AWESOME advisory board member Heather Sheehan speaks about her experiences in the transportation industry and combating unconscious gender bias while helping companies meet personnel needs and improve performance. (Photo by Aaron Marsh)
It's hardly a secret: the trucking and broader transportation industry is one of those sectors of society like law enforcement, firefighting and auto repair where it's traditionally been male-dominated. What if you're a woman working in the industry and you encounter someone who just isn't receptive to you because of your gender?
Offering some advice is Heather Sheehan, who's just retired as a vice president but remains a strategic advisor at global manufacturer Danaher Corp. and is an advisory board member of Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management and Education (AWESOME).
"If you as a female do experience bias, remember this: it's about business," Sheehan said, speaking at one of the most audience-interactive sessions at TMW Systems' recent Transforum conference in Orlando, FL.
She spoke of her days finishing up grad school, when she chose to go to work for Union Pacific Railroad — a move some peers questioned, but she saw as an opportunity to climb into the ranks of logistics management. "I had plenty of experiences early in my career where I'd run into a supplier or somebody who worked for me who just was not that interested in working with a female, and it was kind of apparent," Sheehan said.
"It was one of those things where you go, 'This guy really doesn't like that he's dealing with a woman,'" she continued. "But I didn't really care. I looked at it from a business perspective and said to myself, 'What are the business goals we're trying to achieve? We have to work together — what are we trying to get done?'"
So when Sheehan encountered that kind of flak as a woman in her job, she said she focused on job performance and anything that was falling short. "You don't address it in terms of going down that slippery slope of gender bias. It's about the business terms: what are we trying to accomplish, and what are we missing if we're not meeting those goals?" she contended.
Besides taking a sort of professional "high road" in those situations, Sheehan urged women to seek out additional training as they may look to climb into or rise in management — and not to be afraid to get their hands dirty.
"One of the first things I did when I went to work for Union-Pacific Railroad was that I asked for operations training. I was going into marketing, but I spent a week in Searcy, AR, working on the tracks," she recalled.
"I was okay getting out on the railroad and into the rail yards, putting my steel-toed boots on. I helped operate a locomotive, I dug spikes out of railroad ties, I replaced ties, I coupled and decoupled cars. It was a great experience, because it allowed me to really understand what I was marketing for the organization.
"If you're a woman, don't be afraid of that stuff. Go out there and give it a try — you'll be amazed at what you'll learn from it. It's a great experience," she told listeners.