‘Women in Textiles: A Summit for Experienced and Emerging Leaders’ was the second Women in Textiles to be hosted by the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). Held in Nashville, Tennessee the event combined presentations, panel discussions and networking – the focus was to strengthen knowledge and connections. Close to one hundred delegates attended, professionals from industry alongside academics and students, set to be the leaders of tomorrow. I spoke with a number of those involved to discover some of the issues that speakers and delegates grapple with.
Linden Wicklund one of the event organisers at IFAI is clear that as a membership organisation there is certainly a need for more women in leadership positions in the textile industry. She sees an appetite for networking that is structured and meaningful. “Women didn’t seem to have the same number and breadth of industry peers as their male counterparts”, observes Wicklund.
Karen Hinds is Founder and CEO of Workplace Success Group a strategic, talent development firm that works with organizations to cultivate and retain their next generation of leaders. Originally from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines her family moved to the US when she was 15. She points to the transition to a new country, culture and school as teaching her an invaluable lesson on the importance of adapting quickly to change as she leant to thrive as an outsider and build strategic relationships.
Her summit talk titled ‘Power, Presence and Impact for Women’ got delegates to their feet – literally, to join her in a rendition of ‘I’m every Woman’! Hinds tells how “As a consultant and keynote speaker, I frequently work with leaders and often saw more men than women in my sessions. When I did encounter women, I quickly recognized that many of the women were missing key opportunities to showcase their leadership skills”.
Hinds sees women as often downplaying their value or being unable to clearly articulate what they can offer. Encouraged by programming such as the Women in Textiles summit and figures that show women holding 6.6% of CEO roles in Fortune 500 companies in 2019 the highest it has ever been. However, she not satisfied that this is enough: “although women are often the factory workers and consumers in this industry, they are underrepresented at decision making levels.”
“We’re engrained from a young age with the “Please and Thank you” attitude,” says Rachal McCarthy whose summit talk was titled ‘Stop Saying Please.’ McCarthy, President of NTI Global acknowledges that please and thank you are an important part of our social structure, before explaining her viewpoint that” I believe that social and professional structures shouldn’t have the same communication norms, especially with all the advancements in technology”.
NTI Global is a family owned and operated industrial plastics and textile manufacturer. McCarthy describes how she became President of the company at the age of 26 when she walked into a shareholder meeting to deliver a detailed analysis of their management structure and left finding herself Acting President. Without wanting to generalise, she finds that women are more empathetic than men. It is a quality that McCarthy has found useful in empowering her team so that they can effect change, avoiding micromanaging but equally mindful not to let empathy cloud judgment.
Stephanie Rodgers sees a shift occurring in the industry with women in leadership positions such as herself not coming from a family industry, but though technology and engineering. Rodgers is Director Advanced Product Development at Apex Mills arriving at the position through General Motors, Microsoft Corporation and others that explains her talk title ‘The “T” in STEM’.
Coming to industry in 1998 Rodgers recalls when she started her engineer colleagues would refer to her as “the basket engineer” because she came from textile engineering. She saw everything as being run by men back then, “You could be a doctor faster than you could be a leader in textiles.” Today, she is excited to see the growth in young women entrepreneurs. Rodgers sees them taking risks but also acknowledges the importance of finding ways to encourage and support this next generation of talent.
Pointing to her own experience of such a support network she cites the importance of Asta Roseway at Microsoft whose role at the company was to engage artists in residence which brought a very unique way of thinking to Microsoft. While Roseway represented the creative STEAM approach, Genevieve Dion at Drexel introduced Rodgers to the importance of technology and STEM.
As both the number and size of conferences grows bigger each year it serves to highlight the importance of smaller events that allow for longer conversations and discussions. It is a learning experience for both expert and novice, though in different ways. Working as a woman, and particularly in a leadership position in the industry can be isolating culturally and geographically and it is not confined to the textile industry.
In an article for Time magazine (2nd October 2019), Melinda Gates began: “In 2018, there were more men named James running Fortune 500 companies than there were women.” 2019 did not fare better with just one CEO on the 500 list a woman of colour and only 24% of seats in congress held by women despite accounting for 51% of the U.S. population. Gates in her search for optimism to temper her outrage points to “the fact we’re now talking about these inequalities is itself a sign of progress.” In the textile industry, that we are seeing talking coupled with action is progress indeed.