March 26, 2021
Caterpillar has long been a frontrunner in promoting diversity. We believe that by leveraging diverse experiences, backgrounds and cultures in an inclusive environment, we enable individuals to achieve their fullest potential while driving business success.
A strong pipeline of female and diverse leaders expands our company’s capabilities and results in increased innovation and idea sharing about how to solve today’s complex business challenges. Here are a few of the women who helped build our company into what it is today.
Four young girls dubbed, “Bloomer Girls,” are shown here operating a Holt combine in 1885.
In 1885, Orra and Lillian Dowell, Gertie Sawyer, and Nellie Packwood became the first documented female operators of Holt products. Indeed, women operators would have been rare in that day. According to Lee Fosburgh, Caterpillar historian and manager of Caterpillar Heritage Services, the girls were featured on Holt advertising flyers, operating a Holt combine.
According to company documents, in 1950, Orra Dowell recalled, “In 1895 Jim Decker from Holt came to our ranch with a combine harvester from Stockton. He operated it around the county on a rental basis with my father driving the horses. Decker noticed how easily we Dowell girls handled horses and decided it would be a good demonstration for farmers to see an all-girl harvester crew operate his machine. A lot of farmers of that day hesitated buying these machines, thinking them too hazardous to operate. Father gave his consent, and mama made four pairs of bloomers from black calico for my sister and me and two neighbor girls – Gertie Sawyer and Nellie Packwood. All four of us knew horses and machinery. We went out the next morning, took over the big machine and operated it until noon. No trouble at all.”
Lois Garton was Caterpillar’s first woman chemist.
Lois Garton became Caterpillar’s first woman chemist after receiving a chemistry degree from the University of Oklahoma. Lois worked in R&D in East Peoria, Illinois, and later at the Tech Center in Mossville, Illinois. Lois was responsible for developing substitutes for materials made scarce due to the war.
Lois was known for her sense of humor. She told coworkers that she had developed a new test to verify the authenticity of diamonds – it seems that a diamond pressed against dry ice will emit a unique sound. Lois told all the department’s brides-to-be to bring their new diamonds in for testing!
Sherril West was Caterpillar’s first female vice president.
Sherril West joined Caterpillar in 1974 as a test and evaluation technician, after which she worked in a variety of technical and engineering positions before serving in various leadership positions. Sherril’s 30-year Caterpillar career culminated as vice president of the company’s Technical Services Division and chief technology officer.
In 1977, Sherril was named one of ten promising executives by Forbes magazine. The executives were chosen based on dedication, leadership and achievements in their chosen fields.
“Sherril is a unique combination of technical knowledge and expertise, exhibits a warm and sincere interest in her people and their development, and demonstrates a feel and vision for the business that makes her one of Caterpillar’s most admired and effective leaders,” former Caterpillar Chairman Donald Fites said.
Elda Howe joined Caterpillar’s two-year machine shop training program in the late 1960’s.
Elda Howe joined Caterpillar in 1967, working on a radial drill and a milling machine. Elda’s on-the-job performance prompted her supervisor to encourage her to apply for a two-year machine shop training program. Elda said, “I see no reason why a woman can’t do just as well as men.” She joined the program and graduated at the top of her class in May 1970.
Elda’s instructor observed, “Nobody paid a lot of attention to the fact that there was a woman in class. She’s another trainee and, like the men, is here to learn.”
Caterpillar’s first civil engineer, Patsy Miller’s biography featured in a company publication circa 1951.
Patsy Miller was a University of Illinois graduate and the first woman to become a Caterpillar civil engineer in the early 1950’s. Patsy was responsible for work on interior structures of Caterpillar company across the globe. In her spare time, Patsy bred champion show dogs.
The Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) partners with the business for sustainable attraction, development, and retention of the female workforce. WIN builds on the strength of women and men to create empowered connections across Caterpillar, driving personal and professional growth and delivering business impact. WIN was founded in 2006. Today, with over 5,600 members worldwide, they continue their focus on inclusion and diversity to deliver business impact through initiatives that support our business partners, enabling Caterpillar to best represent the customers, dealers, suppliers, and communities in which we do business.