AKRON—It never fails.... Although Jamie McNutt has been in the tire industry for 22 years, she still sees the misconception that one needs to spend the weekend at a race track to really understand tires.
That couldn't be further from the truth.
Starting with Bridgestone/Firestone in 1993, Ms. McNutt worked as a chemist in the raw materials and compounding area for almost 20 years before switching gears and heading the replacement tire development department for the Bridgestone Americas' North and South America region for consumer tires from its Akron technical center.
While she does not consider herself a gear head—and doesn't find it fun to head to the track on weekends—she has made a strong career in the industry. Instead of concentrating on perceived differences negatively, she said she has used them to her advantage.
“I actually consider it to be a unique insight because I think I'm more of a typical consumer than the gear heads or the people who are out at the track every weekend,” she told Tire Business in reference to her role as a minority in a male-dominated industry.
“So I feel like that's a big part of what I brought to the product conversation in the product development area,” she continued, noting that's what “a normal consumer really cares about vs. somebody who's going to be pushing that car to the limit on the track on the weekend. That's not the typical consumer.
“I think that that probably has been something that is a little bit more difficult as a woman to overcome in this industry. And if you are a woman who is a gear head than this is the perfect industry for you!”
Finding her way into the tire industry may have seemed like a no-brainer for the University of Akron alum, who graduated with a B.S. degree in chemistry in the once-dubbed “Rubber Capital of the World,” but she said she didn't really seek it out. However, Ms. McNutt did take a tire compounding course her senior year through the university's polymer science department and admits she enjoyed it. The rest was history.
When she landed her interview with Bridgestone, “I did ask much better questions than I think the typical interviewee, so it really did help me in the long run,” she said.
Ms. McNutt's successful career with Bridgestone has blossomed, she said she believes, because she has learned from others and applied that knowledge to her job.
“I firmly believe that you can learn from everyone around you,” she said. “Sometimes you can learn how to do something and sometimes you can learn how not to do something.... I really think if you're aware and you pay attention, you can learn a lot.”
Additionally, she realized early in her career that it can pay dividends to ask as many questions as needed to fully understand a situation. “To me, the best part of working at Bridgestone is that everybody is willing to share and teach. I've never had anybody say that they weren't willing to teach me something.”
As she began her career at Bridgestone, she was hired into the raw materials and raw material compounding areas and, at the time, was the only technical female. While she wasn't the first female ever in the department, Ms. McNutt said she was the first one hired in after a few years without any other women in the unit. A second woman was hired about a year after.
Female employees make up about 40 percent of the jobs in the raw materials and compounding area now, Ms. McNutt said, noting she has seen a “really big increase in the number of female chemists” in that unit.
“I think it's a natural progression because there's a lot more females getting chemistry degrees,” Ms. McNutt said, explaining while she has seen an influx of resumes from female chemists, there are a much fewer women applying for mechanical engineer positions.
“It just doesn't seem to be a field that's appealing right now for female(s),” she said.
Working in the tire industry for more than two decades has given Ms. McNutt plenty of work experience that she can now impart to others. One of the biggest pieces of advice she gives to anyone entering the industry—male or a female—is: “You won't be an expert in a year.”
A lot of people coming out of college are used to getting “A's,” she explained, however, they can get discouraged when entering the tire industry because “tires are complex and people need to be patient.” Ms. McNutt added that many women may feel as though they need to prove their technical capability to men, in part because they are so outnumbered. That, however, is not true.
For an online exclusive first person account of Ms. McNutt's experience along with an audio clip and a blog she has written, visit www.tirebusiness.com/McNutt.
When speaking to women employees, she advises “to make sure you are making your decisions based on data. So, any technical conversation that starts with 'I think' or 'My opinion is' is just not as powerful as data,” she said.
“And I think that it can undermine you inadvertently. You can be unaware that you are doing it.... If your conversation starts with, 'What the data show,' then that's going to be a much more powerful conversation overall.”
The lesson that has taken Ms. McNutt her entire career to learn and put into action, she said, is learning how differently men and women communicate in the workplace. She explained that she often has had to have multiple conversations on the same topic because she did not deliver the information in a way that was easy to consume.
Why? Because she presented it in the way she thinks—which she said is different from how most men think.
“I really wish I would have understood the differences in communication style between men and women so that I could more effectively get my point across,” Ms. McNutt said.
While this is a generalization and not all men and women necessarily think differently, she said “typical” females often remember details in a way where various things cross over in their minds that may not be directly connected in the same way a man may make a connection.
She said she could have saved herself many conversations if she had slowed down when originally presenting information and “removed all the non-essential information, only keeping the detailed information that was necessary for the decision to be made, I think it would have been much better.”
This particular issue of being a woman in a “man's industry” is still something she works at today. When there are various projects going on and she is going as fast as she can, she will sometimes fall back into old habits and give all the details at once to someone, instead of giving the information in a way that will be more consumable for them.
“It's still a hurdle for me,” she admitted. “And it's still something that I work on all the time.”
While the number of women in the tire industry is growing, Ms. McNutt said she still considers it a “man's industry” because it is just not that glamorous.
One moment in her career that really stands out to her took place when she was still new to Bridgestone. A group of teenagers came through the tech center for a tour. As she gave a presentation about what she did, she recalls a girl with a “look of horror on her face.”
She asked Ms. McNutt if she was aware of what she was going to be doing when she took the job.
“And it was just kind of priceless to me. I always think back on that,” she said.
Now, as she looks back on her long career, Ms. McNutt finds amazing the progress in the industry, including technology and tires themselves. For instance, 22 years ago, 40,000 miles was considered a great-wearing tire—now tire treadwear routinely surpasses 80,000 miles.
“Tires are challenging and that makes them fun,” Ms. McNutt said. “And there's so much that's still being discovered.”
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6143; Twitter: @jenniferkarpus