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Better Together: A Tale of Industry Sexism

Better Together: A Tale of Industry Sexism

This June, tED magazine took a much closer look at diversity in our association, especially when it comes to women in our industry. The cover story for our June issue “More Than A Seat At The Table” details the stories of a number of women who are NAED members, and what they see as key issues toward solving our diversity problem. You can read that story by clicking here.

We are expanding that look at diversity online. This is not an issue that will be solved quickly, and the ongoing challenge will be something tED magazine plans to document as it evolves.

Below is a story from Ryan Kuchenmeister, Owner of K/E Electric Supply Corp. in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Ryan tells tED magazine that K/E employs what he would call an “above average” number of women. Below, he recounts his experience with his Lighting Specialist team at Lightfair 2018 as what he describes as “eye-opening,” and as the day went on, how he felt for his women co-workers. Ryan says his article describes “how far we have come, and how far we have left to go.”


Women at Lightfair in Full Force, Yet Men Didn’t Take Notice

My name is Ryan Kuchenmeister and I’d like to share my experience at Lightfair in Chicago; a twisted tale of sexism.

I was asked to lead a small group from our company to visit Lightfair this year. I’ve been to plenty of trade shows before, but never to Lightfair, so as a lighting nerd, I was actually kind of excited. My adventure to Chicago was soon tainted by something I noticed very early on.

Our company was represented by myself, Brian (a fellow salesman), and two of our Lighting Specialists (Melisa and Rachel). After a 7-hour drive, we dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way right to the show. We visited all kinds of exhibits and I was quite impressed by the attendance and all the great new products to see. I was immediately struck by the high number of females walking around Lightfair. I don’t just mean attendees, but women in technical and leadership roles too. In a male-dominated industry, I felt this was a wonderful sight. How encouraging was it that so many women were representing the electrical industry at the largest lighting show of the year?

As we meandered around the show, the four of us would ask for a brief walk-through of each exhibit, simply to get a feel for what was new and cool from each brand. I soon realized that in nearly every single case, our exhibit guides mostly looked at Brian and I to explain their products, and never really acknowledged the ladies. After each initial handshake and introduction with the exhibitor, the women who facilitate millions of dollars of lighting orders for our company were not given the time of day. That’s ironic isn’t it? It’s significantly more important that Melisa and Rachel hear what the exhibitors have to say, yet Brian and I were the ones gathering precious information.

All four of us dressed professionally and were willing to listen and learn. So what was different about Brian and I that we received all the eye contact and the ladies were shunned out of the conversation? In many cases, the literal circle of conversation that is normally formed to include people in group discussions, became split and misshapen. Brian and I were clearly spoken to. Our female professionals? Off to the side as they were gently (but no so subtly) squeezed out. Why was this happening? A better question would be, why is this ‘still’ happening?

I was so encouraged by the female participation at Lightfair when I walked in, and so immensely disappointed by how my fellow team mates had been treated on the way out. Not just Melisa and Rachel, but many of the women that I witnessed at Lightfair, too. It wasn’t that they were openly mistreated, it was more that the people who needed to hear the message the most weren’t actually included. A few times, I even tried to reposition my body to ‘rebuild’ the conversation circle to better include Melisa and Rachel. The even bigger disappointment was that even after trying to discretely tweak the behavior of others, I myself didn’t stop the conversation and address the problem as it was happening. I’m guilty too.

Gentlemen, our behavior is so subtle. We all do it. It’s so small, and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss it. Especially in professional settings, we interrupt and talk over women, squeeze them out of circles, we pass over them during discussions… More importantly, if we don’t listen to everyone, we might miss out on a perspective that could be invaluable to our professional or personal lives. If we are to have more female representation in this industry, let them represent. If we are to have more female participation in this industry, let them participate. Empower and leverage every professional you have. If you really want a challenge in hard truth, hand this article to your female staff and see what their reaction is.

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Discussion (7 comments)

    Kathy Jo Van June 17, 2018 / 5:16 pm

    Thank you Ryan for your open candor and for recognizing the reality. I don’t think anyone does these thing intentionally, but we need to continue to bring awareness to what’s happening in order to impart change!

      Ryan June 18, 2018 / 7:54 pm

      This article could have been an entire book. This is just a small snapshot in time, from one person’s point of view.

    Brenda June 18, 2018 / 11:01 am

    Very astute observations. Thank you for sharing and raising awareness.

    Tom Click June 18, 2018 / 2:52 pm

    Ryan, great article. Patriot has a solid history of promoting, developing, mentoring…and placing female teammates into key management positions…and the results speak for themselves…3 years on the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing companies. Business is easier when you simply focus on the best candidates. Tom

    Carrie Schwabacher June 19, 2018 / 9:03 am

    Thank s much for sharing. I am the VP of Sales. I am most often the highest ranking representative from my company in a meeting. The one that holds the “purse strings”, the one that has ultimate decision making power and so many times I am ignored and the men are given al the attention. It really shouldn’t matter what rank or sex someone is. If they are at the meeting – they are important to your business Pay attention people. You will get more out of your interactions if you include everyone.

    Carol Katarsky June 19, 2018 / 3:08 pm

    Ryan, thanks for sharing your experience. It is true that so much discrimination is subconscious — I’m sure those salesmen you mentioned think that they would never discriminate against a woman.

    None of this will change until more people like yourself stop to look at a situation, note what is happening and speak/act to change it. It falls to all of us, regardless of race, gender, creed, whatever, to do our part.

    Again, thanks for sharing.

    Jacquelyn Breneman July 10, 2018 / 3:06 pm

    Thank you for bringing attention to the issue of subtle sexism and unconcious gender bias in the workplace. I think we can all take something away from this and use it to create positive change.

    Great article.

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