Women Move Up In Manufacturing Forget those images of U.S. factories as male-dominated and meet some unsung women behind a lot of the surging productivity.
By Gene Bylinsky Reported by Alicia Hills Moore

(FORTUNE Magazine) – In the past, says manufacturing consultant Patricia E. Moody, "being a woman in manufacturing always brought with it an unwelcome visibility." When pioneering women like her tried to move up through the ranks they had "to be the smartest, be five steps ahead, clear away objections, and prove capabilities." What a difference a few decades make. Long confined to tasks such as tending textile looms and assembling electronic gadgets, American women have advanced to jobs like those held by the chemical-plant manager on the facing page. Between 1990 and 1999, the proportion of executive and administrative jobs held by women in the manufacturing sector jumped from 26% to 33%.

The future looks even brighter, Moody says, because manufacturing will need even more of the kinds of people who are already in short supply: computer scientists, engineers, and design professionals as well as superb communicators and people with vision. "A woman with the right credentials can make incredible inroads," Moody believes, because manufacturing requirements change, and women are better than men at handling transitions. They're also better at multitasking, she contends, because their brains are built for it. That's an advantage both at home--holding babies while answering the phone and deploying the cleaning lady--and in today's workplace. Says Moody: "Manufacturing is the perfect environment for women."

They're hardly a new phenomenon on the factory floor. After big-scale manufacturing sprang up in New England mill towns, thousands of young women working there clothed the Union armies in the Civil War. In World War II, Rosie the Riveter became the successor of the mill girls. Today, as more women move into skilled and managerial jobs, they are giving the U.S. a big advantage over its erstwhile chief rival in manufacturing, Japan, which has put handcuffs on its development by using only half its brainpower. The U.S. still has a long way to go in making the fullest use of women, in the plant and elsewhere. But for evidence of progress, meet the ten success stories shown here.


Thanks to trailblazing by earlier women, Bedie R. Kohake, 32, has had an easier time moving up to the job of running half of a chemical plant at Catalytica Pharmaceuticals' big drugmaking complex in Greenville, N.C. (Her name is pronounced BEE-dee Ko-HA-kee.) When she arrived at North Carolina State University in Raleigh in the late 1980s, Kohake says, it was no longer unusual to see young women who, like herself, were studying for degrees in chemical engineering.

What helped Kohake advance to her present position is that, in a manner of speaking, she started running to the train before it arrived at the station. While in college, she got a head start by spending alternate semesters in school and in a work-study program at the complex where she now works, then owned by Burroughs Wellcome.

Kohake graduated summa cum laude and joined Du Pont Chemicals' Dacron plant in Kinston, N.C., in 1990. Working on the staple and rug product line, the young engineer increased production capabilities by 60% and sharply reduced waste. In 1993 she moved on to the huge Greenville complex, now owned by Catalytica of Mountain View, Calif. Occupying 49 buildings, it employs 1,300 people and produces about $400 million of medicines a year under contract for drug companies.

Catalytica makes the anti-HIV drug AZT for Glaxo-Wellcome, Sudafed for Warner-Lambert, and medications for other companies. The chemical plant where Kohake works is the hub of the complex, where drug manufacturing begins. At this automated, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation, so-called intermediate chemicals are transformed into organic molecules that constitute the active components of pharmaceuticals. The big reactors at the plant can cook up chemicals in 2,000-gallon batches.

Kohake can often be spotted wearing a hard hat and climbing the plant's metal stairways to check that operations are running on schedule. She manages ten production areas, supervising 100 workers, technicians, and chemical engineers, a tenth of them women.

Though she has just given birth to her first child, a girl named Virginia, Kohake has no plans to slow down. She has her eye on joining Catalytica's executive ranks in the next five to ten years. "I've never had any disadvantage here, because Catalytica practices diversity," she says. Her hobbies include traveling with her husband, Ron, a chemical processor who works in the same plant but not under her supervision.

