Establishing a community where women in in the industry could learn, network and thrive was at the core of Allison Grealis’ goals when she founded the Women in Manufacturing Association. More than a decade later, she continues to find ways to offer women opportunities to advance their careers in manufacturing.
Quartz Network Executive Correspondent, Britt Erler catches up with the Founder and President of the non-profit to discuss the group’s original goals, how it emerged stronger from the pandemic, and what the future holds.
Quartz Network: Please tell me more about the Women in Manufacturing Association, and why you started it?
Allison Grealis: I started The Women Manufacturing Association 10 years ago. The key reason I started the organization was to provide a community for women in manufacturing careers. I had the opportunity to work within the trade association space. I had the great opportunity to meet many leaders and founders and key executives in manufacturing companies.
As they were looking to network and share best practices, and share resources with one another, we found that there wasn’t a natural network for them to do so. So, we decided to try to bring together these women in industry and provide them a forum and a platform where they could share information. We kind of kicked off the organization, first and foremost, with an event. We started with a conference, which we called our summit. That was held in Cleveland, Ohio, which is where we’re headquartered. We brought together people from all over the country at all different levels and layers within manufacturing companies to network, start building a community, and share resources.
Quartz Network: How many members does your organization have?
Allison Grealis: We are now more than 5,500 individual members strong. We have members in almost every US state, as well as in 11 countries.
Quartz Network: What types of resources does your association provide these women?
Allison Grealis: As I mentioned, one of the key reasons we first got started was to provide women a network. Our membership provides women the opportunity to network with one another. We have an online directory. We have 27 chapters throughout the country. We also provide learning and education. We have learning on demand and our online learning library. We also have formal leadership programs for every level and layer of women in manufacturing. We have programs for those that are early career managers and leaders. We have programs for executive women in manufacturing.
Then, we have two newer programs. One is designed as a leadership consortium for male and female leaders in manufacturing. The other is for women in production. We know that often individuals who need us most are early in their career and those that are perhaps in the hourly ranks. So, we’re now working on this Women in Production Program to provide them support, inspiration, and guidance as they look to grow their career.
Quartz Network: How has the involvement changed from pre-COVID to now?
Allison Grealis: Primarily, we were delivering a lot of our services live and locally through our chapters, as well as live through our regional and national conferences and events. We quickly pivoted to provide all of our learning and connecting resources to members in a virtual format. It’s really been amazing.
This virtual disruption and the pandemic allowed us to reach many more members than we probably ever would have been able to. Individuals that maybe didn’t have the resources or the ability to travel live to our chapter events or national conferences and programs have been able to easily tap into an on-demand platform and live learning platform to meet new people from all over the country, and listen to learning sessions. It’s really broadened our reach as an organization, which is exciting.
At the 2021 conference, we delivered all the same learning, actually even more educational tracks than we normally would. We had close to a 250% increase in our participation. Again, much of it was because of the ability to deliver it without travel requirements. The virtual shift has provided some unique opportunities, as well as some unique challenges.
What we’re finding is that with the pandemic, obviously companies have lots of needs. Manufacturing companies still have to hire. They’re still looking to retain their top talent and individuals in the organization. Many companies have been even more active with us as they’ve tapped into our learning resources or development tools, as well as a lot of our recruitment resources.
We, as an organization, have tried to expand those resources for companies. We’ve launched virtual career fairs that companies can use to recruit because they can’t be on campus or go into a community to recruit often. We bolster the resources with our job board, and then, try to create new resources for companies as they’re looking to recruit talent.
Quartz Network: Aside from the pandemic, what are some other challenges that you see facing women in the manufacturing industry today?
Allison Grealis: Even before pandemic, I think women were more disadvantaged often in the workforce. There are often less opportunities, or perhaps less support vehicles and more development vehicles for women perhaps. I think that the pandemic, unfortunately, has had a bit of a negative impact on women in general careers.
If you look at the Women in the Workplace study produced by McKinsey and the Lean In organization, it showed that there has been a negative impact on women working. The pandemic has taken its toll, and I think even more so on women who are juggling and balancing career and life and family and schooling. I’m a mom of two, and I’ve had to deal with all of the same disruptions.
