Can Iowa manufacturers attract more women employees?

Ingredion's first female Cedar Rapids plant manager has a focus on engaged employees

Roxie Simon, plant manager, talks with Robert Pitcher, product handler, as a machine fills bags with cornstarch behind t
Roxie Simon, plant manager, talks with Robert Pitcher, product handler, as a machine fills bags with cornstarch behind them at Ingredion in Cedar Rapids on Monday, July 2, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Each day, Plant Manager Roxie Simon and her leadership team will walk around the network of buildings, tubes and silos that make up Ingredion’s Cedar Rapids facility to check on employees.

They’ll ask about their work, what’s going well and what could be improved.

“If we truly have an open-door policy, it’s not just sitting and waiting for people to come to us, we have to meet people where they’re at,” Simon said. “That’s why we’re getting out on the floor with this intention of, ‘What do you want to talk about? We’re here.’”

These “listening tours,” as Simon called them, are meant to help the plant create “a culture of inclusion and engagement.” In turn, Simon and her team hope that culture makes the plant “the manufacturer of choice” in Cedar Rapids, aiding recruitment and retention of employees — and adding more women to their ranks.

If the plant can create that culture and express that to their hiring base, the thinking goes, a greater diversity of talented candidates will come to the table for an interview.

“The more we can educate people and get them to the table to interview, I think that’s going to help our ability in manufacturing to hire the best talent. And I do believe that if we can get more women to the table to interview, I think that we will hire more women,” Simon said.


Simon, 38, is the first female plant manager at the Ingredion facility in its 124-year history. In that role, she finds herself in rare company not only as a woman in leadership with a manufacturer, but as a woman in the industry.

Even though women make up 48 percent of Iowa’s workforce, they are less than 28 percent of those employed in the state’s manufacturing industry, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. That’s slightly less than the percentage of women employed in the industry across the United States.


At the same time, women tend to make less than their male counterparts in manufacturing. In Iowa, median annual earnings for men in manufacturing falls around $57,600, while for women it is about $41,700.

Industry members said that while women may avoid entering manufacturing because they think it’s male-dominated, the bigger issue is the “dirty, dark and dangerous” stigma that has plagued manufacturers for years.

“Whether they are men or women, the younger generation is not attracted to manufacturing as they are other industries,” said Karin Peterson, vice president of human resources for Pella Corp., a window and door maker in Pella.

Dan Martin, Industrial Technologies Dean at Kirkwood Community College, said the school has seen more women enroll its in manufacturing-based classes, but would like to see even more.

“One of the things that I try to tell high school groups and middle school groups that come through on tours is that this is an equal opportunity world,” Martin said. “Manufacturing used to be based upon brawn back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Now it’s based on brains.”

Allison Grealis, president and founder of Women in Manufacturing, said there’s a lack of understanding of how women can fit within manufacturing, and then — if they do find a position — companies often don’t have programs in place to help advance those women into leadership roles.

“Sharing and highlighting these outstanding and very successful women in manufacturing can help inspire and educate a lot of younger women or people making career decisions about, ‘Wow, that might be something that I want to do,’” said Grealis, whose Independence, Ohio-based organization promotes women in the industry.

Peterson also pointed to a lack of child care in Iowa and the rigidity of manufacturing schedules as possible deterrents for women interested in the field.


“Whether we like it or not, women are still the primary — not in every case — but women carry a pretty big load of child care. More and more, couples are sharing that, but it’s those years that women feel the most pressure between work and home,” she said.


Iowa companies, including manufacturers, long have said they’re having a difficult time filling open jobs. Iowa’s 2.7 percent unemployment rate — the lowest its been in 17 years — has made finding applicants even harder.

“That is exacerbated by the graying of the workforce and people who are retiring out, the baby boomers. There’s a little bit of a perfect storm happening for the employers,” Martin said.

As manufacturers struggle and compete with each other to find talent and the nation’s workforce becomes more diverse, they’ll need to give themselves the ability to recruit from all walks of life to stay relevant, industry members said.

“I definitely see improvement and I see companies having the right mind-set to realize that to be successful and to fill all of these open positions that so many are struggling to fill that you can’t just look at one gender, that you have to look at the entire population, and whether they be female or a different ethnicity, that they need to look at a diverse pool of candidates to fill these positions,” Grealis said.

