On October 10, Thermal-Vac Technology’s CEO Heather Falcone and other business leaders gathered at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business to talk about the challenges and growing opportunities for women executives in family-owned businesses. Together with three other distinguished colleagues, Falcone offered her perspective as a woman leader in an industry that historically has been dominated by men, as well as her experience taking charge of her family’s company.
Amplifying voices of women leaders
The event was organized by Business Consulting Resources as a follow-up to its recent survey of women in leadership roles at family-owned businesses. They interviewed leaders throughout the United States and across a diverse range of industries. Women in Family Business recently published an in-depth look at the study, available here. The results reveal a complex picture.
On the one hand, opportunities for women to take leadership roles have expanded in recent decades. Some high-profile businesses, like Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Spacex have appointed women CEOs and Presidents. “There are bright spots,” Falcone commented. “In Silicon Valley, for instance, hiring women CEOs is the cool thing to do. Better maternity leave, people in Congress bringing their babies to work, that sort of thing.”
On the other hand, women continue to face significant challenges breaking into the top tier of corporate leadership. In industries and roles that traditionally have been dominated by men, women often need to develop specific skills to overcome barriers and reach the top. Overcoming self-doubt despite great success is a common hurdle. “The imposter syndrome is definitely a thing,” Falcone said.
Family businesses have unique features
Falcone likened the career challenges women face to a game of Jenga. Like Jenga, a woman’s career can require a complex balancing routine. Taking a new leadership role in a family business can present unique challenges. Part of the challenge comes from constantly being around family, especially if a spouse works at the same company.
Women often find they need to work especially hard to prove themselves to their families and the people they lead. As Falcone explained, “Loyalty is developed under the patriarch, and when you’re trying to transition that loyalty to a new leader you have to prove yourself. You have to retire that image people have of ‘daddy’s little girl,’ to see the leader as a person with skills.”
As a brazing and heat-treating business, Thermal-Vac’s industry has long been overwhelmingly led by men. The company continues to be family-oriented. Falcone, who is part of Thermal-Vac’s second generation of family leaders, thinks the tradition of fathers passing on businesses to sons contributed to a male-dominated culture. “Maybe the daughters just haven’t been around, or haven’t been interested, but more than likely just weren’t given the opportunity to lead” Falcone said. She thinks generational change will bring about a shift in perspective, as young people today want a better work-life balance than their parents and will open up broader opportunities as they get into leadership roles.
Fostering a more inclusive tomorrow
Thermal-Vac is working hard to attracting women to the industry. Falcone explained, “There’s a huge wave of female engineers coming up through the colleges. Women aren’t as exposed to the industry as they could be. It’s something we’re excited to tackle.” Thermal-Vac already has women working as engineers and operations, and two of the six members of its executive team are women. As Falcone sees it, these inroads are just a start.
Falcone emphasized that Thermal-Vac is interested in diversity as a whole and is trying to foster growth in all of its employees. “The goal is opportunity for everyone,” she said. By leveling the playing field, women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups can find paths to success.
Falcone’s advice to women who are interested in advancing into leadership positions in industry is simple: “Don’t let your gender define anything you do. Don’t allow it to be an excuse: you are equal, so act like it. Stay true to yourself, and good things will happen.” This philosophy informs the way she works and plays. “Ultimately,” she said, “I don’t want to be put in a box. I want to be known as a leader, not a woman leader. Once we aren’t talking about an executive’s gender, we’ll know we’ve made progress.”
About Thermal-Vac Technology, Inc.
Thermal-Vac Technology is a family-owned brazing, heat treating, and metal finishing company located in Orange, California. Founded in 1985, the company serves manufacturers in Southern California and throughout the west. Customers include some of the biggest names in American manufacturing, including major companies in aerospace, medical devices, consumer products and more.