Kohake's advice to women thinking of going into manufacturing: Be prepared to work hard, because the facilities typically run nonstop. "And be flexible, because manufacturing is ever-changing."


Whenever the next opportunity arose to move up at Hershey Chocolate U.S.A., the flagship division of Hershey Foods, Carole C. Rich, 43, was always there, volunteering for tough management assignments. She has done so for 18 years, not because she is an aggressive woman in what remains largely a man's world, but because of the drive she inherited growing up in Roanoke, Va. Her father worked in a GE plant and her mother, who was office manager at a mail-order company, sometimes brought her two daughters to the workplace on Saturdays. "She had a management job," says Rich. "So I never thought, 'Women can't do that.' "

Three years ago, Rich's persistence was rewarded with a job that chocoholics would kill for: manager of the spiffy plant at West Hershey, Pa. Built in 1992 at a cost of $250 million, the 350,000-square-foot facility is the newest of the company's 19 factories in the U.S. and Canada. Each day it can turn out 27 million goodies--Hershey Kisses and similar treats as well as the popular tiny chocolate bars called Nuggets.

Taking a visitor through the plant, with its irresistible chocolate aromas, Rich stops at her favorite machine. It's a complex Swiss automaton that wraps some 450 Nuggets a minute all through the facility's 24-hour, seven-day, three-shift workweek. "I love it," says Rich. "I love to watch how things are made. Few people realize all that goes on behind the making of things we buy and use today."

Rich's plant employs 440 people, 40% of them women. The employees work in teams of eight to 12 members, with each worker required to learn various skills. When production trends fall below expectations, Rich assembles her eight managers--all males--to develop what she calls "plans of attack." Working on longer-range issues involves encouraging her associates to do things they didn't think they could. "You have to push, and then they are so proud of their success," Rich says.

Manufacturing was never really on Rich's mind when she was growing up. After graduating with a degree in urban studies from Roanoke College, she worked for the Kroger grocery chain. A friend steered her toward Hershey, where she worked in various locations as production planner, shipping manager, manufacturing manager, and finally as plant manager in Savannah and in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Her husband, John, encouraged her along the way. A former IBM plant manager and an early retiree, "he has been one of my biggest cheerleaders," says Rich. With no children, the couple has been able to move about easily.

Rich decries the widespread notion that manufacturing is unglamorous. "People think of it as what it really is not today," she says. "They think of steel mills and furnaces. I have a wonderful job in manufacturing. It's clean, and I make chocolates for a living!"

Marina I. Hatsopoulos Z CORP.

Six years ago, when Marina I. Hatsopoulos, 34, was looking for something new to do, she hit on an idea that could not have been more timely for today's fast, computerized manufacturing. She bought a license to an invention patented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that makes it possible to create three-dimensional prototypes quickly from such simple ingredients as starch and gypsum. Designers of new products need lots of prototypes to check out dimensions and appearance.

Hatsopoulos organized a company she named Z Corp., now in Burlington, Mass., to produce and sell what are rightly called 3-D printers. Costing $57,000 in the basic version, the printer turns out prototypes ranging from parts to small models of baby strollers and automobile engines. Z Corp.'s customers include the major automakers as well as Whirlpool, Clorox, and Motorola. The privately held company, whose revenues are now $10 million annually, has been profitable for more than a year.

The 3-D printer is about the size of a Xerox office copier and almost as easy to operate. First, a three-dimensional computer-aided-design (CAD) description of the object to be made is downloaded into the printer's computer. It automatically "slices" the data into hundreds of two-dimensional cross sections. The printing process starts when the machine spreads a layer of powder on a tablelike surface that can be lifted and lowered.

The inkjet then squirts a binder solution onto the loose powder, in a pattern corresponding to the shape of the bottom cross section. The binder selectively glues the powder together. When the cross section is complete, the surface supporting it is lowered slightly and a new layer of powder is spread on top of it. The process is repeated over and over, and the part grows layer by layer until it is complete.

