By Natalie Schilling – Forbes
What do you think of when you consider a 10-year-old tech company? Progessive? Egalitarian? Now, how about a 125-year-old manufacturing company? Old-school? Male-dominated? You wouldn’t be alone.
Manufacturing in the US grew by 517,000 jobs from January 2010 to February 2013 according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center. But, since January 2010, women lost more manufacturing roles than they gained. In fact, women’s share of the manufacturing sector is currently just over 27 percent – the lowest level since 1971. This means that while women represent nearly half of the total U.S. labor force, they only constitute approximately a quarter of the U.S. manufacturing workforce. How is this possible when women’s rights in the workplace have come so far over the same time period?
Outdated and often wrong perceptions of manufacturing have impacted women’s desires to join the ranks of manufacturers. A study fromDeloitte and the Manufacturing Institute cited the perception of a male-favored culture as a key driver of women’s underrepresentation in the industry. There is a sense that historical gender bias excludes women from core managerial roles, such as production supervisors and operations managers, which are key to climbing the industry ladder. Compounding the issue, many people think of manufacturing jobs as dirty, unskilled, back-breaking labor. That’s not the case anymore.
For the past 10 years, I’ve worked in one of the oldest manufacturing companies still in business. I also am a woman, and have been working toward increasing the number of women like me who work in the “traditional” manufacturing industry. That hasn’t always been easy. I’ve heard many women say that manufacturing is too labor-intensive, it won’t give them flexibility to manage their responsibilities at home, or that there is no future in the industry. Not only are these perceptions wrong, by keeping women out of the workforce, they are hurting our country’s future competitiveness.
Why? It’s simple
1. Women in Manufacturing is Good forBusiness. Approximately 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled right now because companies can’t find qualified workers to fill them. Women are critical to filling this gap. Since 2004, a series ofstudies by Catalyst – a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business – found that companies that achieve diversity in their management and on their corporate boards attain better financial results, on average, than other companies.
Catalyst points to many other studies that support these findings as well, including research at the Columbia Business School and the University of Maryland, which found that a higher proportion of women in senior management, not including the CEO, was associated with better firm performance, especially at organizations involved with innovation. McKinsey analysis of large U.S. and Canadian companies found that companies operating in complex environments generated significant returns, amounting to a “robust” 6 percent overall return over a three-year period, when they had a high proportion of women officers, compared to companies with low representation of women officers.
2. It’s Individual Opportunity. Yesterday’s Rosie the Riveter is today’s Stephanie the Stereolithographer, and more. The vast majority of manufacturing roles created during the past few years aren’t the low-paying, monotonous jobs out of a Dickens novel. These are high-tech, six-figure-paying jobs where women excel. The Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute report reported that over 75 percent of women surveyed agreed that a manufacturing career is interesting and rewarding, emphasizing compensation and opportunities for challenging assignments as the top reasons to stay in the industry.
3. It’s Part of Chipping Away at the Glass Ceiling. It’s past time to shed the old stereotypes of what kind of person works in manufacturing. Janne Sigurdsson runs Alcoa AA -0.7%‘s smelter in Iceland, which is our lowest-cost and most efficient facility globally. Through clear efforts to increase women at that remote facility, one-third of managers are women. Overall, 22% of the workers are women, and we’re striving for 50%. This kind of success happens because more women in manufacturing attract more women to manufacturing. This is why we need more women in manufacturing today — to show women the huge opportunities in this sector to pave the way for more women in the future, and to ensure the continued success of our manufacturing industry.
Perhaps an even better question, is how do we achieve this?
The good news is that we can make this happen, and the real leadership opportunities are with the manufacturers themselves. We all know that talent development efforts such as increasing STEM education for women is important, but increasing the presence of women in manufacturing is a “push-pull” effort – with the “pull” responsibility lying with the employers themselves. We cannot build supply without first creating a robust demand.
First, we must reframe perceptions of traditional American manufacturing as unprogressive and male-dominated, to high-tech and high-paying, in which both men and women can and do thrive. Next , we need to make sure that manufacturing companies are workplaces organized to support women’s success. Corporate leadership must set aggressive goals to proactively create a diverse employee base.
Part of creating a conducive workplace is cultural. We as manufacturers need to demonstrate that we are responsive to the unique work-life challenges that women – especially women who are or who plan to become mothers – face. We may need to allow flexible work schedules or allow women to manage the speed of their careers depending on their responsibilities outside of work. We also need more men to lead the way toward a more diverse and inclusive manufacturing force. While many male leaders embrace diversity, a recent study on White Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion showed that most white male leaders aren’t aware of how far they still need to go when it comes to leading through diversity and inclusion.
Natalie Schilling is a human resources vice president at Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of primary and fabricated aluminum and the world’s largest miner and refiner of bauxite and alumina. Schilling brings 25 years of global human resources experience spanning multiple industries including metals and mining, energy and media.