Women in Manufacturing: Closing the Gap

September 27, 2017

By Noelle Salerno & Jennifer Vernon

This article was originally published in Area Development.

Women have played a role in the manufacturing industry since World War II, when the U.S. government called upon women to fill vacated positions left by male enlistment in the armed services. During those years, women took up jobs in the factories and shipyards that were largely considered to be only suitable for men. The image of Rosie the Riveter, among others, was used as a campaign to draw women into the workforce, appealing to their sense of patriotism. And it worked. During these times, women excelled at jobs in the aviation, munitions, and many other industries. But as the war ended, a majority of these women left their factory jobs or were replaced by the men returning from war.

Women still represent less than 30 percent of the manufacturing workforce. Over the years, the role of women in the workforce has changed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for women in 2015 was 56.7 percent, compared to 69.1 percent for men. Equity in earnings has improved with women now earning 81 percent of their male counterparts, up 19 percent from 1979. At the same time, jobs in manufacturing have greatly changed with the introduction of automation and other advancements. Despite these developments, women still represent less than 30 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

A Dedicated, Tailored Approach

The shortage of talent in manufacturing is probably one of the most talked about issues in the industry. A 2015 Deloitte study estimated upward of two million manufacturing jobs that may go unfilled over the next decade. For an industry that is desperately trying to fill that talent gap, one might see increasing the number of women in manufacturing as a viable solution. Based on our findings, however, it will take more than simply calling upon our patriotic duty to do so. Bringing more women into the manufacturing workforce will take a dedicated and tailored approach in the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in the industry.

Here we will showcase a few great examples of what those in the manufacturing industry are already doing to support and grow the number of women in their workforce pipeline.

Addressing Perception Challenges

Perception is a major factor in the manufacturing talent shortage, particularly for women. Addressing these perception challenges requires companies and organizations to focus on the entire talent pipeline, including parents. The examples we found take a hands-on approach that not only showcases the many career opportunities available in manufacturing, but also introduces young women to female role models in the industry.

One such program — All Girls Auto KnowTM— takes 200 young women from middle schools and 100 educators and parents from around Upstate South Carolina and introduces them to the many opportunities that exist for women in STEM-related fields. Put on by the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum — in partnership with Clemson University and major automotive companies such as BMW, Michelin, Dräxlmaier, and Bosch — the day-long All Girls Auto KnowTM program includes an introduction into STEM and automotive-related career opportunities, tours of automotive manufacturing and training facilities, hands-on engineering challenges, and a showcase of local automotive companies. Current plans are to expand the program to other regions of South Carolina, in addition to Birmingham, Alabama, and Georgia.

Another great example is the two-week Camp GADgET (Girls Adventuring in Design, Engineering & Technology) summer camp at Triton College in Illinois. The goal of GADgET is to introduce young women between the ages of 12 and 16 to the world of engineering and to empower them to seek opportunities in this male-dominated field. During the two-week camp, a group of 20 young women tour local engineering and manufacturing companies, talk with females in the field, and create their own gadgets in Triton’s fabrication lab. The camp is led by instructors from the Engineering Technology program at the college.

Establishing a Talent Recruitment Program Dedicated to Women

In 2017 The Manufacturing Institute, APICS, and Deloitte surveyed over 600 women professionals in the manufacturing industry. Over two thirds of the survey respondents indicated that their companies do not have active recruitment programs to attract female employees. However, we’re seeing evidence that this is changing as top manufacturers spearhead dedicated talent recruitment efforts.

A strong culture of inclusion, starting with top leaders and embedded throughout an organization, signals that a company is committed to supporting its female employees.For example, Boeing launched the WomenMakeUsBetter campaign that encourages women to pursue STEM careers. Their online talent recruitment website highlights female engineers and outlines development opportunities available to female employees through the Boeing Women in Leadership Association, Society of Women Engineers, and Women of Color in STEM. Boeing also helped found the Women in Aviation International professional association.

Another example as reported by CNN Money is Carey Manufacturing, whose workforce is nearly 50 percent female. In fact, women outnumber men on the factory floor. The combination of local trade schools and colleges that are recruiting women to enroll in STEM-related training programs and Carey Manufacturing’s reputation for giving “everyone a fair shot” has led to gender parity in the company’s hiring process.

Manufacturers are not alone in their recruitment efforts. An example of a training provider that is developing a strong pipeline of women pursuing STEM talent for local manufacturers is Vincennes University in Indiana. The program provides scholarships to 46 women each year who are pursuing degrees in industrial maintenance, architectural studies, construction, precision machining, and other high-skill manufacturing fields. The university partners with the Indiana Manufacturing Association to help recruit candidates for the program.

Creating a Culture of Inclusion

A strong culture of inclusion, starting with top leaders and embedded throughout an organization, signals that a company is committed to supporting its female employees. Additionally, having programs in place that help women advance in their careers, such as mentorship or leadership training programs, will increase talent retention rates.

With that in mind, Rockwall Automation has been implementing a comprehensive Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) strategy over the past 10 years. Its Culture of Inclusion initiative was launched in 2007 in response to data that showed the company had lower retention rates of women and people of color compared to white men. Senior leaders renewed their commitment to D&I, and programs were deployed across the company by “Inclusion Change Teams” to identify barriers to inclusion, hold D&I training workshops, and implement D&I best practices across the organization.

Perception is a major factor in the manufacturing talent shortage, particularly for women. Changing a company culture takes time, but Rockwall Automation’s dedication to the Culture of Inclusion initiative is paying off, advancing women across businesses and functions at the company. According to a recent company report, “Between 2008 and 2016, women’s representation in the United States has increased from 11.9 percent to 23.5 percent among vice presidents, from 14.7 percent to 23.2 percent among directors, and from 19.3 percent to 24.3 percent at the middle-manager level. At the most senior leadership levels, women’s representation doubled, increasing from 11.1 percent to 25.0 percent among the CEO’s direct reports, and from 11.1 percent to 20.0 percent on the board of directors.”

Another initiative that is encouraging women to pursue careers in manufacturing is The Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead program,which provides mentoring and recognition for women in manufacturing and raises the visibility of female leaders in the field. Since 2012, an annual event in Washington, D.C., has honored the achievement of over 670 women in manufacturing. A new STEP Forward series brings tailored programs to local communities, whether it’s an informal networking event or a full-day workshop with educational programming. For communities with a strong manufacturing presence, hosting events like these can help spur local companies and educators to pursue their own initiatives that help close the gender gap.

There is no one solution for addressing the talent gap in the manufacturing industry. The discussion around talent must include a holistic and collaborative approach to alignment, attraction, and retention, including programs that reach untapped talent in this field. Communities, educators, and employers that proactively implement these initiatives will come closer to bridging the manufacturing talent gap and set themselves up for success in the future.