Special Report
Tuesday | 16 August, 2016 | 8:49 am

Women in metals

Written by By Corinna Petry

Celebrating the movers and shakers who have thrived and wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else

August 2016 - It’s no longer an anomaly to see a woman at the head of a boardroom table, operating a band saw or directing a sales force. That fact should be celebrated, yet there are greater strides to be made. In this issue, we explore a female pioneer; we discuss the gender gap; and we profile outstanding leaders in the metals world.

What draws many women to manufacturing and metals is how the work requires a different set of skills (finance, metallurgy, law and engineering are a few examples) than jobs in “traditional” fields like healthcare, education or retail. What keeps them there is support from their peers. What moves them to the top are hard work, experience, team building skills and the ability to command respect.

19th century leader

Rebecca Lukens, born Jan. 6, 1794, to Isaac Pennock and Martha Webb Pennock, shadowed her father at his ironworks. She visited suppliers at the forges and spent as much time at the mill as she spent at home with her mother, according to the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. She married Dr. Charles Lloyd Lukens, who promptly gave up medicine to join his father-in-law at the Federal Slitting Mill. Isaac Pennock established the Brandywine Rolling Mill & Nail Factory on July 2, 1810. By 1817, he offered it to his daughter and son-in-law to improve it and run it better than he had. 

Dr. Lukens turned out to be a good manager of a mill that made boilerplate for a burgeoning steam engine market. On his deathbed in 1825, he implored his wife to continue operating the ironworks. Successful at rolling plate for steamships and locomotives, Rebecca Lukens was as well regarded as any industrialist of the era. She ran the company for 22 years before retiring. (For more about Rebecca Lukens, see “Iron Maiden.”)

Study findings

A 2015 study, commissioned by The Manufacturing Institute, APICS and Deloitte, surveyed 600 women professionals to ask how companies can effectively recruit, retain and advance talented women. Women represent a vast pool of untapped talent, even as the U.S. manufacturing sector faces a shortfall of 2 million workers over the next decade. Here’s a statistic: Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force but fill only 27 percent of manufacturing positions. In other words, a solution to the skills gap already exists.

More than two-thirds of survey respondents would stay in manufacturing if they were to start their career today because they find opportunities for challenging and interesting assignments, attractive pay and work-life balance. Causes to leave a job in manufacturing include poor working relationships, lack of promotion opportunities and inadequate compensation.

A tiny majority (51 percent) of the respondents said they saw positive change in their industry’s attitude toward female professional employees but definitive action will move the needle. For example, cultural change in the C-suite is a priority and executives must lead by example.

A separate survey sponsored by Women in Manufacturing (WiM) focused on young women. Some believe the interesting and challenging work and high earnings potential that could be found in manufacturing work aligns closely with what they want in a career. More than three-fourths of women already in manufacturing careers confirm their work is indeed interesting and challenging and that there are multiple job roles to explore. Yet, 68 percent of young women aren’t likely to consider manufacturing as a career path because of an antiquated image of a grimy factory dominated by men.

Alison Grealis, founder and president of WiM, predicts progress, saying, “We are influencing younger people about what sector to enter and how to apply their experience. We had 70-plus attendees under 30 years old at a Northern California meeting. We have campus chapters forming,” especially at universities with engineering programs. “Locally and nationally we are launching a mentorship program in the next year,” adds Grealis. Such endeavors are meant to attract talented women into manufacturing careers. 

[ professionalism ]


Women in Manufacturing has more than 600 members from 350 manufacturing companies. It supports, promotes and inspires manufacturing career women and those pursuing such careers. Members share perspectives, gain information, improve leadership and communication skills, participate in sponsoring programs and network with peers. Benefits include mentoring and sponsoring programs, professional development, job postings, online discussion communities, a quarterly newsletter and directory.

“We believe we are helping [further careers], and manufacturing companies are more sophisticated about attracting, retaining and advancing women in manufacturing,” WiM Founder and President Alison Grealis says. “We have had nothing but positive responses to what we deliver. From evaluation forms from all events, women write passionately about how we are impacting their careers, and some find something like a sisterhood at our events.”

Profiles in leadership

The metals industry today better reflects the demographic of a professional workforce across all business sectors so it was quite easy to find 10 women who are at the top of their game. 

MM 0816 women wheelerJodi Keller-Wheeler, vice president, United Scrap Metal

Keller-Wheeler moved to Chicago after college to pursue a career in IT consulting but “it was not fulfilling.” A recruiter asked her to interview at United Scrap Metal. “My first reaction was ‘hell no.’” But she went, and “fell in love” with owner Marsha Serlin.