As we look at general challenges for women, even prior to the pandemic, there wasn’t necessarily a support network for women in manufacturing careers because we’re the minority in this industry. Women weren’t seeing other women like them, they weren’t necessarily finding role models, and they weren’t finding mentors or coaches. The goal has been, and always will be, to provide access to resources for inspiration, coaching, mentoring, and support. Often women are one of just a few at their company or at their facility. For us to be able to provide an external network, if they can’t find one internally, is really important.
One of our biggest, most valuable takeaways for members is sharing best practices. We’re often hosting panel discussions. We’re producing keynotes and discussions around the sometimes difficult or challenging conversations. What if women can combat it, and what if they had these challenges as they’ve risen and grown in their career? They can share those lessons learned to future generations, so they don’t have to experience those same things.
Quartz Network: What recommendations do you have for women who are facing these challenges?
Allison Grealis: I would say to not go it alone. When we surveyed the first-time participants of our summit, it was so very moving to hear their stories, because so many of them said, “This was the first time that I went to an industry conference, and I was with people like me.” They felt like they weren’t alone. They now had people all over the country they could tap into for support and resources and guidance.
For a person in manufacturing who’s a female, I would suggest that they find a community, whether it be with us nationally, with one of our local chapters, or to perhaps tap into their own affinity group or employee resource group if available at their company. Take advantage of those resources and take advantage of the amazing mentors and sponsors that are within our industry. I know all of our members are very open to supporting others, to lending guidance and support. I would encourage individuals to tap into our network, tap into their own corporate networks, and tap into their community networks. There are tons of business organizations as well; leverage those relationships.
One of the things I’ve learned over my career is that relationships matter very much. Maintaining and building and creating new relationships is so important as you navigate your career. It’s often those relationships that can introduce you to a new opportunity, be a sponsor and advocate for you, or speak about you when new opportunities arise.
I would recommend people leverage our network or find a network and to not go through it alone.
Quartz Network: Why are you so passionate about this?
Allison Grealis: Since an early age, I was very passionate and really interested in the advancement of women. When I was younger, my mom got me involved in Girl Scouts. From an early age, I was banded together with other young women to sell others on the Girl Scouts, earn badges, and do good things within our community. I saw the power of getting together with people like me. It was really exciting to see other young girls at the time who had big dreams and wanted to accomplish wonderful things. From an early age, I formed relationships and got involved in organizations, often many of which were gender based and female oriented.
As I went to college, I was an English pre-law, Women’s Studies major, and loved learning about the history of the women’s movement and the importance of women’s organizations. Soon after college, I decided to pursue a career working in the public service space. I got my degree and my master’s degree in Public Administration and wanted to work for an organization that was mission oriented. I wasn’t sure if that would be in the nonprofit sector or in the government, and so I found myself working with trade associations.
Within the trade associations, I found lots of female members that were often third or fourth or fifth-generation women leading family businesses, most of which were small to mid-sized and privately held. I was so inspired by their stories, how they were taking over their dad’s, uncle’s, or family business, and working to grow it to a more successful entity or to sustain it. It was really exciting. When I got to work with them and see that there was this need, and then take an approach to solve that need by creating a business plan and model for membership, it was just so rewarding. To me, it’s been wonderful to see the impact we’ve had on our members.
We have many formal leadership programs. One of them is our Leadership Institute for Women in Manufacturing and STEM. It’s the only of its kind in the country. We partner with Case Western Reserve University on the course. I was recently reviewing our graduate list and roster of people that participated for the past five years. I was looking at their current title, the title that they were at, and the company they were at when they first started the program. I would say the majority of them are still with their current manufacturing company, or still in manufacturing.
Even more amazing and emotional for me, is that most of them have been promoted. So many of them are Senior Vice Presidents, Presidents, or Senior Directors. Many of these women have just accomplished such great things. We hope that Women in Manufacturing, as an association, has played a role in that, and has helped them to be even more successful and to have that peer community to support them. To me, that’s so very exciting and continues to excite me each day.
Quartz Network: As a leader, and this goes for all industries, what motivates and inspires you?