“They have to rethink how they’re marketing, they may have to rethink their company culture to be inclusive to this whole new population that they’re trying to attract.”


Ingredion acquired the Cedar Rapids plant when it bought ingredients company Penford Corp. in 2015.

The plant itself sits on about 30 acres in southwest Cedar Rapids and has more than 200 employees. It processes about 87,000 bushels of corn a day into starch and ethanol.


Simon started there in July 2017. She is now one of four female plant managers Ingredion has at its 11 U.S. locations, spokeswoman Becca Hary said. Just three years ago, that number was zero.

Hary said the company’s North American leadership team started a push four years ago to enhance its talent pool.

“The pipeline of female candidates wasn’t strong and there was a need to attract and develop top talent more aggressively,” she said in an email.

Simon said that work and the fact that when she was hired, Ingredion’s CEO was a woman, gave her confidence in the business.

“Just seeing that and having a role model at that level, said to me, ‘Wow, this company really values that and they’re not afraid of the stigma and (will) put whoever is the most talented in that role, which just happened to be at that time a female,’” Simon recalled.

At the time, Ilene Gordon was chief executive of Ingredion, a Fortune 500 company. Only 24 companies on the 2018 Fortune 500 list had female CEOs, down from 32 in 2017, the business magazine reported.

Ingredion announced in September 2017 that James Zallie would take over as its president and CEO at the start of 2018, with Gordon becoming executive chairwoman until she retires July 31.

Now, Simon said the Cedar Rapids plant plan to launch a Women of Ingredion Network group — an employee resource group for men and women to discuss and work through barriers that might exist at the plant.


“There are some unique challenges or factors with being a woman in this kind of environment. I think it’s important and we shouldn’t shy away from a forum where we can talk openly about that,” Simon said.

Product handler Renae Witham has worked at the plant for 10 years and before that was employed at Cryovac’s now-closed Cedar Rapids plant. She said she enjoys her job because it helps pay the bills as a single-mother, it’s an opportunity not to work behind a desk and Ingredion “always allowed us an opportunity to go somewhere.”

“Even though it’s a union plant, you had opportunities to advance up,” Witham, 51, said.

Witham said she is one of the few women at the plant and said there are members of an “old guard.”

“They are pretty set in their ways that this is a way we’ve done it, this is the way that it should be and it doesn’t involve you being here. But we’re making progress,” she said.

Regardless, Witham said she enjoys her work and called Ingredion “a good place to work.” She said she was also encouraged by a meeting the plant had in May that focused exclusively on respect in the workplace.

“It was pretty empowering for us (to hear), ‘Hey, you can stand up for yourself, you can do this job. And if they stand in your way, there’s someone that’s going to stand beside you,’” she said.


Pella Corp.’s Peterson said manufacturing companies need to be intentional with how they go about recruiting more women and diverse employees.


“Show that you are developing women, show that you’re progressing women. We have to be really intentional about this,” she said.

Manufacturers also can’t just hire more women to simply fill a quota, Grealis said.

“It’s not just about hitting that diversity, but it’s also about inclusion — once I achieve a population that’s more diverse, how am I going to support an inclusive culture that those people want to stay at the organization?” Grealis said.

At the turn of the century, Pella saw census data that showed the nation’s workforce becoming more diverse, Peterson said. In addition, women tend to be important decision-makers when it comes to ordering windows and doors and Pella “felt we needed more women in our business to get that diversity of thought,” she said.

“We have to open ourselves up to that,” Peterson said.

“It’s not easy as a manufacturer because it does tend to be a man’s world. The more you bring women into the organization, the more you’ll start getting that diversity of thought and creating an environment that will be conducive to women.”

About a third of Pella’s employees now are female and in the past 14 years, female leadership at the company has grown by 11 percent, Peterson noted.

Women in manufacturing ranked attractive pay, challenging and interesting work, and work-life balance as the most important parts of their job, according to a 2017 survey by consulting company Deloitte.

When asked what programs they believed would be the “most impactful” to keep women on board, respondents pointed to mentorship program, flexible work practices and increasing the visibility of key leaders who also can be role models.

“We firmly believe that if a woman can’t see it, they might believe they can’t be it,” Grealis said. “Hiring these outstanding women to say, ‘OK, there are people like (General Motors Co. CEO) Mary Barra and people like (former Xerox CEO) Ursula Burns and these outstanding women leading major manufacturing companies, you can do this, too.’”

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