She worked in sales and eventually climbed up the executive ladder. Serlin was a constant inspiration, says Keller-Wheeler who, over 14 years, has greatly expanded her view of the role of manufacturing in the economy. “I think about everything, like how does 3-D printing affect scrap? Or, is a wage war at McDonald’s forcing automation, which would create demand for equipment that takes your order?

“This is not a typical industry. You have to understand how things are made and how you provide value. You also have to deal with the good old boys.” For that, she recommends, “Don’t be intimidated or self conscious. Know what you’re talking about.” Those who have “conviction and courage, who fight for the principles that matter, can survive and thrive. I have an objective. I can be heard. I belong here.”

Women, she says, “are stronger with every generation and understand that grit and dirt is more interesting than sitting behind a desk. Our company’s female- to-male ratio is quite high—it doesn’t have to be a man’s world. Be confident, be credible, be seen as a leader and not a ‘girl.’ You own that. You don’t have to tolerate or participate in harassment.”

Keller-Wheeler walks the walk. She called a local high school and, using her own money, offered to sponsor a scholarship for students who are interested in manufacturing careers. “I am advocating what I truly believe in to impact individuals in the future.”

MM 0816 women hicktonDawne Hickton, board president, International Titanium Association

“I grew up in western New York and my grandfather was a scarfer at [Bethlehem Steel’s] Lackawanna plant. Both my parents worked for Bethlehem so it’s in my blood. I graduated from University of Pittsburgh School of Law and my first job was at U.S. Steel, [which] seemed logical.”

Hickton spent more than 10 years with U.S. Steel working on legal matters involving coal and iron ore mining. She left to raise her family and teach graduate school but within the third year of teaching was asked back by U.S. Steel “to become part of the executive team for RMI Titanium.”

In the first two years, RMI made several acquisitions, becoming a multi-operation producer operating plasma and electron beam furnaces. She and her team kept expanding the company and pushing it up the value chain through acquisitions and capital projects. By the time Alcoa acquired RTI International Metals Inc. in 2015, for $1.5 billion, “we became an integrated producer from melting to 3-D printing,” and every process in between, across 20 facilities.

Hickton credits “a great executive team, great management and a great workforce” for RTI International’s success and profitable divestiture. “My style of leadership is inclusive. I’m not the smartest person—I relied on other people.”

Hickton believes working hard generated the leadership opportunities that came to her. “My approach was to do the job well,” whether in metals or teaching. “I never thought I would become CEO of RTI. That was both satisfying and scary. At first I pinched myself and wondered, why me? But you can always do more than you think you can. Be prepared, be sure you listen to others, then charge forward,” she advises the next generation of executives.

Hickton chairs ITA’s Women in Titanium committee. 

MM 0816 women muthanaAneesa Muthana, president and owner, Pioneer Service Inc.

“It was at the ripe age of 11” when Muthana began machining metal. “Some girls got Barbies. I got a centerless grinder.” Her father owned a machine shop in Chicago. “Low-cost labor turned out to be his children,” she says.

“I enjoyed it and was good at it. Dad put a speaker in the shop so I could hear the phone. I would jump over the bundles [of steel bar] on the floor to take the sales call.” Sibling rivalry played a role in Muthana’s career development: “I always wanted to prove myself with two older brothers. Although I love them and we worked hard together, I had to do better,” she recalls.

By the time Muthana was 23 and a pro at running a bar grinding business, her uncle, who owned a machine shop in the west suburbs, asked 4c42df5a-8c38-44c1-8bd2-a671910b1998.jpgher to come help run his company. He made her a partner and the active leader.

Aside from skills passed on by her father and uncle, Muthana says she was inspired by her mother, who came from a small village, spoke no English and worked at a factory to provide for her family. “The inspiration was not to fail everyone. That drove me. Whatever it took, I was not going to fail.”

As a woman, Muthana says, “I’m not naive. I ignore the setbacks, the negativity. I know my team, I know my strengths. It doesn’t matter that I’m a minority or a woman, I will find opportunities.” At industry conferences, Muthana always “takes a quick tally.” There might be “three women in the room and 100 guys. I don’t want to blame the industry or the men. Women need to get their hands dirty.”

She pays her success forward. “I buy from women. I interview women for positions at my company. I am blown away by the talent out there.” There is no reason for women not to excel in metals, she says. “You’ll find closed doors but also open doors. If you know your business, you’ll get in.”

