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Women and Diversity • Helen Petrauskas

Prepared for Helen Petraustas, Exec. V.P., Environmental Affairs
Delivered at National Centre for Women, Melbourne, Australia

Good morning.

It’s a great honor to speak to this group, and to play a small part in this Woman of the Year recognition.

Wendy Perkins, our Public Relations Manager at Ford of Australia, told me I’m supposed to start with a little story for two reasons, first to lighten us all up. Second, in case someone laughs later in the serious part of my talk I can just assume that person was just late getting the punch line.

So my story is about a man lying in the street and a woman about to help him, when someone from the crowd rushed in and said, “Out of the way Lady. I’ve been trained in first aid.”

“Good,” the woman said, “Do you remember the lessons?” Yes. “Then when you get to the part about calling a doctor, I’m right here.”

I like that story because it not only points out a fallacious assumption about women in non-traditional roles, but also it’s entirely in character for men to assume the role of authority.

Well, right off, I’ve got to admit I’m a traditional woman in that I’m not terribly comfortable as an authority figure... as someone who gets up and acts as if I know what you should do and tells you how to do it.

That role puts me one up... suggests talking down... a hierarchy that men are far more accustomed too.

I’m more comfortable removing the barriers of rank and authority, and bringing people together. Very traditional, but that’s who I am.

In that respect, I assume I’m rather a traditional woman manager.

I read a paper recently by Judy Rosener, a professor of business management at the University of California, who has studied women in authority roles for 20 years, and concluded, and I quote:

“Women tend to share power, encourage participation, boost others’ sense of self worth. Women believe their subordinates perform best when they feel good about themselves, and equal to the challenges asked of them.”

My point is that as someone once told me, “life is a come-as-you-are party.” As women in non-traditional roles, we are still women. We bring our own uniqueness, our own special character to even the most non-traditional careers.

At Ford, we have a saying that “Diversity is our strength.”

When we put a team together to work on a problem, the more diverse the backgrounds of the each member -- genders, races, nationalities, cultural and subculture differences -- the more unique perspectives we can bring to a problem, and the more creative and innovative the answer will be.

At Ford, we say “diversity is our strength.” And sometimes we actually live up to that ideal.

At least, as a corporate policy, in the 30 countries and six continents where we do business, we are committed to the concept of diversity being a fundamental strength.

I’m personally pleased with the fact that Ford recently has been honored with the Alliance Global Corporate Leadership Award from the Women’s Economic Alliance Foundation... Honored for Ford’s leadership in providing opportunities for women and minorities in higher and higher level positions.

Today, I’d like to tell you about some of the women in Ford who occupy non-traditional jobs. I believe these woman have some special messages for all of us.

The first lady is Anne Stevens.

Anne wasn’t satisfied with the nursing school she was enrolled in after high school, so she changed colleges and became a mechanical engineer.

An American mother of two, Anne’s daughter also became an engineer.

Anne has worked her way up in Ford, and is now plant manager of Ford’s Enfield Components operations near London, England. In that position, Anne is in charge of 1,000 production people.

What advice does she have for women entering non-traditional fields?

Anne says, “Mostly, as an outsider, the onus is on you to find how you can fit in. You’re the one who wants to be an insider, so you’re the one who has to find the best way to make a significant contribution.”

That not only applies to gender, but to every other aspect of fitting in. For example, Anne points out that as an American taking responsibility for running a manufacturing plant in England, she had the experience of being an outsider because of her nationality, and her American cultural background.

To Anne, finding your fit is all part of taking a positive attitude. She says, “I don’t go into a position looking for obstacles, and I don’t find them. If you are competent, fair and respectful of others, people will respect you.”

Anne expects positive things to happen, and they do.

Since there are so few professional women in Britain, for example, the British men she works with went out of their way to introduce her to other women in leadership positions.

Anne says, “That they even thought to do it shows a sensitivity that men sometimes aren’t given credit for having.”

Anne credits her mother for the one thing that has served her best. Anne says, “Mother taught me that people sense how you feel about yourself and treat you accordingly.”

Now, I’d like to introduce you to Loretta Burrell.

Loretta is an African-American woman who with only a high school diploma, and with four children, was working in a laundry shop when she got a job on the assembly line at the Ford Rouge Stamping Plant.

When she got involved as a union worker in the plant, her husband, whom she describes as a traditional “no help” guy, told her that if she couldn’t do it all and take care of the kids, too, she should quit her Ford job.

Loretta didn’t quit. In fact, she took on more and more union responsibility. Then she ran for the office of plant union chairman and was defeated.

Still Loretta didn’t quit. She started working 12 hour days, so she could help people on both day and evening shifts. And three years later, she ran for office again, and that time was elected chairman by a landslide.

Loretta has been re-elected twice since then, giving her the most longevity as union chairman of anyone in the plant’s history -- male or female.

Why has Loretta been successful?

“I’m doing what I am,” she says. “I’ve always had the shoulder everyone looks for to cry on. I not only care, I get mad, and I speak up for them. I won’t tolerate anybody being stepped on. It’s just who I am.”

In union politics, Loretta also came to realize that her traditional feminine care giver tendencies worked in her favor. Loretta said:

“I always remember birthdays, and wish everyone a special day on holidays, and special occasions. The men I ran against just never thought to do things like that. And when they did say it, you just knew they didn’t mean it. I honesty care about people, and they come to know and appreciate that. ”

Loretta is as passionate about her plant’s quality products as she is about representing her union people. Loretta says:

“This plant almost got closed down once because it was old, and quality wasn’t so good. It made all of us realize that the company’s success was our security.”

