By DAVID ORGEL
Women’s participation in the U.S. workforce has grown dramatically from the 1960s to today, but there are still segments where males dominate the workforce.
When the foodservice distribution industry recently took a look within itself, it did not take long to realize that there was a definite lack of gender diversity within its ranks. The goal became clear – the foodservice distribution industry needed to increase female representation in order to stay competitive serving the restaurant industry, where female ownership and participation is growing.
Driving this mission is IFDA’s Women in Foodservice Distribution Leadership Committee, which was formed in 2013 with a mandate to help meet this objective. The committee’s creation was the result of a challenge by then IFDA chair Tom Zatina, president at McLane Foodservice Distribution, who emphasized the need for more gender diversity. That mandate led to the creation of a Women’s Leadership Roundtable, which soon became a full-fledged IFDA committee that has achieved a number of successes in its five-year existence. The committee is now charting next steps to continue the journey.
“If we don’t take this issue seriously, we’re not acknowledging that half the population can contribute to our companies,” said Mark Allen, IFDA’s president and CEO. “There’s tremendous opportunity. Having a homogenous workforce is not the best way to propel foodservice distribution forward.”
The committee now consists of some 15 female senior leaders from a variety of industry companies. It has strived to put foodservice distribution on the radar of a more diverse pool of job candidates, and has supported the advancement of women within the industry.
Addressing Challenging Problems
The foodservice distribution industry is not unique for having few women throughout its organizational ranks - women are underrepresented in many industries. This gender gap persists despite research that proves increasing the representation of women boosts profitability and competitiveness. A recent white paper
from IFDA's Women’s Leadership Committee, Recruitment and Retention of Women: Enhancing Inclusion and Diversity
, finds that lack of female representation is often not recognized as a problem.
“Labor is a black cloud hanging over the sustainability of this business,” said Suzanne Rajczi, chief executive officer, Ginsberg’s Foods, who was the committee’s founding chair and is still an active member. “We want to make ourselves an industry of choice for candidates.”
When the founding members gathered for the initial meeting, they didn’t quite know what to expect. There wasn’t an existing roadmap for addressing diversity in this industry.
“The first meeting was really eye opening,” recalled Syndee Stiles, vice president of procurement, McLane Foodservice Distribution, who is the committee’s current chair. “I’ve been in the industry many years, and typically when I’d go to meetings, there was maybe one other woman in attendance. To sit in a room and hear stories from so many women who have made this their careers and reached executive levels, that was really inspiring.”
Rajczi pushed for clear committee goals and guidelines right from the start, so that committee activities would become action-oriented.
“I didn’t want to have a committee just for the sake of having a committee,” she said. “I wanted us to know the deliverables, and what success would look like.”
As a result, the initial roadmap spelled out goals, phases and milestones, from outreach and engagement to attracting women to the industry. The charter was equally detailed, addressing subjects ranging from committee composition to budget.
The committee’s influence has been substantial ever since, although it hasn’t necessarily had a high profile. Much of its work has been behind the scenes.
“It’s important to give this committee more exposure with IFDA members, so that its work is recognized,” said Meghan Cieslak, IFDA’s director of communications and marketing, who is an association liaison for the committee.
Getting Women More Engaged at IFDA Events
One of the committee’s most visible successes was increasing the profile of women at IFDA’s Distribution Solutions Conference, the association’s biggest annual event. This included growing the attendance by women and launching the Women’s Leadership Breakfast, a networking event that has doubled in size since its inception.
The committee made a priority of increasing the number of women speakers at the conference.
“The Women’s Committee has been instrumental in pushing for more female speakers, including in the smaller workshops and highly visible and attended general sessions,” said Theresa Kessler, the association’s vice president of Finance and Administration, who is the key staff liaison for the committee.
The results of this effort have been clear-cut, noted Allen.
“For the 2018 conference, we had a four-fold increase in female speakers overall, compared to two years ago,” he said.
This included a highly popular general session speaker at the conference, Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s first full-time female referee.
Producing Research to Press the Diversity Case
An important strategy of the Women’s Committee has been to generate research to make the business case for increased diversity. This included publication of the recruitment and retention white paper.
The paper was produced by the committee in collaboration with Emily M. Moscato, PhD, a professor at Saint Joseph’s University. The research piece addressed the diversity topic on many levels, from pay gaps to gender bias. Moscato said in an interview that the need to diversify the foodservice distribution workforce is becoming more urgent as the industry’s customer base becomes more diverse.
“Women and people of color are opening businesses and restaurants, and we need to connect with them,” she explained. “When your customers are changing, you need to reflect that in your own business.”
Heading up the white paper effort was committee member Sheila Thornburg, vice president nutrition & ancillary services, Ben E. Keith Co. She said the research will help the committee create the next steps.
“We’ll be forming subcommittees that will help create voluntary guidelines for IFDA companies to implement action steps,” she said. These might include promoting flexible work schedules and allowing for more cross-training of women to expose them to more opportunities.
Emphasizing Foodservice Distribution Careers
A related priority of the Women’s Committee was to create a careers section on the IFDA website to attract more diverse talent to foodservice distribution companies.
“It’s vitally important that we educate the public on the great opportunities that our industry offers,” Kessler said “So we built an online section and tried to gear it to a younger generation, showcasing careers in such areas as trucking, warehousing, engineering, culinary, nutritionist and supply chain.”
The site explains what’s involved with each position, and outlines key roles and titles. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the large photo at the top of the careers page speaks volumes. It shows a group of young, diverse people.
Last year IFDA and the committee had an opportunity to celebrate a diversity milestone. The association welcomed the first female competitor since 2014 to its Truck Driving Championship in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. This was a young woman from New England who drives a 48 foot 5 axle truck.
Prioritizing Professional Development
Attracting women to industry careers is an important committee mission, but so is helping to encourage and support professional development for women already in the industry. The committee has spearheaded a Women’s Professional Development Webinar Series for the past two years. This program is a three-part interactive series that builds leadership skills for personal and career development. The sessions are led by leadership decision-making expert Shelley Row, P.E., CSP. Row guides viewers through key success practices and provides pre- and post-webinar materials, including weekly reminder emails focused on the need to practice skills.
IFDA knew it was onto something when the first round of these webinars in 2017 broke the association’s records for registrations.
In some ways the committee is now at a transition point in its activities. Its first phase is evolving into a new chapter.
“In the beginning, we started down the path of providing tools and providing direction,” Stiles said. “Companies are now more aware of great sources of talent, but we need to focus on how you attract and keep them.”
Eyeing Next Steps
Among next steps for the committee are:
- Publishing a research paper based on surveys and focus groups of college students who discussed their opinions on the foodservice distribution industry and what they are seeking in an employer.
- Upgrading the careers website with video clips, and making more use of social media to push out messages.
- Exploring options for industry mentoring programs for women.
Moreover, IFDA is about to add two female leaders to its board of directors, Rajczi and Kristin Coleman, EVP, General Counsel & Chief Compliance Officer of US Foods. These additions will bring female representation to its largest level ever.
The committee’s next steps will build on its considerable success record, Rajczi said.
“We have been successful,” she emphasized. “You can see this with everything from the participation at conferences to the subtle culture shift in how women leaders are embraced in this industry.”
The longer-term goal is to expand the involvement of women in the industry so that one day a big push for diversity may no longer be needed.
“As a woman in the workplace, you want to be hired and promoted for your abilities,” said committee member Diane Chandler, executive vice president, Martin Bros. Distributing Co.
Concluded Thornburg, “That’s when you’ll know you’ve been completely successful, when you don’t need a separate group anymore.”