Images of the iconic Rosie the Riveter are prolific throughout America's manufacturing history. She was the “it girl" for the World War II generation, leading women out of the home and into the workforce. It was an era of transformation in the labor force; women employed by the defense industry grew 462 percent between 1940 and 1944.
According to Susan M. Hartmann's book The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s, between 61 and 85 percent of these women wanted to keep their jobs once World War II came to a close.
There was one problem, however. Men returning home from the war would come to fill those jobs in manufacturing and logistics, sending women back to the home. To this day, jobs in these two industries remain predominantly held by men.
Esther Jones, vice president–information systems and technology at UGN Automotive, and Lidia Yan, co-founder and CEO of NEXT Trucking, are each making executive-level inroads in sectors previously dominated by men.
It's obviously no longer a man's world, so let's learn more about how these two ascended in their respective industries and how they are working towards lasting change for the women who come after them and along with them.
Driving Innovation in Manufacturing
When Esther Jones started her manufacturing career over 30 years ago, Information Technology (IT) was a male-dominated field.
“I had no college degree and no experience in IT, so learning from the ground up was the only way forward," says Jones.
She also noticed that there were no other women in higher level positions. Jones wanted to play a role in changing that within UGN. If UGN could be a top manufacturer of key auto parts for Japanese automakers with stateside operations, then perhaps she could change the demographics of the people who made those parts.
“I thought if I worked hard to overcome the challenges to become successful in a male-dominated field that I would be a positive role model for other women in our organization," Jones says. "I was lucky to join a company that provided me with the opportunity to develop my skills by taking on different roles and challenges in the organization."
To accelerate her career in manufacturing, Jones found that she had to find an alternative route to traditional woman-centric mentoring programs because they didn't exist.
“I had to be very proactive with my male managers," she says.
The strategy I've used to overcome [bias] has been to always be armed with data—hard numbers and facts—which has also forced me to be a more informed decision-maker and a more creative strategist.
—Lidia Yan, co-founder and CEO, NEXT Trucking
For her, this meant volunteering for additional assignments that would stretch her knowledge set and continuing to work even when she might have had an inkling to call it a day.
“As I gained experience and confidence in my skills," she says, "I was able to build on my accomplishments and was able to take on different roles and responsibilities in the organization such as interim plant manager, manufacturing manager and director of program management."
In her 20 years with UGN, Jones has held a myriad of positions with the company and now manages from the C-suite. While she remains the only woman in the company's C-suite, she's in dogged pursuit of mentoring the next generation of women leaders at UGN.
“I want to leave a legacy of this 'can-do' attitude for other women," says Jones. And for women looking toward manufacturing as a potential career option?
“With all the innovation happening in the transportation sector, it's an exciting time to work in the automotive industry," says Jones. “Women have the opportunity to be part of cross-functional teams and to work across different disciplines such as product development, program management, procurement, purchasing, process engineering, shipping, logistics, robotics and operations. There are a lot of skill sets that can be learned in automotive manufacturing that no other industry offers."
Innovating Trucking Through Technology
Lidia Yan never set out to shake-up the trucking industry. A lifelong entrepreneur focused on technology and commerce, Yan had an eye for inefficiencies in marketplaces.
During a visit to her family business, a high-value cargo warehouse, she noticed a simple exchange that transformed her career trajectory: a trucker asking a warehouse employee to track down a shipment, the details written on a sticky note.
Surely there was a better way than sticky notes, right?
From that one exchange and countless subsequent interviews with truckers and warehouse personnel, Yan co-founded NEXT Trucking, the first trucker-centric mobile app that focused on equipping carriers with smart technology so that they could provide shippers with full visibility, faster cash flow and increased capacity.
In only three years of operation, they have achieved profitability, grown their company to over 60 employees and raised a hefty $21 million Series B financing round.
The one thing that didn't play a role in her decision to innovate the trucking industry? Gender.
“While the trucking industry may be male-dominated, it wasn't really a factor in why I chose to build NEXT," says Yan. “Rather, it was the opportunity that the sector posed and the need for thoughtful solutions that addressed genuine pain points experienced by carriers and shippers."
That's not to say that Yan's experiences growing a business in a male-dominated sector haven't been without challenges. She wasn't necessarily what people expected to see as the head of a trucking and logistics company.
“Because trucking and logistics more broadly, have traditionally been considered male-dominated industries, it's easy to be overlooked or underestimated because I don't look like what most people—investors, partners, vendors, talent—think of when they hear 'trucking' or 'trucker,'" Yan says.
“The strategy I've used to overcome this has been to always be armed with data—hard numbers and facts—which has also forced me to be a more informed decision-maker and a more creative strategist," she continues. "The best numbers, of course, are growth numbers and our 100 percent YOY revenue growth speaks for itself."
Her advice for women curious about exploring a career in the $800 billion trucking and logistics industry? Explore those opportunities now because it's a sector ripe for innovation and hungry for new talent.
“The industry underpins our entire economy, so logistics is one of the few areas that offers women leaders a true opportunity to make a direct impact on everyday lives," Yan says. “Quite simply, we don't have enough women in the space—and much like other forms of diversity, gender diversity can be a powerful catalyst for innovation because it opens up the sector to new approaches and perspectives."
If you've been shy about pursuing opportunities in a male-dominated field, Jones' and Yan's pioneering experiences might shift your mindset.
While there will undoubtedly be legacy systems of power in place that may prove daunting, the best advice is to find your own Jones or Yan and use mentoring as a means to excel in the industry that excites you most. This way, you'll be manufacturing success on your terms and have an ally to turn to when questions arise, challenges present themselves and setbacks appear.
Together, you can forge your way forward into careers that truly need no gender label. Excellence knows no single identity.
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Photo: Getty Images