Feature article

Caterpillar’s Tana Utley shares how women can succeed in manufacturing

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Senior Editor, Automation World
Reflecting on her career as an engineer and vice president, Utley offered seven steps that women in manufacturing can take to succeed in this business.

As the vice president of the large power systems division at Caterpillar, a maker of industrial equipment and engines, Tana Utley knows a thing or two about being a woman—and a leader—in the male-dominated industry of manufacturing and heavy equipment. She started her career at Caterpillar 31 years ago as a young engineer and built a reputation for herself as someone who gets the job done, as she’s successfully worked to bring diesel engine emissions down dramatically.

She’s also a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a runner and now a role model to the 500 plus women (and men) who attended the Packaging & Processing Women’s Leadership Network (PPWLN) breakfast at PACK EXPO in Las Vegas this week, where Utley gave the keynote speech. The breakfast was part of PPWLN's ongoing efforts to address the gender gap in the manufacturing workforce by attracting, developing, retaining and advancing women in packaging and processing. And Utley’s presentation, titled “Dancing on the Glass Ceiling,” highlighted her own experiences and strategies for success, which include giving back.

During her presentation, Utley offered attendees a peek into her personal life. Over the weekend, for example, she took care of the dog walks, ran errands, cut down tree limbs in the yard and prepared family meals. Oh, she also had to balance a big corporate budget before getting on a plane Monday morning to fly to Las Vegas.

“After thirty-one years at a company, even at the pinnacle of my career, I am dancing backwards in my heels, just like you are,” Utley said, referencing the theme of her talk, which was a nod to Ginger Rogers. “I’m doing the same thing a man does every day, and then some.”

Why? Because she feels that she’s making a difference. “I’m on a good mission. And you are, too,” Utley said. “I enjoy being a leader at a company and being the kind of vice president people want to work for. I want to leave a legacy for the people at Caterpillar, as we are building a better world.”

She also stressed that women must be on a mission in their personal lives, as well, in order to create an environment in which the younger generation appreciates that a good job in manufacturing can create tremendous value in life. Earning a nice paycheck for your family means that your children lead a better life through education, healthcare and, yes, even nice vacations. But that must be communicated and portrayed to the younger generation, she said. “Many of us talk about how under represented we are in STEM. And the idea of education is to get a better job. And STEM jobs are great!”

Her main message to the audience was that together we need to do a better job of representing the opportunities in engineering, manufacturing and packaging and processing. And, as individuals, we need to take the steps to further our personal mission, whatever that may be.

To do that, Utley offered seven “dance steps” women can learn in order to dance on their own glass ceiling:

1.) Remember you are always being watched and judged. We are always judging others. It’s human nature. So always make an attempt to be your best self. You are always on.

2.) Know the Art of War. The book by Sun Tzu provides good lessons, the first of which is to know yourself. Know what your skills, capabilities and aspirations are. That includes knowing your feminine strengths. “Sometimes we try to downplay this in a male dominated [environment], but women are better listeners and can read a room better,” Utley said. And when setting aspirations, think about the trade-offs you are willing to make. “Anyone who says you can have it all is wrong,” she said. So, you will have to make tradeoffs in your career. For Utley, she advanced her career while her husband worked part-time to take care of their daughter. She missed many of her daughter’s school activities, “but it was a sacrifice I made and I don’t regret it because it was right for me. I was making a difference at work and I knew my daughter was cared for. But only you know what is right for you.”

3.) Know your workplace. Try to get a pulse on the company and know what the expectations are. “Be attune to what the company is trying to do and try to be part of the solution,” she said. Also, know your industry and seek out opportunities to help you and the company win. It is combining the right nexus of your strengths and what the company needs, she said. “To get on a hot project, volunteer for the not-so-hot projects. Always be the employee with your hand in the air.”

4.) Know this simple math equation: Trust = Competence x Intimacy. If you want the big assignments at work you need the trust of the boss. You need competence and intimacy, which is the comfort factor that others have when they are working with you. This can be challenging for women, Utley said, especially if men are uncomfortable working with them. You know when someone is uncomfortable with you through their body language. “I try to make my body language visibly relaxed, which helps others to relax.”

5.) Get the personal stuff right. Focusing only on work is one dimensional and limiting. “Look at leaders who get the personal stuff right.” For example, exercise to maintain physical health which helps with the stamina and energy needed to travel. And maintain mental health by having friendships, which is also an important part of life.

6.) Continuously evolve and experiment on both the personal and professional side. Be ready to continuously evolve and experiment. If you are in a situation where you are not sure you can take it anymore, think of the options we have in today’s workforce, such as job sharing and flexible scheduling. “Employers are willing to work with you because they’ve put a lot of investment in you,” Utley said.

7.) Be a role model and pay it forward. To effectively get more women into STEM you have to be inspired. “For me, my daughter inspires me to give back. And I look at my granddaughters who are two and three years-old, and I want them to grow up in a world where they feel they can do anything.” Find your own inspiration, at home and in the workplace, and help others to come behind you, she said.

Utley closed by asking everyone to think about what their personal mission is. What does your glass ceiling look like and how does it feel to dance there? “It is why you work outside the home and why you work in this field.”

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