The Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and food expo is the largest food ingredient and technology conference in the United States. This year’s event, IFT18: A Matter of Science + Food, welcomed over 20,000 science of food professionals to Chicago, with participants hailing from industry, academia, and government. All were eager to listen to the most updated research and see the newest technologies from food, technology, packaging, processing, and market research companies.
Amidst the excitement and thrill of rushing to sessions, seeing old friends and making new ones, was a session that was new to IFT—one aimed specifically at women.
“Women: Be Your Own Champion.” A title so simple, yet so powerful. A title that elicits pensive thoughts, excitement and a slight fear all at once. The four women selected for the panel are all pillars of the food science community: Cindy Stewart, then-current IFT president and an innovation leader at DuPont Nutrition and Health. Michele Perchonok, the incoming IFT president, recently retired from NASA Johnson Space Center where she was the manager of the Human Research Program Science Management Office. Pam Coleman, IFT President-Elect Designate and President of Biofortis. And Soo-Yeun Lee, a highly acclaimed professor from the University of Illinois with too many awards to list.
As moderator of the session, I had the advantage of watching an audience of mostly women hurriedly fill the seats in what seemed like seconds. I listened as their low murmurs rose incrementally to somehow signal to all of those just passing by that something was about to happen, which only fed the growing “standing room only” crowd.
Once the session began, it was filled with excitement, laughter, seriousness, and warmth. It felt as if you were listening to an old friend—not just any old friend, but the one who is going to tell you like it is.
Without malice, these women talked about past experiences of doing things in order to be “taken seriously,” such as drinking whiskey, watching sports, and dressing in suits. They shared stories of how they’d elbowed their way into the “all boys” clubs. Not with brute force, but with the simple question of “Why?” As in, “Why can’t I be involved in the strategic meetings?” or “Why can’t I be invited to beers and wings on Wednesdays?”
As I and so many women nodded in agreement, I was quickly overcome by the bittersweet realization that young women still face many of these issues today. Yet the women on the panel didn’t dwell too much on the past. Instead, the mission they so kindly and graciously accepted was to start to build a community for the future, one that will give women the ability to set their own path without fear.
Although many words of wisdom were spoken in this 45-minute session, four main points emerged:
- Mentorship: Mentors are individuals who help guide you through your career. This person is a confidant and a trusted advisor. Each woman should have someone to discuss career opportunities and career transitions, and who may even help them to identify strengths and weaknesses.
- Sponsorship: Sponsors are individuals within a company or organization who will be your advocate. In times where women need to be more visible, this person will enhance your visibility within the organization. They help you to build relationships and can show why you are an asset to the company.
- Taking Risks: Society has inadvertently conditioned women to play it safe. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries and to push your limits. You may not always fail and, if you do, you can still learn from it and move on.
- Don’t be a “good girl”: How often have we been told to keep your head down, don’t cause any trouble and do a good job. These women weren’t asking us to be troublemakers. They are letting us know it’s OK to be assertive sometimes and, ultimately, to unleash your inner Wonder Woman.
At the end of the session, the audience moved from being fidgety to being enthralled. They enthusiastically asked a series of questions—the most impressive of which, surprisingly, came from one of the few gentlemen in the audience. His question, though simple, showed we had made some progress: “What can I, as a man, do to help?”
There is no easy road in your career path. You have to constantly push your limits, and you have to believe in yourself more than someone believing in you.
It is refreshing to see women entering this era who are building a community; speaking out about their experiences; and sharing their trials, tribulations and successes in hopes of fostering a better, enhanced and even faster experience for the next generation. It makes me optimistic for the future of our profession, and for the incredible women who will help lead it.