‘The time is now’: Panel explores progress by women at Cummins

The message at Cummins’ celebration of International Women’s Day was clear: The time is now.

That’s the message three female Cummins Inc. executives wanted the world to know Friday at the Cummins Technical Center in Columbus during the global day set aside to honor women and their achievements.

Mary Chandler, vice president of corporate responsibility and chief executive officer of the Cummins Foundation, Jennifer Rumsey, vice president and chief technical officer and Cathy Choi, an engineering leader in Cummins Power Systems, shared their experiences as female leaders at an employee-only gathering about the strides women have made at the company.

Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the Cummins Powers Women initiative, the company’s effort to advance women and girls in the local community and around the world.

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“When you have a daughter or a special someone in your life that you want to have opportunity, it really brings it home,” Chandler said. “When we look at all the problems in the world — things that are significant inhibitors of human potential — gender is simply one of them. If we can harness that potential and give women and girls full access to opportunities, everybody, the whole world, improves.”

Since its 2018 launch, the initiative has positively impacted more than 34,000 women and girls through on-the-ground mentoring, entrepreneurship and leadership development.

The panel discussion, which drew a crowd more than 75 Cummins employees, included topics such as obstacles the women faced to be successful in the male-dominated engineering field and advice on how to eliminate the biases against women that start at an early age.

Rumsey recalled three areas where she’s faced challenges as a woman: situations where she doesn’t see anybody who looked like her or who she could identify with, people not believing what she does and overcoming pressure she put on herself but also societal pressures to prove she deserves to be where she is.

“This is not about women fighting for a seat at the table,” Rumsey said. “It’s about making a bigger table.”

Choi said it’s easy to feel special as a woman when starting out in a male-dominated field, but that feeling shortly changes to a lack of inclusion when you realize you have nothing in common with anyone around you.

“You realize how important relationships are and it starts very subtly,” Choi said. “The subtle parts are lunches. A lot of the guys would have lunch together and there’s a lot of dialogue that happens there. As you move through your career, it turns into golf teams; it turns into skeet-shooting clubs.”

Choi said she constantly felt the need to prove herself — especially not being a part of the golf outings — to show she could be at the same pace and excel. But as time went on, she started to realize how her self-induced stress was affecting her.

“You have to realize it’s OK to ask for help and it’s OK to accept help,” Choi said.

The team also used the opportunity to talk about what Cummins is doing well while also recognizing what’s left to be done.

Chandler said what she loves is Cummins’ transparency.

“If you talk to Jen and the members of her team, everybody says, ‘Hey, we’re doing really well but we’re not where we should be,’” Chandler said. “They’re honest, authentic and clear about where we’ve been, what progress we’ve made and how much is left to be done.”

But what she said needs improvement is talking about the harder, more subtle issues surrounding gender.

“When we all started our careers, the idea was that when you would interview for a job or promotion, you wouldn’t get the job or promotion,” Chandler said.

“They would look at you and say, ‘It looks like you’re about to start a family. You’re about that age. So we’re not going to actually give you the job because we need somebody who’s constantly productive and not going to leave for maternity leave.’”

This subtle — sometimes not so subtle — bias prevented women from getting the job or promotion or pay raise because the guy got the vote, Chandler said. If companies want the best talent in their workforce, she said companies need to be willing to hire women who make up “half the economy, half the talent, half the brains.”

Kanwulia Gwam, 24, is a test engineer at the Cummins Technical Center. She moved to Columbus from Maryland immediately after college for her first job.

Being able to attend Friday’s panel discussion was important to Gwam, who joined the Cummins team in August 2017.

“It’s so important to remind women that they are capable,” Gwam said. “One of the reasons why I loved Cummins was because after going through several of the interview phases, I saw they put their values at the forefront of their mission, at the forefront of the community involvement, at the forefront of their product.”

Gwam said it’s easy to lose that narrative when we allow implicit biases to get in way, but said Cummins’ commitment to female advancement gives it a competitive advantage when the landscape of its workforce looks a bit more like the customers on the other side.

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