Z Corp.'s 3-D printer works five to ten times faster than the principal competing method, stereolithography. In that technology, a laser builds up a layered prototype from liquid resin. Stereolithography is not only slower but also a lot more expensive, though it does produce larger prototypes. A 3-D printer can make a simple object such as a five-inch-long wrench in less than ten minutes from material costing $8. The printer's speed also facilitates a new kind of Internet-assisted manufacturing at plants separated from product designers by continents and oceans.

Using a pair of Z Corp. printers, Graco Children's Products of Elverson, Pa., works out designs with Wonderland Nursery Goods in the Guangzhou province of southern China. Graco is the leading designer and manufacturer of strollers and child safety seats, among other products; the Chinese company makes the strollers. In a typical exchange, Graco's designers e-mail 3-D CAD data from their workshop in the U.S. to Wonderland, enabling it to "print out" a prototype of a part within hours. The engineers in China then may propose changes that will make the part easier to produce, which they incorporate in CAD data e-mailed back to the U.S. The designers at Graco then create the altered 3-D prototype and evaluate it.

The daughter of George Hatsopoulos, who built Thermo Electron of Waltham, Mass., into a $4-billion-a-year company, Marina Hatsopoulos formerly did mergers and acquisitions for her dad's company. No longer wanting to be "in my father's shadow," she was steered by an MIT professor to the institution's licensing office. With the inkjet patent in hand, Hatsopoulos put two MIT-trained engineers to work developing the 3-D printer.

Hatsopoulos is Z Corp.'s CEO, and her husband, Walter Barnhorst, is chairman. She now devotes more time to her three young children, working partly at home. Manufacturing can be a good life for a woman, Hatsopoulos says: "The benefit of working within a male-dominated environment is that it is hard to get lost in the crowd. And it can be a lot of fun."

Patricia E. Moody PATRICIA E. MOODY INC.

Known as "Tricia" to her friends, Patricia E. Moody, 53, loved factories almost from the time she was sentient. When she was 4, her father, a power plant engineer, took her around a Massachusetts paper mill. She remembers his lifting her to see the pulper, a preparation vat filled with roiling wood fibers.

If an argument had to be made for genetic influences, Moody couldn't be a better example. One ancestor, the master engineer Paul Moody, designed a carding machine late in the 18th century. His inventions created the textile town of Lowell, Mass., the vanguard of America's large-scale industrialization.

Genes notwithstanding, Tricia Moody had to overcome many obstacles. When she joined the work force after graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in French--an MBA came much later--women in factories did mostly unskilled jobs. After being turned down by Digital Equipment Corp. in the 1970s for a purchasing job--"Women can't go on the road," she was told--Moody got a position at Simplex in Gardner, Mass., a private company that made hardware for security systems. The first woman ever hired by Simplex for a middle-management position, she was put in charge of purchasing.

Moody worked in a big, open room rimmed by offices along the outside wall, with a man in each office--and soon figured it would take her 40 years to get a promotion. She applied again to DEC, responding with a loud "No!" when offered a personnel job. She insisted on being in manufacturing "because I knew that's where things were happening." DEC gave Moody a job at a plant in Westminster, Mass., that made minicomputers. She later went to Data General, a competitor, where, she recalls, "I got to spend time on the shop floor and started doing business planning they had never done before. It was exciting."

About a year later, in 1978, Rath & Strong of Lexington, Mass., hired Moody as its first woman consultant. Among Moody's accomplishments as a consultant, one that stands out is the help she rendered in 1982 to McNeil Consumer Laboratories, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Fort Washington, Pa. When an unknown malefactor put cyanide in some bottles of Tylenol, a McNeil product, production was halted. The poisoning alarmed consumers across the nation, and J&J saw its No. 1 position in over-the-counter painkillers begin to evaporate.

McNeil executives seemed paralyzed. Though tooled up to start producing Tylenol in new tamper-proof containers, they balked because they had no way to gauge retailer demand. A huge centralized computer system for scheduling production wasn't running yet, and if the plant ramped up too fast, McNeil could drown in excess inventory.

