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Posted on Monday, Mar 5, 2018
With more than 15 years of experience in both technical and managerial roles in the traditionally male-dominated Rubber Products Manufacturing industry, Cindy Cookson has held multiple management positions and is now the Director of Product Line Management at Gates Corporation, a leading manufacturer of application-specific fluid power and power transmission solutions.
What was your progression into your leadership role?
I have had a solid number of promotions as well as a few lateral moves that expanded my skill set and allowed me to branch into different functional groups. My current role really leverages my background in manufacturing, my education in engineering and my commercial experience driving company strategy for a product line.
Did you always aspire to reach a leadership role in your career?
Becoming a leader wasn’t necessarily a deliberate decision, it’s just who I am! I grew up with a number of role models that were natural leaders, both male and female, and I’m motivated through continuing to find challenges and problem solving, so I suppose a leadership role has simply been a natural part of my career progression.
Have you encountered any gender-specific challenges or obstacles in your career?
I suspect that anyone who garnered a leadership role has had a “#MeToo” moment in their career whether centred around gender, age, educational background, race or family status. But for me, whenever I’ve encountered one of these roadblocks, it never meant quitting and going home. It was likely those moments that drove me to find a different way to accomplish my objectives and become the tenacious leader that I’ve become today.
How can women help women? Can you share any success stories?
Leading by example and being a mentor to others is, by far, the best way women can inspire each other. Early in my career, I had a female manager that looked out for me and worked hard to ensure I received the right exposure to be considered for opportunities. I’m now paying that back by participating in our mentorship program and by actively seeking out high-potential teammates to work on projects that will help them grow their careers.
Last year more than a third of respondents said that their organization did not have formal gender diversity programs in place and a third said they weren’t sure. Do you think formal gender diversity programs are important? Why or why not?
Diversity programs, in general, are very important. We just wrapped up a Diversity and Inclusion training during our “Leadership Week”, which included outside training on the importance of acknowledging our biases and dealing with them. It’s really powerful for a company to be able to say, “we have these biases, and this is how we are going to deal with them”. Inclusive policies and inclusive business practices are good for everyone.
What initiatives exist in your company? What do you think are the most effective?
We actually have a number of initiatives that I am proud of at Gates. Like I mentioned, we just wrapped up a Diversity and Inclusion training, which is an outside training on the importance of acknowledging and overlooking our biases. We also have “WIAL”, which stands for Women in Action Leadership. WIAL is an online community that offers training and networking for women in a digital platform that can fit into anyone’s schedules but still offers that networking aspect in a low-stress environment. GROW, which is “Gates Realizing Opportunities Worldwide”, is another program that isn’t specific to any diversity group and is really meant to create a culture where everyone can be authentic. The most effective programs are those that have a way to benefit everyone, not just one diversity group.
According to our survey, women are 35% more likely to say they are dissatisfied with their career level. Do you think woman have the same career opportunities as men in your sector? Why or why not?
I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but generally in our industry – industrial rubber products, and also in the end markets where our products are sold – Construction, Agriculture, O&G, and Manufacturing - I don’t see a lot of co-workers that look like me. I don’t see a lot of females, which visually could mean females don’t have the same opportunities as men, but this industry also just doesn’t draw the attention of many women. It could be less about the lack of career opportunities and more about the fact that this industry appeals to more men than women.
The second biggest reason, after career progression, that women say they left their last employer is because of company culture. What cultural changes or initiatives can employers make to better retain their female workforce? What have you seen work during your career?
I think that having gender-equitable policies are good policies for everyone, not just females. By having a culture of respect for all employees, which I’m proud to have here at Gates, people end up staying for a long time and grow into a career rather than just being here for a job.
How can employers attract women, and keep them in the pipeline through the hiring process – from job ad to offer? Are there common mistakes you see, or best practices you’d like more companies to embrace?
At Gates, part of our mission statement is that we “Drive Endless Possibilities for Our Customers”. That really resonates with me, because I feel like we can also “Drive Endless Possibilities” for our employees as well. We have so many possibilities for our employees to grow with Gates. This is a place where a career can be built. We are not just hiring for a job, but hiring for a career. That is a culture that is attractive and can benefit anyone.
At Gates, we do not just talk the talk, which I think is really important. We are taking action to build a culture of diversity and inclusion, not just gender-specific, but other diversity categories as well. Gates really does have an appreciation for diversity of thought and embraces unique perspectives in order to enable us to grow as people and as a company.
What is your advice for female professionals who are in, or are looking to work in, a management or leadership role?
Be Authentic: Honor yourself and you’ll find a place in which you can thrive. Don’t just do something to follow a rule. Rather, make decisions in line with your values to follow your heart and your personal integrity
Be Tenacious: Don’t settle. Be aggressive in pursuing your goals and find different ways to achieve your objectives and solve problems.
Be Curious: I think curiosity is a trait of many great leaders - curious about why things are the way they are and curious about how to make things better. Be curious about how to grow and not just settle for the status quo.
Speak up: Make your voice heard. If you don’t feel like you’re being heard, then try a different way to communicate because you can’t just let your work stand on its own. You have to promote yourself and promote your work in order to make sure that your voice is heard.
Women in leadership: Read Lendlease's Jenell Schroeder's thoughts on her construction career and how employers can retain and progress women through the ranks.