Women Up, Down, and Around our Company

Here’s an old riddle. If you don't know it, give yourself time to answer before reading on: a father and son are in a horrible car accident that kills the father. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to be operated on, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!” Explain.

Did you guess that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? If not, you’re part of a surprising majority.

Although not a surgeon, more often than not when someone in our industry meets me for the first time, I hear: “you’re not what I expected.” I have laughed about it with colleagues and friends and self-consciously pondered it. Am I expected to be older? More petite? Wear shorter heels and hair? I am still not completely certain what is expected, but to many, it is clear that I don’t meet those expectations as defined by our organizational culture.                

And at the heart of it, I understand. Just like it is so difficult to imagine a surgeon mom, unconscious gender bias is very powerful. Study after study has shown how when presented with the same resume for a man and a woman, most assume the man is more competent. Only by understanding and managing unconscious bias can we really begin to attack the paradigm of what is expected. This necessitates Being Bold and challenging bias.

It has been nearly 40 years since the origination of the concept “Think Leader, Think Male” in Virginia Schein’s article on the characteristics of managers and gender stereotypes (1973).  At the time of Schein’s article, women accounted for about 5% of managers in organizations. Today, women represent 48% of the labor force, however, only 4% of U.S. Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. According to Adam Grant, today U.S. corporate boards have more men named Robert, John, William, or James than women in total.

Looking a bit closer to home: Caterpillar's workforce is composed of 20% women, 19% of our leaders are women, and 8% of department head and key job roles are led by women. Most women and women leaders are heavily concentrated in service support functions areas: the Legal Division (34% women leaders) and Corporate Services (41%), with a much lower concentration in end to end, external facing segments.

It is clear that we need more women up, down, and around the organization in all kinds of roles. We need women at all levels of Caterpillar internally and externally visible. At the end of 2016, a group of Latin American women put together a “Women in the Field” video with the objective of showing that a field role is a career option for women and the pride that we, women in the field, have in being the face of Caterpillar to our customers, dealers, and suppliers. 

Nonetheless, I am certain that what is expected of a leader in our industry won’t shift until the organizational culture does. Historically, our industry has been male dominated and not created with women in mind. Those in leadership roles, traditionally, have been middle-aged white men. Naturally, then, as we have a male created model of how a leader should look, we unconsciously succumb to Think Leader, Think Male. I firmly believe that only when women are no longer in the minority and, we have more women up, down, and around the organization will we alter the unconscious bias of what is expected.  #BeBoldForChange


Jessica Poliner
Aftermarket Solutions Regional Manager – Latin America