Sitting together on stage in front of a standing-room-only crowd, Riley asked Grandin to make observations about the beginning of her career, specifically about the challenges of being a woman entering what was a male-dominated industry, which was made more challenging by her being autistic and her proposing an outside-the-box system of scoring animal welfare practices using an objective scoring system. Designing handling systems and creating equipment that had not been seen in plants before required patience and commitment.
As the inventor of the center-track restrainer, Grandin said selling the systems and the equipment was not the challenge. Ensuring the proper operation and maintenance of them was the biggest hiccup when the systems were initially installed at slaughter plants. She recalled the third installation of the system that didn’t go smoothly. “Chaos,” is how she described it, because the night shift operators of the restrainer system ruined sprockets in the machinery due to repetitively shifting the track direction from forward to reverse too many times. She remembered too there were four pneumatic stun guns operating at only half power, contributing to the chaos, adding, “’Zoo’ didn’t begin to describe it,” she said, describing the widespread incidents of equipment misuse at processing plants. “I don’t think people realized back then, just how horrible it was,” she said.
Of the obstacles creating the biggest challenges when she was beginning her career was overcoming the stigma of being a woman in what had been a part of the industry that was almost exclusively run by men. “Being a woman was definitely the hardest,” she said. The challenges weren’t typically among the higher-level executives, though. “I found that all across the industry, the big bosses were good to me. Where I had the trouble was the layer of management just below the big bosses,” which sometimes included positions like plant foremen or plant engineers would often attempt to sabotage Grandin’s work. But she said giving up wasn’t part of her mindset. “What kept me going was people were buying the equipment,” and while the early belief was that equipment was the silver bullet and too often disregarded the management part of the livestock handling operations. “Now we’re starting to get cultural change; we’re really starting to think more about the management and that’s not the way it was in the 80s and 90s.”
Her persistence paid off when, in 1999, McDonald’s Corp. adopted Grandin’s animal welfare auditing system, which has become the standard throughout the industry. “That was a gigantic tipping point,” she said. “I saw more change happen in a six-month period than I’ve seen in my entire career.”
Looking back at the early days, Grandin didn’t name specific people who were her biggest allies, but she was quick to name Cargill as an early and continued supporter and believer in her approach to animal welfare.
Being autistic, Grandin said, was far less of a hurdle than the gender issue. “I think in some ways it helped me understand animals,” she said, as she recalled her first work experience with livestock was in a feedlot in Arizona in the 1970s and she climbed down into the cattle chutes to see what the animals were seeing. “People thought that was radical stuff, but it was obvious to me,” during a time in her life when she didn’t yet realize that she was a visual thinker.
In front of a crowd of about 300 industry professionals, Riley panned the audience and estimated that today, the annual NAMI event focused on livestock handling draws about as many women as men, and asked Grandin, one of the pioneers in closing the industry’s gender gap, about this evolution. “It does make me feel good,” she said. “When I started in the early 70s in Arizona, the only women at the feedyards were in the office doing secretarial work or maybe weighing cattle from the office. On the live side it was all guys,” she said. And at the packing plants the only women on the processing line were relegated to finished products and packaging.
“There were good people in the industry that recognized my abilities,” she said. One way she bolstered her credibility and sold equipment and design jobs was by writing articles for industry magazines and showing decision makers at plants her drawings.
“There were some really great bosses that really recognized my abilities,” she said.