Up stepped Moody with a two- by three-foot whiteboard. She affixed this in the hallway between the manufacturing and marketing offices, and began regularly posting figures on the order backlog. The McNeil executives, accustomed to seeing little unfilled backlog, watched it climb and climb; soon they gained the confidence they needed to turn the production lines back on. Says Moody: "I forced them to take a decision based on numbers they had never seen before." The executives weren't stupid to hold back production, Moody stresses; they simply had no system for dealing with an unprecedented crisis.

Married to a naval architect and the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, Moody lives in Manchester by the Sea, Mass., and now spends more time writing than consulting. She has written seven books on manufacturing, including, most recently, The Technology Machine, with Richard E. Morley, the legendary inventor of the programmable logic controller (PLC). Moody likes to act as a visionary now, looking into the future of manufacturing. For women who want to take a greater part in that future, Moody suggests they "listen well, work hard, and speak in numbers." By "numbers" she means having a greater knowledge of math and an ability to communicate with engineers via sketches.


Scattered around the country, overshadowed by superefficient huge production plants employing the latest automation and software technologies, are the amoebas of manufacturing: thousands of small machine shops making the steel and other metal parts that go into the production tools of the giants. The amoebas nourish the plankton that feeds the whales of industry.

Some of the amoebas are run by women like Maija (pronounced MY-YA) E. Jirgens, 45, president of Jirgens Modern Tool Corp. of Kalamazoo, Mich. Housed in a modest building in an industrial park, the shop employs 12 male machinists. They turn out tool parts, dies, and sometimes custom-built machine tools for such customers as Steelcase, Rockwell, GM, and Honda.

How does a nice woman with a sense of humor wind up bossing a 12-man machining outfit? In Maija Jirgens' case, it was to refute her father's belief that women don't belong in the factory. Her dad, an immigrant from Latvia trained in Germany, may well have brought Old World male prejudices to America. Maija, working in her father's shop as a budding saleswoman, asked one of the machinists to let her operate a piece of equipment so she could figure out how much to bill a potential customer.

When her father spotted her at the machine, she recalls, "I thought he was going to have a stroke." He told her it was "no place for a woman." Says Jirgens: "That's what set me off to prove that I could do it." On her first foray into sales, she landed a good-sized contract and consistently brought in more orders after that. When Jirgens' dad retired 5 1/2 years ago, he chose her to run the shop.

As a woman supervising men, including her two machinist brothers, Jirgens encounters no problems on the shop floor. She may be small in stature, but her powerful personality comes through. "I have lots of respect for my employees," she says. "But they know who really runs the place." She's not all business, and regularly brings in loads of cookies she bakes for the machinists and their families. She also pays them up to $20 an hour, more than she makes herself, and gives them bonuses and benefits.

Jirgens learned about machining from her brothers, through lots of reading, and by attending meetings of the Western Michigan chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, which she has served as president. She tried taking management courses at Kalamazoo College at night but didn't find them very helpful where manufacturing was concerned. Along the way she got married. Now divorced, with two grown children, she has a fiance who is a dealer in machine-shop equipment.

Being a manufacturing amoeba is not easy. There's a perennial shortage of machinists, and when some customers merge with bigger companies they stop dealing with small machine shops. But Jirgens gets one or two calls a month from other job shops offering merger deals in which she would run the combined operation. She may yet succumb. Her dream is to make her shop three to five times as big as it was under her dad, thereby showing him that she has built a lasting business. She has made a good start. Since she became boss, sales have risen 63%.


Born in the Philippines 38 years ago, Marissa Peterson now holds one of the top jobs in U.S. manufacturing: vice president of worldwide operations at Sun Microsystems' computer systems division, by far the company's largest. One of her tasks is to lead a transformation of Sun's supply chain that is saving the $12-billion-a-year company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Peterson came to the U.S. in 1978, when her parents immigrated to Union City, Calif. One of her childhood ambitions was to become an astronaut. "To tell the truth," Peterson says with a laugh, "I really don't know how I wound up in manufacturing." She did so by telling her father she wanted to be an engineer. He wrote to the General Motors Institute, the automaker's technical university in Detroit, now the unaffiliated Kettering University, where she got a degree in mechanical engineering.

