IIAR, RETA Celebrate and Encourage Women in the Industry

IIIAR hosted its first women’s networking reception during the annual meeting and expo, celebrating women in the industry and providing a venue for them to connect.

“I’m always impressed with the women’s drive and what they’ve accomplished. We tend to be humbled by ourselves, but there are so many wonderful and smart women in our industry that it is nice to witness that appreciation,” said Beth Fox, evaporator product manager at Evapco.

The idea of a women’s networking event started as an information dinner at the last in-person IIAR meeting in Phoenix. “It was a pop-up event. A bunch of ladies decided to get together. From there, it was determined we’re all cut from the same cloth and wanted to make it more formal,” Fox said. “It is a way to celebrate women.”

This time, it was more formal, with the event scheduled in advance. “It was nice to see the support of the IIAR board of directors. If you were to have taken a snapshot of everyone in the area in Phoenix, it was all female. Then if you take a snapshot of what took place in Savannah, you couldn’t tell if it was a women’s event or for everybody,” Fox said.

Melissa Cassell, finance director for General Refrigeration Co., said the events are open to everyone who believes in furthering and advancing women’s careers. “There are many men in our industry who have sought out and provided opportunities for women and I think it’s important that women without that support know that it does exist,” she said.

IIAR is focused on networking and support. “In an industry filled with men, it is sometimes hard to break the surface. We’re there to encourage women to get involved and write technical papers and make sure they know their voice and influence are as important as the men in the industry,” said Eileen McKeown, vice president of marketing and sales for IIAR.

Cassell said support is critical. “In any industry that is primarily maledominated such as ours, I believe it is natural for women to sometimes feel as though there are hurdles to their promotion and growth within their careers,” she said. “Our desire in bringing women in the industry together is to provide a support network to not only demonstrate the ability for women to succeed, but to also provide resources and a network of support when women are facing situations that they are unsure of how to navigate.”

“I believe this group can really impact not only women currently in our industry but also the number of women entering our industry in the future.”

Melissa Cassell, finance director for General Refrigeration Co.,

Stephanie Smith, senior engineer II for Risk Management Professionals Inc., said having a broad range of support is essential. “We need to allow men to come and support us as much as women supporting each other,” she said.

Fox said it is especially nice to see the young women coming into the industry. “Being one of the legacy women—I’ve been in 18 years—it is nice to see that support of the younger ones just starting in the industry and letting them know they’re not alone,” she said. Smith, an environmental engineer, said her schooling was vastly male-dominated. “Everyone was very nice and accepting, but it has come a long way since then. We want to help those coming into the industry, so they don’t have to feel like they are the only woman in the room,” she said.

Both Smith and Fox are also involved with the Refrigerating Engineers & Technicians Association (RETA) group Women in Natural Refrigeration, which was founded in 2018 as part of the RETA Training Institute to address the workforce development needs of the overall industry. WiNR is one of three RETA programs designed to encourage new entrants in the industry through networking, mentoring, and education.

“Over the last year, we pushed to take that on and run with it,” Smith said, explaining that WiNR’s mission is to dedicate time and space for career development for women.

Lois Stirewalt, a spokesperson for RETA, said WiNR has its roots in an informal get-together in 2016. During the RETA conference in Las Vegas, a small group of women in attendance decided to connect over dinner. “It turned into a fun, long evening, so we made a point to stay connected with email after that. Every time we had either an IIAR, RETA, or Global Cold Chain Alliance event, the same people started sitting together,” she said.

In 2018, RETA held a formal breakfast. “We had the speaker come and speak to the group of women. It was organized but was loosely organized,” Stirewalt said, adding that the event was held at the front end of the conference. “That way, you will have facial recognition and not feel so singled out in a traditionally male-dominated industry.”

WiNR also holds Zoom meetings with young women in Mexico. “Some of the women in our group have shared information papers about products and training,” Stirewalt said, adding that WiNR hopes to focus on training in the future and possibly add a scholarship to bring young women to a conference or encourage their education.

The WiNR group has evolved significantly in the past six years, and the involvement and excitement behind it have grown exponentially, Cassell said. “I believe this group can really impact not only women currently in our industry but also the number of women entering our industry in the future,” she said.

While IIAR’s group isn’t run like WiNR, Smith said both groups connect many of the same people with the same objectives. “The biggest thing is that these groups can bring together familiar faces, so you don’t walk into a room without recognizing anybody,” she said. “I like how IIAR has kept it as an event for now because we all have so many things to go to at conferences.”

Some attendees even brought young daughters or students to the IIAR event. “That provides them opportunities to see what is going on,” she said. “People ask how I got into the industry, and I say by accident, but it doesn’t have to be. This group brings an opportunity to advocate and educate about the industry. The more generally our kids know about what we do and our colleagues do, the better equipped they’ll be to find their paths.”

Cassell said the number of women she has connected with in the past several years has been incredible. “When I first began attending conferences, women were typically seen primarily in the guest programs as wives of attendees,” she said. “Now when I attend conferences, it’s incredibly humbling to see the number of women attending conferences as representatives of companies within our industry.”

McKeown said IIAR hopes to continue to grow women’s initiatives. “It is a newly formed initiative within IIAR, and anyone who wants to be part of the conversation is welcome to take part,” McKeown said.