Last month, I had the opportunity to chat with Jessica Yurgaitis of Industrial Supply Co. Many of you likely know her based on her longtime role within the industry, as well as her involvement in ISA and its WISE (Women Industrial Supply Executives) group.
Yurgaitis was recently promoted to the role of president within Industrial Supply, a 106-year-old distributor of safety, metalworking and MRO that was started as a manufacturers rep agency by her great-grandfather.
I relished the opportunity to chat with Yurgaitis about her new role but, to be honest, I dreaded the prospect of venturing into the territory of characterizing this achievement in the context of her gender. It’s an impressive feat for anyone to reach this level of leadership within a successful business and, for me, focusing on the "first woman" aspect felt a bit tangential.
As a woman in the industry, I understand the feeling of being an anomaly. Every woman who has attended an industrial trade show knows the feeling of being one in ten or being asked the question, “How did you get into this business, anyway?”
I tried to stay in neutral territory during our interview, but Yurgaitis – who could teach a Masters class in grace – welcomed the questions on the role of women in the industry, acknowledging that “it’s hard to be a woman and to have a seat at the table” but that her experience has been largely positive and, despite a hard road to get there, she feels a lot of support from her male colleagues.
Yurgaitis's candor reminded me that stories like these are important and help stress that there are leaders emerging from every area, though it’s critical that we don’t let them remain anecdotal. I say this because a recent analysis by executive-data firm Equilar suggests that progress toward gender parity on company boards has slowed. The report describes the phenomenal growth in the past few years but suggests that the low-hanging fruit has been picked. In order for these companies to reach true gender equality there is more work to be done, and it might be taking a more critical eye to your workforce to see if there are unintentional barriers to advancement for your female workers.
International Women in Manufacturing Day recently came and went and never before have I seen more activity on social media relating to the key roles women are playing in this industry. I appreciated every single one of these insightful profiles, and it is my hope that the more visibility we lend to the increasing role of women within the industry, the less foreign it feels and the fewer unnecessary hoops we will require the very capable women to jump through.
When I apologized to Yurgaitis for asking her questions about her landmark role as the first woman president in company history, she welcomed the conversation as one that needed to be had. And she’s right. The more we emphasize the importance of equality in the workplace, the easier it becomes to recognize the talent right in front of us… and that, perhaps, what is mistaken for a lack of commitment is really a working mom’s need for flexibility. It’s a critical reminder, especially in an age where talented folks are fleeing left and right, that candidates for key positions are everywhere and their differing perspectives and experiences are what make them great.