Allison Grealis: I think seeing the impact that we’re having. I’m motivated by identifying a challenge or an opportunity, and then figure out a fix. How do we, if we see a challenge or an area that really could use our help, create that solution? Identifying that need, and coming up with a solution, and then seeing that solution in action is so motivating.
As we saw and we heard from our corporate members, they were having a real challenge as it related to developing their women in production. The women on the shop floor, they were having a real challenge with getting them to training, getting them excited about advancing in their careers. I’m really excited this fall to see this program in action that we’ve developed for women in production, and then to hopefully see this five-year trajectory or more of these women advancing within their current companies.
Quartz Network: Do you see this association expanding into other industries aside from manufacturing and production?
Allison Grealis: I think, presently, if you look at our mission, we are solely focused on women in manufacturing careers. We also work with the male allies that are supporters, sponsors, and endorsers of the Women in Manufacturing career. We’re open to both male and female members. I would say that what we have found is the power of collaboration and alliances. We work with lots of other associations that are maybe ancillary, or complementary to manufacturing. We work with lots of niche groups that may be in different facets of manufacturing. Partnerships have been really powerful for us.
I think, right now, we’re very focused on manufacturing. Of course, there’s different nuances to that. We dabble in technology; we dabble in other spaces. We hope to grow the organization so that even if we’re still focused just on manufacturing, our footprint expands. Our chapters are currently US based, but we hope to have an international presence and chapters overseas very soon.
Quartz Network: What trends do you foresee for Women in Manufacturing over the next couple years?
Allison Grealis: I think the trends that we see for our members is that technology and automation are going to continue to play a very important role in how we do work, how we do our daily routine and our jobs, how we build customer relationships, and how we build new business opportunities. I think you’re going to see the rapid growth of even more tools that companies and individuals can use to be successful in their jobs.
We also think there’s going to be an impact for the next year or so on how business is done. We’re pivoting to figure out how we have even more on-demand tools and resources for our members and our companies. I think industry-wise, we have to change the way we deliver value and services. I think that theme resonates with our individual manufacturing member companies. They’re reevaluating their business models as well.
Quartz Network: A lot of companies run differently. How do you show women how to work their way in different companies?
Allison Grealis: We tried to share best practices. I think we’re connected, presently, to nearly 1,300 different unique manufacturing companies. They’re all different sizes, they’re all structured very uniquely, and they all have varying amounts of resources. We know not everyone is going to have huge diversity and inclusion departments, not every company is going to have layered employee resource groups. We try to share best practices from one company to another. We do so often in our Summer Leadership Conference, which is where our corporate members have the exclusive opportunity to do case studies, present to one another, and do white papers.
What we’re hoping to accomplish here, depending on company size and scope, is to at least replicate parts of the process if the entire program or delivery can’t be replicated. We know that not everything is going to apply because all companies are designed differently. The goal is that there are different nuggets and takeaways from all of these sharing exercises and best-practice studies that companies can apply pieces and parts to their organization.
We recently did a study on diversity, equity, and inclusion within the manufacturing industry. We had a record number of respondents. The goal was for companies to benchmark and be able to say, “Okay, here are the resources that I offer my employees and here’s where there seems to be the hugest level and layers of interest.” Then, they could adapt and adjust accordingly to figure out how they get to best-in-class, or how they improve to the current norms and needs for employees.
Quartz Network: Any other final pieces of advice that you have for women in manufacturing, or leaders in general that are in a similar position as yourself?
Allison Grealis: I would encourage manufacturing leaders who don’t know of us as an association to get to know us. We are always looking for companies to partner with. Our goal is not to replicate what’s already being done successfully at an individual manufacturing company. We know some companies have amazing leadership academies and development programs. We really see value in complementing programs that are often already existing in companies, and then providing that external network.
It’s great for individuals to have programs internally with mentoring, with leadership academies. There’s also great value to benchmark and to externally network outside of your own four walls, your facility, so that you can see what other innovative things are being done by companies. Our goal is to help facilitate that. We encourage companies to connect with us, to get to know us, and to encourage their female talent and male talent to start participating with our organization. Those would be my words of wisdom.
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