Women choose STEM and manufacturing disciplines for a variety of reasons. For me, it wasn’t that I didn’t have a choice to go into a STEM discipline, but it was completely the culture I grew up in: a very non-traditional, tech-centered household. My grandfather was a physicist, my father was a computer engineer and my best friends all came from engineering and tech families. My mother was also a key driver in this career path because she didn’t push “girl toys” and “boy toys” growing up and I was equally as happy to play with My Little Ponies in a castle I constructed myself using my Erector Set. So when I went to school, it wasn’t a terribly big surprise to anyone that I ended up choosing STEM as my career path.
However, that early education and the formal one learned at university didn’t adequately prepare me for the challenges faced by women in traditionally male-dominated industries. If anything, my childhood cocoon of tech insulated me from ever perceiving that as a woman in manufacturing I would be in the minority and that there would be biases, either intentional or sub-conscious, that would create obstacles that I needed to overcome.
Like many students graduating school and entering the professional world, I lacked the “toolkit” to overcome these challenges and subsequently stumbled my way early on in my career and made many mistakes. But I was also very lucky to have people guiding me and managed to learn (completely the hard way) a few lessons:
- Your Mentors Will Not Have all the Answers: As a female engineer most mentors you will have are probably going to be older, white men. The way that they attack problems and advise you to do so might not lead to the best outcome. Women still face being “aggressive” and “ambitious” as negative connotations whereas men more often do not. This is why I’m not a fan of individual mentors, but of a personal Board of Directors that can each give you their opinions. Take the sum total of this advice, look for the common threads and then instead of taking any individual's advice at face value, find a way to apply the common themes in a way that reflects your authentic self.
- Sometimes You Do Just Need to Kick Butt and Take Names: It’s a fine line, but sometimes, when deadlines are short or there is a major issue that needs an immediate solution, you need to be the “aggressive” one and take charge. In these situations, I’ve found that overcommunication in advance about why you are driving so hard is paramount. You must equate the “aggression” toward the application of the solution instead of to you as an individual.
- Ambition may be a Bad Word but it’s a Great Strategy: Men might get away with looking toward the next promotion, but women still face some issues here. Too often “ambitious” is still a negative word when connected to females. However, align your ambitions to the good of the company and a long-term strategic plan that delivers accretive value, and suddenly it’s no longer about the short-term win. This approach allows for ambitions to be put in a strategic context and relevancy framework that benefits the company. This enables women to rally sponsors around their goals in ways that are mutually beneficial. Recently, I’ve been lucky to work on a business opportunity that ties our strong capabilities around Supply Chain management into an end-to-end services proposition that has the potential to improve supply chain value insights for our customers and drive significant improvements. To do this we had to reach out to other eco-system partners that support this customer to integrate all the pieces of the pie into a single solution. What’s so exciting about this opportunity, apart from the obvious, is that this initiative is largely led and developed by female leaders. Because of the strong partnerships formed in this process, we’re able to work across company lines in a way that is really exciting and new to bring relevant solutions to our mutual customer.
Ultimately, it’s all about finding a home. You can be the best performer, but if you’re in the wrong company culture unfortunately it doesn’t matter. Leadership begins at the top, and I’ve been lucky to find a home in Jabil where every level of leadership is fundamentally committed to innovation no matter the source. Our culture is open and transparent. A lot of companies say that, at Jabil we really mean it and live it every day. True transparency doesn’t leave room for discrimination, but rather creates a groundwork for equality because success is more closely and visibly tied to performance. In an open culture, sponsorship of ideas and people is based on the merit of that idea, and not on any kind of personal bias. At Jabil great ideas and great people get sponsored at the most senior levels no matter the source because they lead to results for not only the company, but more importantly, for our customers.
Meredith Kovarik is director of Supply Chain at Jabil working within the Enterprise and Infrastructure segment with large-scale customers to identify and implement advanced supply eco-system solutions. She is one of the recipients of this year’s STEP awards recognized by The Manufacturing Institute.