MM 0816 women lukensRebecca Lukens would be considered the manager of Brandywine Iron Works & Nail Factory (predecessor of Lukens Steel Co.) and other businesses, according to LeAnn Zolovich, educational services manager for the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum. “Rebecca managed the commercial side: buying supplies, making contracts and negotiating sales. Her brother-in-law, Solomon Lukens, oversaw the labor and mill operations. Rebecca also managed a store, warehouse, freight agency, housing and a farm.”

While devoted to her husband, children and grandchildren, Rebecca Lukens expanded Brandywine’s local market to the national level when a railroad was established near her mill. Some things never change: “When cheap, poor quality iron products were coming into America, she lobbied legislators to establish tariffs protecting the American iron industry,” says Zolovich.

During the Panic of 1837, which began a major economic recession that lasted until the mid-1840s, Lukens would not shut down Brandywine Iron Works. Instead, she “slowed production and set her employees to maintaining and repairing equipment and working on her farm.” This helped workers and kept the mill operating when many others closed.

Although many in the iron industry would attempt “to take advantage of a female” like Rebecca Lukens, others helped her. “Charles Brooke, ironmaster of Hibernia, supplied her bar iron on generous credit and loaned her money when needed,” says Zolovich. And once established as a producer of quality iron, Lukens “did gain the admiration, respect and cooperation from male leaders of the day.”

Armed with such qualities as strength, resilience, courage and leadership, Lukens remains an inspiration today. “Rebecca knew the importance of iron to the American economy, accepted new technology and her strategic outlook allowed her to establish an iron site in the 1800s that remains the longest continuously operating steel site in the United States,” says Zolovich.

MM 0816 women lewisKarla Lewis, eVP and CFO, Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co.

Lewis audited Reliance’s books for four years as a public accountant at Ernst & Young LLP. She was encouraged to join Reliance just as she was looking for a place “where I could learn a lot and provide insight.” She never dreamed the distributor would become the No. 1 service center chain in North America.

From the beginning, the draw “was the people and quality of the company. I like challenges and we were always involved in transactions and organic growth. I was always learning and doing new things.”

Lewis works with investors and analysts on Wall Street, bond traders, ratings agencies, the Securities and Exchange Commission—none of these duties were in the original job description.

“One of the most satisfying things about working at Reliance is we all come to work wanting to do the right thing, even if we don’t initially agree on what the right thing is. Whether for employees, customers or shareholders, we are good and fair, which makes it worthwhile.”

More women are taking on key roles at Reliance and among peers, says Lewis. “We have women in key positions and have two women running Reliance businesses on an operational basis. Every year, we see more women at our suppliers, too. The industry is more open; it has transformed from an old boys club to more professionalism.”

Personally, says Lewis, “I never felt held back. I would encourage women to put aside stereotypes and perceptions about what they think the metals industry is and pursue a meaningful career—and concern themselves with real obstacles.”

MM 0816 women brittonMarion Britton, executive vice president and CFO, Russel Metals Inc.

Britton joined Marshall Drummond McCall after working for an accounting firm. She kept her head down and learned all she possibly could about the metals industry. When the firm was sold to Russel, she liked the people and found a wider range of opportunities. “Every couple years my job changed. It forced me into more of an operational role, working with operational guys.”

Learning the production side was intriguing, but Britton also found that “anything that involved acquisitions was interesting.”

Early in her career, few women worked in metals. Often, she says, “I was the only female. So you put up with some rude language or comments. But I had the support of my CFO and CEO all along the road.”

That allowed her space to “build a team around me. In finance and administration, some have been with me a lot of years and we work well together.”

“It’s been proven women are always an asset on a team,” Britton says. “A lot of big companies realize that. We think differently, turn over different rocks and add value because of that.” 

In hiring, she says Russel Metals “looks at each candidate equally. Sometimes, someone will observe, ‘you should hire some guys.’ But some guys don’t want to pay their dues first to move up. Most women roll up their sleeves and work hard to get recognized. They stay longer.”

MM 0816 women mayhillConnie Mayhill , president, Altemp Alloys Inc.

“Feeling unhappy with the way my career was going, I purchased a red power suit, drove to Los Angeles and walked in to the largest headhunter in the city and landed an interview,” Mayhill recalls. “A few hours later, I received a call asking if I would entertain the idea of interviewing for a position with a metals company. That evening, still in my red suit, I had a dinner interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel—and got hired on the spot.”

She met her future husband on the job. Some years later, Mayhill felt constrained. Her husband brought home a gift one evening. She opened it and he explained, “Every president needs a red phone.” So she launched a metals company from their home, servicing “a handful of customers, including Boeing.”

The Mayhills “had maxed out our credit cards” so she contacted a former colleague who had joined a forging company. The owner of that forging company, along with her colleague, “became my silent partners.”