GM sent Peterson to Harvard Business School to get an MBA while she worked summers at the automaker. She then spent two years at Saturn, GM's pioneering automaking venture near Nashville. She put in place Saturn's novel relationship with suppliers, under which they signed up for the lifetime of a car's model rather than the conventional one year.

Returning to California to be closer to her family, Peterson briefly served as a management consultant in Booz-Allen's San Francisco office before joining Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto in 1988 as manager of manufacturing.

Today, Peterson's responsibilities include manufacturing, supply chain, data management, distribution, and new-product development and introduction for all of Sun's workstations, servers, data-storage devices, graphics boards, and other products. A job for more than one person? "I feel that way all the time," admits Peterson, who is also the mother of two small children. "But I have very good skills."

Her skills certainly show in one of the most imaginative supply-chain programs in the electronics industry. Peterson was mainly responsible for a huge Sun project, code-named SunPeak, that was completed in 1998. SunPeak includes the conversion of the old mainframe-based manufacturing system to one using Sun servers and Oracle enterprise software.

In modernizing Sun's supply chain, Peterson has turned to SunPeak to "substitute information for inventory," as she puts it. The new setup, which speeds the flow of information beyond the enterprise to customers, partners, and suppliers, offers "access to information by anyone, from anywhere, to anything." By bringing suppliers and customers face to face electronically, SunPeak enables the company to operate on smaller inventories, with quick deliveries from suppliers triggered by customer orders. Says Peterson: "We're strategically positioning suppliers in the appropriate places in the supply chain so we're able to respond to real demand as it comes in."

The results are already visible. In the past a customer could have waited weeks for a product to be made and delivered. Now some products, such as disk drives and monitors, arrive directly from a Sun manufacturing plant in as little as two days. Peterson has been able to eliminate all but three of the 33 distribution centers where Sun products used to be held before delivery.

Bertha Freeman FOCUS: HOPE

She hit the manufacturing world on the cusp of change, when opportunities for black women on the machine-shop floor were just beginning to open up. The bloody Detroit riots of 1967 had just subsided, and Bertha Freeman took a factory job almost unintentionally. That paved the way for her entry into an elite factory job as the Detroit area's first black female tool and die maker.

Freeman, now 54, grew up in suburban River Rouge, where her father was a boiler operator at the vast Ford Motor plant and her mother was a homemaker. Although her family had no tradition of pursuing higher education, Freeman enrolled in Central Western University with the goal of teaching elementary school. But she went to work on a GM production line during a summer break, and stayed because of the then attractive $3.25-an-hour wage.

When GM opened its apprenticeship program to women in the early 1970s, Freeman applied and was the only woman to pass the written tests. She went through a four-year apprenticeship, emerging as a tool and die maker. A die is a form usually carved out of a block of steel to create a reverse version of, say, a car door. It's then installed in a machine that stamps out thousands of car doors.

Smiling most of the time she talks, Freeman tells of the initial resentment she encountered in the white male world of toolmaking. Good humor and determination sustained her through such crudities as displays by her white male co-workers of foldouts of nude female bodies from sex magazines. Puzzled, the men would ask why she wasn't upset. Freeman would joke, "I see a body like that every morning."

Freeman spent 18 years at GM making and repairing dies. Sometimes she had to be blunt with her superiors. When she noticed others working on a new die but not herself, she would ask: "Is it because I'm a woman, or because I'm black?" The next day, she would have a new die to work on.

With the plant about to close in 1987, Freeman took early retirement and joined a remarkable Detroit institution called Focus: HOPE. For nearly 20 years this private nonprofit organization, supported by corporate and government funds as well as donations by individuals, has been training mostly black inner-city kids to become precision machinists. Freeman teaches basic machining, blueprint reading, drafting, and communications skills.

