3 Women in Engineering and Manufacturing Discuss Courage, Mentorship, and Peer Support
How Women in Manufacturing at Nestlé USA and Nestlé Purina are focused on developing great careers
You might think of engineering as a traditionally male profession. It’s true that opportunities and access for women in the manufacturing field were once hard to find, but now that more opportunities are available the challenge is finding ways to preserve and develop diverse teams for the long term.
At Nestlé USA and Nestlé Purina, there has been a real effort to develop career paths for women in engineering — and it’s started from the ground-up. Through initiatives that support gender balance, and dedicated employee groups supporting Women in Engineering, the gender gap in manufacturing and engineering roles is closing.
To understand the challenges in this space, I spoke to three women who’ve built great careers in manufacturing roles, and they offered me great insight about the work that’s been done and that we still have to do.
First of all, can you tell me a little about what you do?
Kathryn, Factory Engineering Manager, Nestlé USA: It’s a little like that meme — “What my friends think I do, what I think I do…” — people sometimes don’t understand what a Factory Engineering Manager role is. I’m responsible for the project engineers, the automation group, maintenance and utilities. This can be for new projects, equipment or products, as well as making sure we have the best maintained factory to make the best ice cream.
Rafa, Factory Manager, Nestlé USA: As a Factory Manager I oversee a team of 700 people trying to bring consumers ice cream that exceeds their expectations, while also ensuring my teams are safe and have space to develop their careers. I try to nurture an environment that challenges my colleagues and helps them grow.
Amy, VP of Manufacturing, Nestlé Purina: I’m based out of Purina’s St. Louis HQ, offering leadership for our factories across the country. I’m also involved in people development, and I work closely with the sales and marketing teams too.
What’s your origin story — what brought you into the engineering field?
Kathryn: I wanted to be a doctor, my plan was to study chemistry and biology at college. I was working as a server, and met a guest who started talking to me about chemical engineering. He mapped out on a napkin the opportunities, all the ways chemical engineering could benefit me. That napkin convinced me. Turns out that guest was the Dean of Engineering at the University of Dayton, where I then pursued my chemical engineering degree.
Rafa: I also wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help people, and I’ve always had a very logical mind. My father is an electrical engineer, and ever since I was very young math had intrigued me — it might sound unusual but I just really like numbers! Ultimately, I felt like I could make a real contribution as an engineer.
Amy: I actually started in accounting at a factory back in 2000, but I gradually realized my heart was in manufacturing — I loved the process, and being on the factory floor. I don’t have an engineering background, but I learned on the job through the support of my colleagues, and moved up through the company that way.
Do you have advice for somebody starting a new career with Nestlé?
Rafa: It’s natural to have some fear, but somebody saw your potential and brought you in, so you’ve got something. I joined Nestlé in Brazil straight out of college working on baby food and cereal products — it was a real time of discovery for me. I’d say the first thing to put your energy into is getting to know the people around you, that will help you discover all the opportunities Nestlé has to offer.
Amy: I agree — my advice would be to look around you for those opportunities and set your sights on what you want early. That way you can find the spaces where you need to grow your knowledge, and develop your career.
Kathryn: I agree that getting to know people is key, and for women in our field it’s important to find the right coaches and mentors. I realized early in my career that I was often the only woman at the table — 12 years in, I’m still trying to strike a balance and be my authentic self at work. It can be difficult sometimes for women to speak with authority, because we’ve learned from a young age to do the opposite. Mentors and peer groups can help tackle those kinds of issues, and as I’ve moved along in my career I’ve looked for those I can mentor.
What is the importance of developing women in engineering and manufacturing roles?
Amy: I’ve been very blessed in terms of the people I’ve had surrounding me, they’ve been really supportive, and I’ve worked hard to make sure people see my contributions are no different to the men around me. I try to reach out to young women joining the company to make sure they have mentorships and what I’d call a ‘tribe’. It’s so easy to be self-critical, so I try to make sure other women in the organisation know they’re not experiencing things alone.
Kathryn: The Tulare factory management team has a 50/50 gender split, so that’s a great start. Now we’re looking at development through our Women in Engineering network, to make sure we’re supporting women as they enter these roles. That network is a group of women providing peer-to-peer support and mentorship, hosting discussions in a book club model, reviewing things we’ve read or listened to, and offering technical feedback. We must have diverse engineering groups to solve problems in our business we have never faced before — it’s true that diverse perspectives lead to the best solutions.
Rafa: As a leader I prioritize being humble and learning from every person I interact with — you can always learn something by listening to the people on your team. You build credibility by being authentic and empathetic in that way, and I think leading by example is really valuable for all of our employees.
I’ve talked about my experience with Nestlé’s parent support policy in the past, and how it’s helped me in my career. Has this kind of policy had an impact for you?
Rafa: In my case I had a career growth opportunity close to my parental leave and the Nestlé team supported me through the process so we could make it happen. Being a mother of a now 2 year old, the opportunity I had from Nestlé to bond with my son was priceless. It’s great to know the company cares for our families.
Kathryn: This comes back to Rafa’s point about collaboration. I had great support from my team when I took parental leave — now as a mother, I find that work-life balance is more a matter of ebbs and flows, and support from colleagues is important to keep everything running. So Nestlé has done a great job with that leave policy. But that’s just one phase of a woman’s life. So we’re looking at what support looks like for all phases of a woman’s career.
Amy: My motto is “do great things”. In order to be able to do that, you need the right opportunities. Something that’s been valuable to me is the flexibility of my teams — if sometimes you need to bring your kid to work, for example, that should be okay. The most important thing is that you’re able to come to work and be true to yourself — find ways to thrive at work, but don’t sacrifice who you are.
As Nestlé works towards greater gender balance across all our teams, we’ll need to maintain focus on manufacturing facilities and engineering roles. Through managers like Kathryn, Rafa, and Amy, and teams like our Women in Engineering Networks, new ways of working are emerging and the company is moving forward.
More to Explore: