Women in Automation: Opportunities Abound

Aug. 2, 2012
Automation needs more women who can bring innovative ideas to the industry, contribute their intuitive skills and balance, and find different ways to solve many difficult problems.

Women make up 40 percent of the global workforce and have come a long way culturally. However, there is still a widespread gender imbalance in the United States and Europe in engineering-related businesses like industrial automation, which is among the slowest to change. Although there are no overt gender issues, customers seem to hem and haw when talking with a woman about technical questions. This bias is quickly disappearing when women not only respond well, but also provide a high level of technical support.

At higher management levels there is still a big gender disparity. None of the major automation companies have women in senior leadership positions beyond accounting, legal services or human resources. McKinsey & Company’s report, “Women Matter” makes a strong business case for increasing the number of women in senior management roles. It shows a link between corporations’ organizational and financial performance and the specific leadership behaviors that women tend to adopt more frequently than men.

GE (www.ge.com) is exceptional in that there are an unusual number of women who head up major businesses that generate close to $50 billion revenue. Charlene Begley is President & CEO of GE Home & Business Solutions, an $ 8.6B business. This includes the industrial automation segment Intelligent Platforms, which now reports to Jody Markopoulos who is President, succeeding Maryrose Sylvester when she moved as President of GE Lighting.  It must be noted that GE’s top leadership is still largely male.

Women often soar with unique flair. Betty Hollander founded Omega Engineering (www.omega.com), reportedly at her kitchen table making thermocouples; the first 20 employees were women. With leadership and devotion, she built Omega into the sensors and instrumentation catalog powerhouse, with 5 manufacturing and 2 distribution/sales facilities, employing 700 people, with revenues of $168m in 2010, and always very profitable.

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Acknowledging gender imbalance, hundreds of colleges, organizations, and businesses have created very effective programs, workshops and conferences to increase the number of women in engineering. The U.S.-based automation industry is making some efforts. The Automation Federation recently announced that the Society of Women Engineers has become a member to help spread the message to women and students about the many careers available to them in engineering, and more specifically in automation.

Following its inception in 1946 as the Instrument Society of America, ISA had 62 years with male Presidents. In 2008, Kim Miller Dunn, of Emerson Process became the first female President. Under her leadership, the organization went through a major transition, changing its name to International Society of Automation (www.isa.org).

Another woman, Dr. Peggie Ward Koon, will assume the role of President-Elect at ISA in January 2013 and head the Society in 2014. For over 20 years, Peggie was responsible for process control and automation at Graniteville/Avondale Mills, a textile manufacturing company. She is now in charge of corporate digital strategy at Morris Communications.

Higher corporate performance
Peggie Koon agrees with the McKinsey report: organizations with a higher proportion of women in top-level positions tend to have higher performance. She says that her nomination is important, not just because it increases the number of women who have assumed the role of ISA President, but because it allows her to add all the value that a woman brings to every thought process that occurs. We wish her success!

Automation needs more women who can bring innovative ideas to the industry, contribute their intuitive skills and balance, and find different ways to solve many difficult problems that really need “the female difference.”

If you are a woman who wishes to advance in the automation business and who aspires to hold a leadership position, there has never been a better time.

>> Jim Pinto is a technology futurist, international speaker and automation industry commentator. You can email him at [email protected] or review his prognostications and predictions on his website: www.jimpinto.com.

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