About 30% of the enrollees are women. Freeman finds that women, being more detail-oriented than men, master production machines better. "Many times, when our young ladies go out there," says Freeman, "they are still the first on a particular job. There's still a small amount of discrimination. But as far as advancement is concerned, our women graduates move up at the same rate as our young guys."

Married but childless, she serves as a kind of substitute mom for some of the students. She tells them that if she succeeded without a definite plan, so can they. Says Freeman: "It's a great feeling when our graduates come back having surpassed anything that I've done in my own career."

Janice Pearce and Sharon Ward MAPICS

If there are two better specialists in putting software to work in manufacturing plants than Janice Pearce and Sharon Ward, they would be hard to find. What makes the pair such valuable members of Mapics, a $160-million-a-year provider of enterprise software in Atlanta, is their painstakingly detailed, firsthand knowledge of manufacturing operations in many different industries.

Their experiences intertwine like two strands of DNA. Until last December, Pearce, 38, as a vice president of marketing, and Ward, 49, as a vice president of business development, were helping turn Pivotpoint of Woburn, Mass., into a major contender among suppliers of manufacturing software. Partly because of their efforts, industry organizations repeatedly named Pivotpoint, a $25-million-a-year company, the best in customer service among its peers. Last December, Pivotpoint was acquired by publicly held Mapics. Pearce and Ward, continuing in comparable roles, have plunged into a frenzied buildup of the combined company into the world's biggest supplier of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software for small and medium-sized manufacturers.

It took Pearce and Ward years to gain their valuable insights into the nature of manufacturing, and still more years to prove themselves. Recalls Ward: "You'd walk into a plant--and Janice and I are both kind of small--and the men would cross their arms, draw up straight, and sort of imply, 'What could you possibly know about manufacturing?' "

Pearce, a cheerful optimist, was born in Montclair, N.J., and moved around the country as her father, a chemical engineer, was transferred from job to job. "As a young girl, I was very competitive and was definitely a tomboy," she says. She had an older brother whom she followed everywhere.

After earning a degree in marketing at the University of Florida, Pearce initially planned to "work in some big, cushy office and make a lot of money." But because of the 1981 recession, she settled for a job at an ITT printed-circuit plant in Raleigh. Hired as an inventory-control planner, she learned the operational side of manufacturing, including driving a forklift truck--in high heels. Realizing that she had the interpersonal skills to be successful but not the manufacturing knowledge, she took courses from organizations such as the American Production and Inventory Control Society. In two years she became supervisor of production and inventory control for three departments at the ITT plant. "I was not only the youngest manager but also the only female manager," she remembers.

Wanting to return to Florida, Pearce got a job at Honeywell Defense Communications in Tampa, serving first as a senior program planner and later in marketing, which she liked a lot. But she became frustrated working for a big company, where she felt it would take years to rise to a level where she could make an impact. She had always liked computers and now had an intimate knowledge of how software is used in manufacturing. She decided to go to work for a small company, "the best career decision I ever made."

Pearce found an environment where she could thrive, at software-maker Powersoft of Burlington, Mass., "a company built on innovation and a passion to help the customer." During the next decade she worked with more than 60 manufacturers. In an industry known for high disillusionment, Pearce helped customers, many of them entrepreneurs, get started in their businesses. The company changed its name to Pivotpoint, and two years ago Pearce married CEO Steve Haley. She consistently led the company in generating sales revenues, becoming an area vice president.

Sharon Ward was born in Weymouth, Mass., where her father was a New England Telephone lineman and her mother was a visiting nurse. Growing up with three brothers "helped me become more assertive," she says, adding that as a young girl she liked math. In the late 1960s, after graduating from high school, Ward got a clerical job in Hingham, Mass., at a division of Litton Industries that made self-lubricating bearings and bushings.

She was fascinated by the whole manufacturing process, but what really appealed to her was the foundry, which she found "so beautiful." When a job opened in the production-control department, Ward applied and got it. Deciding that manufacturing was where she wanted to be, Ward enrolled at Northeastern University and got a degree in industrial management. She also married and had a baby girl.

