January Newsletter Feature:

Put HER in the RTE Room

by Denise Perry, PhD, of Single Shot Consulting
and NMPAN Advisory Board Member

…continued from the newsletter

The reality is that MOST of the men I have worked for, with and who have worked for me are some of my biggest advocates, cheerleaders and fans, very much like the men who worked alongside my mom.  Most of all, MOST of those who have helped me become the professional I am (mostly good, but some bad/indifferent), have been men. Recently, however, I have been reminded of two stark lessons: 1) we still have significant work to do in areas of discrimination within the meat industry, 2) in a day where our workforce is limited this discriminatory mindset will be detrimental to those who “stay the course.”

I was recently attending a conference as an invited speaker, but for this particular moment I was a member of the audience. The three speakers on stage consisted of a prominent technical assistant who is in day-to-day contact with advising existing, developing and just starting aspiring meat plant owners and managers, another was a state politician of some manner and the third, a current very small meat plant manager. The primary speaker and respondent was the technical assistant. An audience member asked the speakers on stage “can women work on the slaughter floor?”  Although the question itself was an attention-grabber, the most concerning part of this interaction was the response of someone who is supposed to be an expert and respected advisor to the meat industry.

The response was anything but respectful and was along the lines of the following: “Well, I think having women work the slaughter floor is always a possibility.  I generally discuss having plants start them in the RTE [light-duty, cooked product packaging area] and then seeing how they do. Then eventually you can think about moving them through the plant…” He continued on along this line of thinking long enough that I had to start implementing some heavy breathing exercises so I could professionally interject and stop this ignorance. He then defers to the very small plant manager on stage with him, who responds with a similarly ignorant response of entertaining the idea of “easing” a woman onto the slaughter floor. At this point, my head is about to explode. Mind you, in this setting, I am literally surrounded by amazingly strong, resilient women in agriculture from many generations, who are all too familiar with this scenario. Also along for the ride, a respected fellow male meat scientist, who was chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief and acknowledgement of the responders’ highly unacceptable answer.  I take some deep breaths and raise my hand to interrupt. 

The “leader”, who knows me by name, calls on me.  I make it very clear that women can, in fact, work on the slaughter floor. One example that I frankly should not have felt obligated to provide, is of a woman that is a lead on a slaughter floor in a plant in the north east US, who does everything from handling/knocking to pushing carcasses into the cooler, leading (& training) all the personnel on her slaughter floor.  I also mention how I, myself, was (GASP) a plant manager at a meat processing facility that slaughtered up to 100 head per day, had six HACCP plans and around 120 employees. I will admit, I was told by a former manager of mine who had worked in several large meat plants, that I was essentially a “unicorn” in the industry, as a female plant manager overseeing slaughter and all other operations.

Upon my interjection, I saw many of the women in that room (and there were many) turn to look at me and give me an approving smile, with what I could only interpret as “glimmers of appreciation” in their eyes for speaking up.  Much like my mother, I am not afraid, nor have I been for the past 20+ years, to correct ignorant responses or comments. This is what being one of the many trailblazers in male-dominated industries feels like and has felt like for the past 20 plus years and frankly, being a trailblazer now is way easier than it would have been even more decades ago, which is a sign of progress for sure! However, in instances such as these, where I feel I have been walloped alongside the head and sent through a 20-year time warp, I admit I “wake up” again and am reminded that there is still progress to be made considering this response was reminiscent of my “start” in the industry.

Rewind 23 years, when I worked as a general laborer in a plant as an undergraduate in 2000. Upon being hired and knowing I was going to move on to graduate school for meat science, I expressed very confidently about my desire to work the slaughter floor and asked if I could work out there, even if just for a small amount of time. After being placed in the RTE room, despite my request to be placed on the slaughter floor, I continued to ask when I could go onto the slaughter floor, even just to observe.  I never was put onto the slaughter floor prior to leaving for graduate school. Once in graduate school, I was finally able to push my way through every position on the slaughter floor. I learned each job that floor entailed for beef, lamb and hogs, during my master’s degree. I had to push and speak up and not sit and wait for someone to offer to teach me.

Nineteen years later, I accepted the first plant manager position offered at the facility that I had worked “RTE” pre-grad school. In my new role as plant manager, within the first few months, I demoted the slaughter floor supervisor (that I “inherited”) for his discrimination, not only towards me, but also to the females on the slaughter floor. Unfortunately, this action was taken after some females had already left due to his treatment of them. This was not an easy action to take and I could tell there was hesitant support of my decision from above.  The supervisor would only put the women as “trimmers” or “offal handlers”, both jobs being the slaughter floor’s version of “RTE”. He would also “push” them to the side when he felt they were not going fast enough or doing a good enough job. As of my departure from this facility, we were working on promoting a female to slaughter supervisor. She had worked hard over the past four plus years to grow and develop into the strong, positive leader that floor needed. We also had a long-time, well-respected woman at hide puller, along with two others who only wanted to work offal handling (we asked and tried cross-training them, but they were content where they were). I know I left that floor in good leadership hands to continue the trend of simply hiring those willing to put in the work it takes to produce clean, wholesome meat products.  And for the record, if you were wondering about the slaughter floor lead I referenced in my response to the ignorance at the conference, you guessed it, she also started in the sausage department. The plant didn’t have much of an RTE department, so sausage was the next closest-and farthest away from gaining skill with a knife.

There is a lot I could dissect here, and likely some things I over-simplified. What I can guarantee is that there are many meat plant managers around the country who are male and do not have their masters and PhD in meat science or any other discipline for that matter. I can almost guarantee I would not have gotten close to the point of being offered a plant manager position had I not had those credentials. Graduate school was where I was able to push my way through the gamut of meat processing and gain essential confidence and experience to thrive within the industry. Those credentials were also necessary because the industry still has discriminatory obstacles lurking within the walls of the production floor, management & C-Suite offices and board rooms.

The good news, I have recounted this story to many peers in the industry, male and female, and all have been appalled and just as disappointed as I was upon hearing this response. Unfortunately, many of them are not the ones running the plants, but fortunately, many are working as technical assistants in advising plants or play other prominent roles within the industry. I continue to see the highest ratio of females on university slaughter floors. And to those who continue to “send her to the RTE room” and make her work her way through the plant before even considering her for the cut room or slaughter floor, I would expect your “vetting” process is the same for your male hires and if it is not, you are discriminating.

As for the technical assistant’s response at that conference, I believe he legitimately thought he was answering in a respectful and fair way, but that is just another part of the problem.  All the women surrounding me in the audience begged to differ relative to his response, but we had all seen it, heard it and lived it before.

The very simple and correct answer would have been “of course, wherever they are willing and interested in performing and learning the work.”  An alternate response for him, knowing I was in the audience, would have been to defer the question to me. I would have happily provided the unbiased answer, along with some additional anecdotal non-gender specific vetting and hiring advice for each area of the plant.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes relative to this topic, introduced to me by my female mentor during a meat industry internship in The Netherlands, which she included in her Meat Science PhD dissertation documents:

“Women will only really be equal to men the day that an important job is assigned to an incompetent woman.”– Françoise Giroud

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