AWESOME advisory board member Heather Sheehan speaks about her experiences in the transportation industry and combating unconscious gender bias while helping companies meet personnel needs and improve performance Photo by Aaron Marsh

AWESOME advisory board member Heather Sheehan speaks about her experiences in the transportation industry and combating unconscious gender bias while helping companies meet personnel needs and improve performance. (Photo by Aaron Marsh)

In transportation: When you're a woman and they'd rather you weren't

  "I'm not suggesting this is just a male or female issue. This is an 'everybody should be treated as an individual' issue," Sheehan emphasized.      

It's hardly a secret: the trucking and broader transportation industry is one of those sectors of society like law enforcement, firefighting and auto repair where it's traditionally been male-dominated. What if you're a woman working in the industry and you encounter someone who just isn't receptive to you because of your gender?

Offering some advice is Heather Sheehan, who's just retired as a vice president but remains a strategic advisor at global manufacturer Danaher Corp. and is an advisory board member of Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management and Education (AWESOME).

"If you as a female do experience bias, remember this: it's about business," Sheehan said, speaking at one of the most audience-interactive sessions at TMW Systems' recent Transforum conference in Orlando, FL.

She spoke of her days finishing up grad school, when she chose to go to work for Union Pacific Railroad — a move some peers questioned, but she saw as an opportunity to climb into the ranks of logistics management. "I had plenty of experiences early in my career where I'd run into a supplier or somebody who worked for me who just was not that interested in working with a female, and it was kind of apparent," Sheehan said.

"It was one of those things where you go, 'This guy really doesn't like that he's dealing with a woman,'" she continued. "But I didn't really care. I looked at it from a business perspective and said to myself, 'What are the business goals we're trying to achieve? We have to work together — what are we trying to get done?'"

So when Sheehan encountered that kind of flak as a woman in her job, she said she focused on job performance and anything that was falling short. "You don't address it in terms of going down that slippery slope of gender bias. It's about the business terms: what are we trying to accomplish, and what are we missing if we're not meeting those goals?" she contended.

Besides taking a sort of professional "high road" in those situations, Sheehan urged women to seek out additional training as they may look to climb into or rise in management — and not to be afraid to get their hands dirty.

"One of the first things I did when I went to work for Union-Pacific Railroad was that I asked for operations training. I was going into marketing, but I spent a week in Searcy, AR, working on the tracks," she recalled.  

"I was okay getting out on the railroad and into the rail yards, putting my steel-toed boots on. I helped operate a locomotive, I dug spikes out of railroad ties, I replaced ties, I coupled and decoupled cars. It was a great experience, because it allowed me to really understand what I was marketing for the organization.

"If you're a woman, don't be afraid of that stuff. Go out there and give it a try — you'll be amazed at what you'll learn from it. It's a great experience," she told listeners.

Combating bias

Sheehan offered suggestions for businesses and their managers to encourage more women employees and leaders while working to meet their own personnel needs and performance goals. Again sounding a common refrain for various trucking and transportation industry jobs, she said companies have to work to overcome a negative perception of jobs in logistics.

She contended that combating perhaps unconscious gender bias that may exist often requires managers stepping up.

"You yourself might not be at the top of the organization, but you can commit from your level of the organization, no matter where you are," Sheehan said. "It's really about discussing the talent needs and the women [the company currently has] in the pipeline on a regular basis, and doing it openly."

On that note, Sheehan said one idea is to look at areas of your company that include women and are performing well and running smoothly. Those areas are often overlooked because they don't need corrective attention or assistance, she noted, but those women may have the right skills to achieve good operational efficiency.

"You might have to cultivate them; you might have to expose them to more training. You might have to encourage them to try something else or step up to a leadership role, even maybe on trial periods so they can test it out. But that's a great way to find some candidates," Sheehan told attendees.  

"What skills are we helping women build? Are we giving them the tools and the training they need? Are we giving them support to build their skills?" she added. Sheehan suggested sponsorship for women leaders — that is, other managers/leaders can help support and encourage women new to such roles as sponsors, as opposed to mentors who teach and impart what a job requires.

But speaking on unconscious gender bias that may exist, Sheehan again called on managers and others to speak up if they see double standards or presumptions being made about men vs. women. "There shouldn't be double standards; we shouldn't make assumptions about what anybody is willing or capable of doing," Sheehan said. "It's about speaking up and making sure there isn't unconscious bias, and if there is, not allowing it to continue."

Regarding double standards, Sheehan said there are terms and qualities that are viewed as negative when applied to women, but positive when they're applied to men. "When you hear those kinds of things, speak up about them," she urged. "My view has always been that it's about treating every individual as an individual.

"I'm not suggesting this is just a male or female issue. This is an 'everybody should be treated as an individual' issue," Sheehan emphasized. "We should always be thinking that every person potentially has talent and something to offer in our organization, and we need to ask the questions and find out what their skills and abilities are."

Why women?

Sizing up the room of mainly mid-level managers — male and female — from various trucking and logistics companies, Sheehan said organizations in transportation and the supply chain would be wise to consider onboarding and promoting more women. On its face, the issue is that just like truck drivers and technicians, many positions in transportation and logistics simply need more people filling them.

"Here are some statistics that start to get a little bit scary: there are estimated to be 1.4 million new logistics jobs to be created just between now and 2018. Logistics jobs overall are expected to grow 26% from 2010 to 2020," Sheehan said. With hundreds of thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs currently unfilled in the United States, "which some may find surprising," a recent survey of supply chain executives found that just 38% feel their organizations have the necessary competencies in their employee pools and rising into management, she noted.

Other well-known factors at play include an aging work force overall, where more people are retiring than are entering into it, so hiring in general may be a bigger challenge going forward.  Even with that as a backdrop — where companies may find themselves looking for the best talent they can find, period — Sheehan said there are reasons to seek out and cultivate women employees, managers and leaders.

Organizations with more gender diversity in their leadership and in general have been found to be more profitable and perform better, she argued. Also, in organizations that have more gender diversity, "research demonstrates that there's increased innovation, better problem-solving in group performance, and enhanced company reputation," Sheehan added.

And there are differences generally in men and women and how they approach their jobs. "The supply chain management world did a survey and asked if there are differences between men and women and what skills they bring with them. Maybe not surprisingly, it did indicate that there are some differences," Sheehan contended. "Women tend to bring big-picture thinking, collaboration skills, teamwork, shared decision-making, and communication and listening skills.

"Now, there are lots and lots of men who also demonstrate these same skills. It's not so much about 'women do this better,' it's that women also do this," she continued. "Women tend to have these skills that they can bring to the organization, and they're critical skills for supply chain management."

 

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