A sponsor is someone who is senior to you, who has a sphere of influence, who will champion you because of what they see in your talent, in your potential … and they're willing to take a personal and professional risk on you," she said.
Through mentorship and sponsorship, women especially can build a support network throughout their careers, so doors that were previously locked or unreachable can then open up to them.
"When there was a room I was not qualified to be in, my advocates have been there, sponsoring me, saying, 'You really should consider Amy for that opportunity,'" Beasley said. "Encouraging you to take risks and then have your back, so they are out there taking a risk for you and encouraging you to take risks for yourself."
And for those already in senior management or leadership positions, who is ready for your advocacy, she asked, and who within your work group is ready for you to go out on a limb for them?
Beasley also asked the audience of mostly women to consider what the "table" looks like when they go back to their respective offices and then defining where they want to sit. She left the stage with a powerful quote from Shirley Chisolm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress: "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
LaForest is a Detroit-based Plastics News staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @audreylafrst.