She moved into offices, gained access to warehouse staff, and learned the forging and heat treating business. “This laid the foundation for my ability to form Altemp Alloys. A few years later I was able to repay my partners, and away I went.”

The company won work providing high-temperature alloys to the aerospace, defense and power generation industries. “One of our proudest moments was being invited by NASA to watch the launch of rocket engines that carried a lot of our materials.”

Thirty-seven years later, says Mayhill, “that red phone, the gift from my husband that launched my career, still sits in a special place in my office.”

As far as careers go for women in metals, “we are all excelling in many different areas,” she says.

MM 0816 women petersDonna Peters, technical service manager, Arcelormittal USA Inc.

After obtaining an associate’s degree in graphic design, Peters took a “temp job as a Kelly girl at Jones & Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh. “I was planning to go back to school,” but after being offered a full-time post, “I never left.” The job paid well and she enjoyed it.

“I was doing claim credits. I would read all the claims reports. I found it fascinating,” Peters recalls. She was continually asking questions about what the company did and how all the activities fit together. She found a mentor who “got me my first plant tour so I could understand all the things that didn’t make sense to me.”

Over time, J&L was consolidated with other big steel mills but Peters was kept on under every phase of new ownership. For a while, she left to work as a quality manager at a service center but the company “wasn’t using my talent and I wanted to use my talents again.” So she came back to Big Steel as a technical representative and [within Arcelormittal] “I made some really good moves in the last 10 years. I’m on my third job, managing tech reps.”

Having started her career in the late 1970s, Peters faced discriminatory attitudes. “I was in a plant meeting talking about an ongoing issue a customer was having: Its claims were higher than they should be. This guy asked me, ‘Are your decisions challenged more because you are a woman?’” Another time, she had to inform a customer that his new metallurgist was a woman. “He says, ‘A girl?’ It was culture shock. He’s losing his best buddy, Earl, and getting Rhonda.”

Once, she was taking notes, for her own edification, in a staff meeting. The leader was like, “‘Would you mind taking minutes?’” My boss said, ‘She’s not taking minutes for you.’ I always respected that boss.”

The most satisfying aspects of her career are “being able to show I am capable of leading people and demonstrating my knowledge,” based on years of hands-on experience.

Today, Peters is president of the 35-year-old Association of Women in the Metals Industries. 

[ empowerment ]

About AWMI

Incorporated in 1981, AWMI began with the vision of founder Heidi Doran, who sought to promote and develop the education and professionalism of women in the metal industries. AWMI also provides networking for members, which enhances their career opportunities. F. Kenneth Iverson, president and CEO of Nucor Corp., spoke at the first Industry Dinner.

By 1985, there were five chapters; by 1989, AWMI had 17 chapters. By 1991, membership soared past 1,000; in 1996, it surpassed 1,700. When a chapter formed in Toronto, Canada, AWMI became international.

Membership shrank in 2001 and 2002 as the industry consolidated, rationalized, closed plants and laid off thousands of people. After that hit, however, membership grew again, albeit more slowly, largely through the success of a new category of corporate membership.

Donna Peters, current AWMI president, joined the Chicago chapter 25 years ago. “Women at the plant level are not seen as an oddity; they’re just part of the workforce. If you have the skills, companies want you to be successful. More women are going into engineering and in the fields that men train, including the military. That helps build acceptance.”

Members of AWMI, says Peters, “have the talent, they have the skills. Gender doesn’t matter.”

MM 0816 women douglassBrigette Douglass, vice president-sales and marketing, Aluminum Shapes LLC

Douglass’ father worked in carbon and alloy steels so she recalls “soaking up dinner conversations when he was developing new microalloy patents. I visited my first rolling mill with him when I was 5 years old.”

Her own career started at Ryerson Steel and she absorbed “everything from CAD drawings to working with customers that were making MRI machines and ice makers, door knobs and downhill drilling components. It was excitingly diverse.”

She moved to Kaiser Aluminum, then to SAPA, then to Aluminum Shapes—the customers are very similar with each. Douglass’ challenge has been to pair the vast experience of the existing workforce with all the fresh young talent that’s been recruited, and get them to focus on how to capitalize on the company’s strategic advantages.

To grow the next generation, Douglass led the effort to give employees tools they need to do their job, a voice in the process, and cross training so workers learn each phase of production and bring that expertise to their own stations.

“We’re seeing the benefits of that: Younger employees come in with newer sales methods and instincts that meld well with the changing market environment,” Douglass says. “When we mix them in with our veteran sales staff, we end up with a team that can leverage deep experience alongside new tools.”

MM 0816 women goldenbergLisa Goldenberg, president, Delaware Steel Co.

