The buzz leading into the ASA-sanctioned Women in Industry conference in Chicago in late April was high with registrants looking forward to networking and learning opportunities the gathering would provide.

The group’s first event did not disappoint.

“We thought maybe 50 women would join, but we have more than 80 women attendees from 40 ASA member companies who have signed up for this event. It’s amazing,” said First Supply’s Katie Poehling, who co-founded the group with NIBCO’s Ashley Martin. “We had a great response after NetworkASA 2013 (last October in Washington, D.C.) and it was a lot of word of mouth that helped us. But it was really after the story in Supply House Times (Poehling and Martin appeared on the March 2014 cover and were featured in a story by Editor Mike Miazga on the new group) that the number of responses nearly doubled.”

The inaugural meeting kicked off with a dinner at Devon Seafood Grill in downtown Chicago. “These are the things you have to be active and engaged in,” ASA President John Strong (Economy Plumbing Supply) told the dinner audience. “It is through these activities that you build friendships and learn so much. I see nothing but positive growth for this group.”

Laura Kohler, senior vice president of human resources at Kohler, was the opening night’s guest speaker. She presented external research she did for the event and provided some insight into her family’s business. “Comprising half the workforce, women are closing the gap in middle management,” she said. “Our competence and ability to excel has never been more obvious.

“Not only is gender bias and stereotyping holding women back, but women themselves are. We are, by gender, perfectionists and sometimes don’t take risks because of that. Part of my encouragement is you don’t need to be perfect. You have an energy that’s never been seen in this industry before. Take control and take charge of your careers. Make an impact.”

Kohler also stressed the importance of mentorship, retaining women leaders and fostering education. She encouraged everyone in the room to create mentorship opportunities and become mentors themselves.


Work-life balance

The event’s final day started with a networking breakfast sponsored by First Supply. Afterward, attendees walked into a room with tables labeled: “Ready to Retire,” “Single Parent,” “Young and Single,” “Empty-Nester,” “30-Something,” “40-Something,” “50-Something,” “Busy Mom,” and “Married, No Kids.” Guest speaker Debbie Lessin, author of “Life is a Balancing Act,” instructed the women to sit at the table that defines them.

She then gave an interactive presentation regarding the importance of work-life balance and flexibility. A few surveys were done to measure what each person needs to maintain a work/life balance and advice was shared among the groups. The session revealed many attendees put others before themselves and find it hard to tune out work at the end of the day.

“I was excited to meet other women in the industry and share experiences in hopes to learn more,” said Francesca Messina, marketing manager at Peabody Supply. “I am a firm believer that great things can happen when people collaborate and this was definitely a product of much collaboration.”

When it comes to work-life balance, Lessin recommended setting limits and stressed not everything is an emergency.  “You can’t be all things, to all people, all the time,” she said. “You need to work less, play more and work smarter.”


Breaking the glass ceiling

Following a short break, attendees regrouped for a panel discussion featuring NIBCO’s Alice MartinAll-Tex Supply’s Jill Hurd and Supply House Times safety columnist Mary Prahler from First Supply.

Moderator Stephanie Ewing (Watts Water Technologies) asked the panel questions about their advice for younger generations, workforce culture, the biggest changes they see for women in the next five years and advice for women trying to break into this industry.

“First and foremost, decide what is your vision of success,” Prahler stated. “Then establish your credibility and work on your professional reputation. Be the go-to person and follow through. Networking and skill-set development also are important. Do all this and you will have a great career.”

Alice Martin added: “Find a career you’re passionate about. Make friends with the women in your company. Our motto for this conference is ‘Stronger Together.’ I couldn’t agree more.”

“Be yourself,” Hurd emphasized. “Be confident. Define yourself. Don’t think you need to be one of the guys to fit in. Find a middle ground; be gender neutral. Acknowledge that what you bring to the table is valuable.”

Ewing opened the discussion to questions from the audience. Attendees wanted to know good qualities to look for in a mentor; how to create a gender-neutral environment; and suggestions for team-building and networking events.


Looking to the future

The day ended with an ASA Education Foundation-sponsored luncheon, which featured keynote speaker Alexandra Levit, author of “Success for Hire: Simple Strategies to Find and Keep Outstanding Employees.” Levit’s “Women and 21st Century Leadership” presentation provided examples of strong women leaders who overcame obstacles, what women are facing in the workforce today and what the office of the future will look like.

The key, she noted, is finding a vision and being passionate about it. Levit said leadership potential can be increased by knowing one’s own definition of success, having a 12-month plan, taking risks, mentoring and having sponsors, as well as training and retraining. It is a fact, Levit told the audience, that companies are 27% less likely to fail if they have a woman leader.

The conference’s theme “Stronger Together” was defined by the day’s networking, relationship-building and mentoring opportunities that developed during the event.

“In my opinion, the motto encompasses all aspects of being a successful woman in our industry,” said Dawn Ford, customer service supervisor at NIBCO. “Women have the ability to create a force when we support one another.”

Many of the attendees are looking forward to future Women in Industry events. “The conference exceeded all of our expectations,” ASA Executive Vice President Mike Adelizzi said. “ASA is looking forward to the new group assisting our efforts in attracting young women to our industry as well as positively changing our industry’s culture.”

During the opening night dinner event, Adelizzi presented Poehling and Ashley Martin commemorative plaques of the Supply House Times cover they appeared on.

“We had all these spots picked out and they are dressed up in heels in six inches of snow on one of the coldest days of the year,” Adelizzi recalled. “We posed them (outside Chicago’s Adler Planetarium) with the city’s skyline in the background and like troopers they took their coats off and smiled. The things they did to make this event happen were amazing, so ASA and Supply House Times wanted to give them this as a memento.”  

Ashley Martin and Poehling took time during the final day to thank the women on the advisory council who helped put the event together. That group included Ewing, Diane Early (American Pipe and Supply), Rebecca Falish (InSinkErator), Stacey McCaughey (MKS Pipe and Valve) and Melanie Felladore (TORRCO).

Strong also thanked those in attendance, saying, “This industry doesn’t just welcome women, it needs women!”