Working with the Ford management team, Loretta and her union leaders made quality their number one priority.

“Well,” she says, “safety is always number one in a plant, but we put quality right up their with safety as our top concern.”

Since then, the Ford Rouge Stamping Plant earned a Q1 rating, ranking it among the top plants. And then the plant was recognized as the “best in class” of any plant in Ford’s North American stamping operations.

Ford responded, and has invested more than $ 40 million to modernize the plant and make it even more competitive.

Loretta says, “I ask myself what I can do to make this a better place to work, and make our products better for our customers. Of course, sometimes I do have to fight with management, to remind them of what Ford says they stand for. They don’t always like me, but they respect me when I’m right.”

Recently, officials of the United Auto Workers in Detroit recognized Loretta Burrell’s leadership qualities, and they offered her an important position at union headquarters.

“I thought about it,” Loretta says. “But at headquarters, you don’t get to work closely with people, and get the satisfaction of helping them first hand. I wouldn’t like that, so I turned the job down.”

When we asked Loretta to give advice for women in non-traditional careers, she said:

“Tell them the door is open. Not all the way open, but its open enough to get in. If you really feel you can make a difference... not a selfish difference... but make things better for everyone... I’d say you can do it.”

The third woman I’d like to tell you about is a young working mother.

O.K., she’s 34 years old, but from where I’m standing that’s really young.

Lisa Farnin has a degree in industrial engineering and works as an information systems engineer at Ford Electronics’ North Penn Plant in Pennsylvania.

As an engineer, Lisa is someone who does a lot of planning before she acts. For example, she subscribed to Working Mother Magazine when a family was just in the distant planning stage.

When Lisa’s daughter Rachel was born, she found herself in the difficult situation of balancing a career with formulas, diapers, and colic. Lisa felt that the plant she worked at hadn’t made any provisions for working mothers, so she set out to do something about it.

Lisa formed a committee with six other women, and for two years she gave up her lunch hours and after-hours time to come up with improvements.

Those improvements included a child care resources and referral service, a company information line to connect mothers with sitters, a proposal to have more flexible working hours, and company recognition that taking care of a sick child or going to the doctor constituted legitimate personal time off.

Lisa says, “I presented our case to the plant manager and emphasized that the stress that working mothers experience can influence the quality of their work. So it really is in Ford’s best interest to improve the situation.” The plant manager agreed.

Working Mother Magazine was so impressed by her effort, that she was named Working Mother of the Year in 1996.

And as only can happen in the media-mad U.S., she became big news.

National television shows invited her to appear, newspapers interviewed her, and President Bill Clinton asked her to be a member of a panel on working mothers.

Last time I talked to Lisa, in fact, she just returned from The White House, where she had lunch with Hillary Clinton.

Lisa said, “I’m flattered by all attention, but its not really about me. And it’s not about working mothers. It’s about the challenges working families face. All of the attention brings attention to the issues that have to be addressed.”

And Lisa now has more of a stake in the issue, as on Christmas day, she gave birth to a son, Christopher. Lisa has taken a two-month maternity leave from Ford, and while she’s at home, she’s also finishing up a Master’s Degree in Computer Sciences.

Lisa’s advice to women entering non-traditional careers?

“Look for role models,” Lisa says. “I’m constantly looking for women who have been there. I want to know how they did it, not just their successes but their failures and frustrations. I’ve learned scads from networking.”

From what Lisa said, I know she would applaud Australia’s National Women’s Centre, and the awards that not only give outstanding women recognition, but provide role models for all to benefit from.

And I agree. This organization clearly gives you a network, and role models. I only wish there had been such a group in Detroit when I was exploring my career directions.

But I don’t want to leave Lisa Farnin’s example without pointing out that she has one tremendous advantages in having a supportive, involved husband.

Paul Farnin is definitely, as my daughter would say, “one of the sensitive, new-age kind of guys.”

Paul shares household and parenting chores, including splitting time-off from work with Lisa when one of them needs to be home or to take Rachel to the doctor.

Paul appreciated Lisa so much, in fact, that he was the one who wrote a long letter nominating Lisa for “Working Mother of the Year.”

Which brings me to the one bit of advice I’d like to suggest from my own career experience. That is, you can’t do it alone.

There is no such thing as a self-make man or woman.

As a Ford Chairman, Don Peterson, was fond of saying, “If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know she didn’t get up there all by herself.”

All of us have gotten where we are with a lot of support and mentoring from a lot of people along the way.

In my case, there was a Detroit Council woman, Mary Beck, who sponsored my family to come to America when my native Ukraine fell to communism.

There was a medical doctor, Saul Meyers, whom I worked for after school. Dr. Meyers taught me that “time passes whether you learn or not, so you might as well learn.”

There was my husband Ray who was there for me when I decided to change careers, from a chemist to a corporate lawer, a very long step.

And at Ford I have had many mentors, men and women, whose names you wouldn’t recognize, but whose mentoring meant everything to me along the way.

It is to these special people, these friends, or as you say in Australia, these “mates,” who made the difference.

I’d like to leave you with a thought from a woman who overcame a great number of obstacles. Her name is Helen Keller, and in reflecting on her success, Helen said, and I quote:

“It is my friends who have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges.”

Thank you.

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