With her father, Jerald Brownstein, Goldenberg restarted an older company owned by her grandfather. Steel trading “was in my blood.” Early on, the logistics of being a full-time working mother proved challenging. She recalls “long hours, long days.”

Yet, “people who are successful take work home. You look at inventory at night, make calls at 6 a.m., and you’re aware of what’s happening on third shift.”

The metals industry’s gender gap, says Goldenberg, is “definitely better today” but she occasionally had to emphasize, “‘I’m a mom, not a babe.’ I’m traditional. Guys do things in a group that are not for me—I did not go out and party. [Some] conversations can get super off color.”

She doesn’t “wave a banner” for feminism. “Everyone should have a voice.” A former president of the Association of Steel Distributors, she is often tapped to speak at industry conferences and is interviewed on air by television and radio business reporters. But it’s not for a “female perspective” that she’s asked to do so. “I’ve been through a lot of market cycles and experience matters.”

Like Muthana, Goldenberg tallies the demographics at industry events. “Rather than me being the only woman in the room, there are now two or three women at each table,” she says. In addition, “We are getting inquiries from women traders every day, not just once a month.

“I know a woman at a steel mill who just had a baby and is working from home. For a steel mill to let a young mom work full time from home—that’s the first I heard of that. But she is talented and it would have been foolish [for the company] not to recognize that.”

Goldenberg mentors women in her company. “Women are an asset, equal to any other viable employee.”

MM 0816 women waglerTheresa Wagler, executive vice president and CFO, Steel Dynamics Inc.

Wagler’s 1998 entry to the metals industry “was a bit fortuitous and unplanned.” She was on her way to accept a job in Chicago when she was asked to interview with a new public company. “I declined the interview three times.”

Once she agreed and met SDI’s executives, “I felt very much aligned with a culture that was exciting to me and [drawn by the fact] I would be in the C-suite. 

“I thought I was merely postponing my move to Chicago,” recalls Wagler, but one reason she stayed with SDI was the absence of negative feedback for her ideas, such as “‘That is not in your area,’ or ‘You don’t have the authority to do that.’” Instead, “you are in charge of your own accomplishments.”

Among the challenges she faced was to leverage a lean management culture to accomplish all that a much larger executive structure does. As head of finance, Wagler covers taxation, public reporting and investor relations, internal auditing, information systems and risk management.

The key, “I realized, is to place experts around you. We have the right people and we do have fun.” Wagler’s contributions include assuaging creditors and investors that SDI can take calculated risks and succeed in returning value. For example, SDI was not highest bidder for Severstal North America’s Columbus, Mississippi, flat-rolled mill, but it won, in part, because the company was “very nimble and quick about getting the finances in order.”

Wagler is gratified to see more women in engineering and metallurgy positions as well as in corporate finance. She mentors young people in her organization “who have a passion and a spark but it’s up to the individual herself to take advantage of opportunities.” The crucial element is to be “curious; the rest can be taught.”


Company Profiles





Camfil APC - Equipment


ATI Industrial Automation

4GL Solutions

Enmark Systems Inc. 

Camfil APC- Replacement Filters Lissmac Corp. NICKEL ALLOY Lantek Systems Inc.
Supermax Tools
Sandmeyer Steel Company SigmaTEK Systems LLC



Richardson Metals, Inc.






Churchill Steel Plate
Steelmax Tools LLC




   Trilogy Machinery Inc. Sandmeyer Steel Company Heyco Metals



Sandmeyer Steel Company



Trilogy Machinery Inc.




Alliance Steel
Burghardt + Schmidt Group MC Machinery Systems Inc. Rolleri USA North American Steel Alliance
Butech Bliss TRUMPF Inc.



Red Bud Industries


MC Machinery Systems Inc.

Sandmeyer Steel Company

The Bradbury Group EMH Crane



Fehr Warehouse Solutions Inc. Hougen Manufacturing BLM Group


Steel Storage Systems


HGG Profiling Equipment Inc.
Concast Metal Products Co.
UFP IndustrialUFP Industrial Advanced Machine & Engineering  National Tube Supply

Copper and Brass Servicenter Association

Farmers Copper

Prudential Stainless & Alloys


Behringer Saws Inc.


Advanced Gauging Technologies Cosen Saws Barton International


DoALL Sawing Products Jet Edge Waterjet Systems
Cincinnati Inc. HE&M Saw Omax Corp.
  LVD Strippit Savage Saws


  Scotchman Industries


Jarden Zinc Products
  Trilogy Machinery Inc. Admiral Steel  
    Alliance Steel  

TPMG2022 Brands