International Women’s Day 2022: A Chat with Heather Vander Schaaf
International Women's Day Spotlight: A Chat with Heather Vander Schaaf
The COO of Dennis Group partner IFAB Engineering has been a part of the food & beverage engineering industry for two decades. We caught up with her to see how things have changed over the years for women in engineering-and what still needs to be done.
1. Hi Heather, thanks for chatting with us. Can you start us off with a little about what attracted you to a career in engineering?
I actually didn't start out in engineering. At Frito Lay, I led Continuous Improvement for the Canadian division - a choice born from a fascination with process improvements and ways of making the whole organization more efficient. And it was really because I started asking questions, like: "why are we doing things this way when that way seems so much better...?" Thankfully, PepsiCo was an enlightened organization even 20 years ago, and they encouraged me.
If I could go back to university and start again knowing what I know now, I'm sure I would have been a chemical engineer from the start. So many people have no idea how things get to grocery shelves! Everything is a process, each step impacting the next to develop the final product. It's fascinating! And once I see the process, I have a burning desire to optimize it. Things can always be better, right? This approach applies to making potato chips and cookies as much as it does to coordinating MEP designs or getting a clear invoice issued.
"Leading a smooth performance and enabling each person to perform at their best is my goal, one that goes well beyond engineering."
2. What was the transition from Continuous Improvement to project management like?
I had some special skills - like being able to translate engineer-speak for executives and accountants - that helped me transition into projects. I could integrate different talents. I could see process flow for good building design. I could manage change. I realized I was a natural project manager, a career option that was completely foreign to me when I graduated high school. And, with some extra perseverance against those who thought a woman was not suited to that role (I was once introduced by my boss as a "non-technical project administrator," despite being the project manager for a $30 million greenfield), I was determined.
After all, somebody must conduct the orchestra. Leading a smooth performance and enabling each person to perform at their best is my goal, one that goes well beyond engineering.
3. You seem to really love what you do! What's one of the coolest things you've gotten to do in your career, project- or process-wise?
I do love my job. Isn't that great? I wish everyone felt the same way.
I always tell people I have designed and built food factories in the four main food groups: cheese, chocolate, bread, and bacon. I also know the secrets of making Doritos® - but only at 3400 lbs. per hour!
Maybe the factories aren't always pretty. But what an accomplishment we have with helping to feed the world.
4. How have things changed for women in the industry since you began your career?
Only 15 years ago, when I started to attend international trade shows in the protein sector, the women's washrooms were completely empty. While it was great to not have to wait in line, it was a sad reminder of how underrepresented the industry was. I was one of a handful of women in the thousands of attendees.
I made great friends with some of those early female affiliates, and we are a part of each other's support teams. And now I see more and more women at the shows. But we're not at capacity yet.
"When men understand that women are talented, we get further. When women support each other, we'll really go somewhere."
5. Do you feel things are improving for women in our industry?
Things are not improving quickly enough.
When my partners and I founded IFAB, we did so from a perspective of respect for all walks of life, and we paid particular attention to maintaining at least one-third of all roles through the company for women. We have an awesome team that includes women in traditional male roles, and men in traditional female roles. This is breaking a bias on multiple levels! We have project teams made up exclusively of women. Have any of you experienced that? It's still a bit shocking when it happens.
Yet here we are in 2022, and there are still times when people - men and women alike - assume I'm not at the same level as my male peers. And honestly, it feels worse when a woman misunderstands and thinks of me as a clerk instead of an equal partner at the top of the organization.
When men understand that women are talented, we get further. When women support each other, we'll really go somewhere.
"Everything is a process, each step impacting the next to develop the final product. It's fascinating! And once I see the process, I have a burning desire to optimize it. Things can always be better, right?"
6. Have there been moments of frustration as you've navigated this industry space?
Yes. One particularly telling event of my career was on a project eight years ago. I was the project manager in a site that was completely dominated by men. One of my team was a mechanical engineer (and fairly junior at the time). He sat beside me in a project meeting with the client and constructor and subcontractors, all of us around a table. There were 26 men - and me. One long-in-the-field trade supervisor had questions, yet he couldn't seem to ask me directly. He'd ask his questions to the engineer beside me, and that engineer would then turn to me and say "Heather, he is asking about X, what do you think?" And I would answer to the supervisor. This triangle of question and answer went on for several rounds. To my engineer's credit, he kept at it, kept turning to ask me.
That supervisor never did acknowledge that it was actually me in charge, actually me who had the answers to the questions. All less than a decade ago.
7. Almost every woman in business can probably relate to your story about the supervisor who kept addressing the engineer instead of you. What are some ways we can help employees recognize and challenge implicit bias like the kind you describe?
Fortunately, in the Cambridge office we live every day with strong women in every level of the organization as role models and male partners who vocally advocate for diversity and equity.
Annually in the Canadian division, we conduct communications training that helps us to speak and listen well to each other, and has a component of removing biases in our language. We also conduct leadership training where the topic is covered at that new leader level. Still, we can always do more with direct training for valuing diversity.
Advocacy for all voices is an everyday experience for us. We are still examining our inherent biases and working on breaking them down. Identification is the first step.
"Advocacy for all voices is an everyday experience for us. We are still examining our inherent biases and working on breaking them down. Identification is the first step."
8. What's one triumph, large or small, you've had as a woman in our industry?
I hadn't expected to found a successful engineering company! I was able to narrow my focus to specialize in food projects, find great partners, and build the company, ultimately becoming the COO for a growing organization of 70 people. It's beyond any dreams I had as a 20-year-old. Women generally have trouble acknowledging success. When asked my profession, I used to say "I'm a project manager." Now I say, "I own an engineering company." Big difference!
9. It's great to hear that things are improving for women in the industry, but of course there are miles yet to go. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are one tool companies can offer to help support minority employees. Are you excited to see an ERG for women at DG and IFAB?
I wholeheartedly support ERGs as a safe place for people to talk about challenges and gain avenues for attacking those difficulties for positive change. We need avenues of support to provide resources, promote diversity, and to unify our voices to be a collective in harmony.
10. The theme for International Women's Day this year was #BreakTheBias. What does that mean to you?
I think #BreaktheBias is for all of us:
- Leaders, notice that you are judging people based on physical features and past experiences, and lead by example to remove those judgements.
- Colleagues, identify that you are approaching work with inherent prejudices about women, and work hard to see them and remove them.
- Parents, allow your children to be free of gender labels.
11. Thanks again for speaking with us today, Heather. As we wrap up, do you have any advice for women entering the engineering industry?
Don't give up on yourself! Believe. Stay the course. Know your worth. Speak with authority of knowledge. Find great partners who believe in you. Rock it like you know how.