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Thomas R. Cutler

Quality Insider

How Women Can Transcend Barriers to Management Positions

Though seemingly unfair, women must continually demonstrate their value

Published: Wednesday, May 13, 2015 - 16:44

Whitney Blackburn began her career as an art director for a visual communications company, where she built a reputation for intuitive design and creative leadership. Equipped with a passion for intelligent marketing and a deep curiosity for all things outside her comfort zone, Blackburn has spent the past five years pursuing a career within the material handling industry. Blackburn has advanced quickly and now serves as brand manager for Hytrol Conveyor Co., where she is responsible for the development and execution of inbound marketing strategies, brand identity and awareness, campaign development, trade show exhibition, and lead nurturing.

Blackburn is actively involved in the community, serving as a goodwill ambassador for the local chamber and on the board of directors for The Woman’s Discovery Center and the American Advertising Federation. She is a graduate of Leadership Jonesboro and her design work has received several awards, including more than 15 American Advertising Awards.

Thomas R. Cutler: What changes are most obvious in the opportunities for women since the start of your career?

Whitney Blackburn: The nature of today’s workplace is much more conducive to the innate skill set of women. Employee engagement and retention require empathy, strong communication skills, and the ability to build lasting relationships. With a natural inclination toward this leadership style, women more readily create an environment where talent can be nurtured. In the last 10 years, it seems that more companies are willing to embrace this approach and place women in a position to foster a team-minded environment.

TRC: Why do you think more women have not yet reached vice president or C-level status?

WB: It’s necessary to have a diverse background across various organizational areas to be selected for top management positions. It is often still the case that women are viewed as better suited for certain roles within an organization and therefore overlooked when developing a list of potential candidates. Though this mentality may be unintentional, it certainly creates a barrier for women. As long as the glass ceiling principle holds true, women will be boxed into certain roles and limited to middle management or wage work. Unfortunately, in 2015, job segregation is alive and well, and women must persevere through economic exclusion in order to break through the glass ceiling. This is no easy task.

However, in my personal experience, I have found that by consistently raising my hand, asking for more, and being firm and vocal in my belief that I am equally as capable, I have been able to transcend those barriers. This may seem like cliché or unfair advice, but the fact is that women must continually demonstrate their value to an organization in order to become a potential candidate for elevated positions. It is also important to be an advocate for other women in the workplace. Be a mentor, endorse your female colleagues, and support those that demonstrate aptitude.

TRC: What traits do you possess that make you a great manager?

WB: A key characteristic of any successful manager or leader is the ability to listen. Of course, the application of the ascertained information is important, too, but the ability to listen must come first. Being able to really hear what someone is saying not only lends to open communication and trust within the team, it also creates the best environment for productivity. It’s the difference between listening to form your answer, and really listening to learn, reflect, and implement the best plan. I also try to employ empathy and an open mind when working with others. In every situation I ask myself, “How would I want to be treated?”

TRC: Do you observe any qualities or characteristics in the way women lead vs. the way men lead?

WB: Generally speaking, it seems men tend to assert their perspective through force and determination, whereas women will use their persuasive tendencies to state their opinion. However, I believe these natural communication styles can complement each other. Women tend to be good at prioritizing, meeting deadlines, and the interpersonal aspects of leadership, while men succeed in the practical and rational arenas of achieving results. Creating a balance of both types of leadership can be a successful equation.

TRC: What remains the biggest obstacle for women in senior management roles?

WB: I believe the obstacle continues to be a simple one: taking gender out of the equation and removing the long-held idea that certain positions, or roles within society even, are better suited for one sex or the other. While most women may not be deliberately excluded in today’s workplace, there is still the ever-present “second-generation” form of gender bias, where the barriers are subtler and cultural assumptions are made within organizational structures. This mentality tends to create an environment where men are placed in more strategic roles and women are assigned operational responsibilities, indicating that they have lower potential. To combat this, companies must provide criteria and transparency for how senior positions are evaluated and selected, as well as what type of experience can best increase a person’s potential.

TRC: What are the three most useful behaviors when dealing with other leaders?

WB: In my experience, being a young (millennial) female in the workforce can sometimes be seen as a double negative, or at least unknown territory, especially in the male-dominated material-handling industry. Because of this, I believe in approaching other leaders with a sense of trust, an open mind, and a sense of humor. The latter may seem incongruous, however, this behavior tends to produce the most successful results. By approaching others in a positive, open-minded, and lighthearted manner, the outcome is often productive and successful. I believe colleagues and management feel that they can freely communicate with me without fear of rejection or skepticism.

TRC: How do you mentor other women who are working toward leadership roles?

WB: First and foremost, I believe it is crucial to help women envision their future and what that may look like within the organization. This involves creating an environment of trust and an open dialog about their interests, strengths, and goals. Secondly, it is vital to build a foundation of support through coaching, listening, and a shared experience. Lastly, being an advocate for women in the workplace offers mentees the exposure needed to gain visibility within the organization.

TRC: Any predictions about the future of industry?

WB: Material handling is founded on a traditional workplace culture, where employees are predominantly white males, and the hierarchical ladder still exists. As the Baby Boomers begin to retire and newer generations begin their careers, I believe there will be a shift in culture to accommodate workforce demands.

E-commerce will also continue to play a large role in the industry. As technology evolves, the demand for an online and omni-channel presence will continue to be key in the success of retailers. This will ultimately increase the demand for equipment and software to support same-day shipments, real-time tracking of goods, and efficient order-to-ship processing times.

TRC: How have programs like Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and the theory of constraints affected your business? Your career?

WB: Six Sigma and lean manufacturing have completely redefined Hytrol. As we move into our eleventh year of lean principles, we are an efficient and purposeful company with the flexibility and strategic diversification to tackle any obstacle. Lean has shaped our future goals, as well as how seamlessly we can adapt to the ever-changing material handling industry.


About The Author

Thomas R. Cutler’s picture

Thomas R. Cutler

Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc., (www.trcutlerinc.com) Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 6000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler authors more than 500 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector and is the most published freelance industrial journalist worldwide. Cutler can be contacted at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com and followed on Twitter @ThomasRCutler.