After college she held a number of jobs in manufacturing, working for Bell & Howell Communications, Picker International, and Eastman Kodak in increasingly responsible positions. After a stint at NCA Corp., a software company later taken over by ASK Computer, she came in 1989 to Powersoft, where she met Pearce. For a couple of years the two took turns being the company's top sales rep. "But Janice is a much better salesperson than me," says Ward. She switched to defining the direction of the company's software and teaching the sales force about new products, while Pearce built up marketing. "We know each other well enough so we can step in and take over at any point," Pearce says. Among other things, the two women have pioneered a "customers in action" program, in which customers get together via teleconferencing and discuss particular aspects of their business, such as procurement.

Creating close relationships with customers is something that women like Pearce and Ward do better than men, says their boss Haley, now COO of Mapics. Pearce says that software for manufacturing is "a great place for women because this industry tends to be gender-blind." Adds Ward: "If you have that desire to build things or to see things built, this is the place."

Cindy B. Slater MAYTAG CORP.

In the eyes of some experts, Cindy B. Slater, 38, is a prototypical manufacturing manager of the future. First, she has thoroughly mastered and applied new production technology at a Maytag plant in Cleveland, Tenn., that makes gas and electric ranges. In leading her 240 charges in the transition to new manufacturing methods, Slater has boosted production of one product line by 100% without increasing the number of people. Second, she leads with a blend of firmness and gentleness that even some male manufacturing directors are beginning to think is unique to women managers and a reason for choosing them over men.

The sprawling Maytag operation in Tennessee has three plants employing a total of 2,400. Plants No. 1 and No. 3 do mainly parts fabricating and finishing, with some assembly operations. Plant No. 2, which Slater runs, is devoted solely to assembly. It receives parts from the other two plants and from 100 suppliers.

It is in the assembly operation that Maytag is turning things upside down. The company recently junked most of a material and resource planning (MRP) system, a 30-year-old prescription for mass-producing products. In moving to a more up-to-date setup, the Cleveland plant studied the newer demand-flow system as well as methods at two nearby Japanese plants.

The plant floor is where Slater, divorced and childless, spends about eight hours of her ten-hour workday. She's at work by 5:45 A.M. for the 6 A.M. shift, consulting with "facilitators," or line supervisors, to make sure there are enough parts, tools, and other material. She displays warm rapport with both men and women, treating everyone with respect, "the way I like to be treated." Slater gives her assembly workers all the credit for what the plant has accomplished.

One of her strengths is that she not only knows the assemblers by name but also knows what may be bothering them. When a distraught worker asks permission to pick up a sick child at school, Slater tells him to take the rest of the day off. On the other hand, it's not unusual for her to energize the troops by saying, "Gang! We've got to do this, and we've got to do it now!"

Like several other women profiled here, Slater did not intend to go into manufacturing. She was born in Bristol, Tenn., and thought she might get into some nonproduction aspect of business when she enrolled in Cleveland State Community College in 1980. But when a job opened up at Maytag during a college break, production became her life's work.

Management consultant Moody, who has helped Maytag with its reorganization of assembly lines and knows Slater well, sees something a lot bigger in her success than merely a smart woman doing an outstanding job. Says Moody: "I have never seen men act so human with their people yet be so focused and driven about the job ahead--and so aggressive about preparing themselves for the next challenge."

Moody isn't alone in thinking that manufacturing could use more such people. The trade journal Manufacturing Engineering wrote a few years ago of the need for all manufacturing engineers "to cultivate typically female qualities." Some manufacturing directors are quietly beginning to give preference to knowledgeable women as manufacturing managers. These days there are lots of women to pick from. All the bosses have to do is make sure they are getting the next Cindy Slater.

Stories from FORTUNE's Industrial Management & Technology section can be found at www.fortune.com/imt. feedback: gbylinsky@fortunemail.com.