January 1, 2013

The Opportunity for Women in Manufacturing

An answer to the skills shortage

Of the 14 million Americans employed in manufacturing, only 30% are female. But the sector remains an increasingly crucial and still growing chunk of the U.S. economy. There are now tremendous opportunities for women in this male-dominated sector.

To continue growing the manufacturing sector—which accounts for about 12% of U.S. gross domestic product—it is imperative that we repair an acute talent shortage. As the sector’s required skill set rapidly shifts from physical ability to technological knowledge, gender becomes increasingly obsolete. This is why women—half of the country’s talent pool—can be a key component of the solution.

As a starting point, the Precision Metalforming Association’s (PMA) Women in Manufacturing program identified the most important social and financial barriers that keep women away from the field. The program’s members now include CEOs, managers and other industry decision-makers. Its research concluded that one key cause of the relatively low female participation was a correspondingly low participation in science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

A March 2012 report from the Bayer Corporation said there were three main causes of this underrepresentation of women: The lack of quality science and math education programs in poorer school districts, persistent stereotypes that STEM isn’t for girls or minorities, and financial issues related to the cost of education. The survey, which polled 1,226 female African-American, Hispanic and American-Indian chemists and chemical engineers about their childhood and academic and work place experiences, concluded it is more difficult for a woman to succeed in the STEM field than it is for men. This is due to a number of factors, including a managerial bias favoring men over women, as well as the lack of professional development and networking opportunities for women in manufacturing.

“If we want to achieve true diversity in America’s STEM work force, we must first understand the root causes of underrepresentation and the ongoing challenges these groups face,” says Greg Babe, former president and CEO of Bayer Corporation, a health care and life sciences research company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “We want to knock down barriers. If we can do that, we’ll be able to develop the attitudes, behaviors, opportunities and resources that lead to success.”

As a step toward knocking down those barriers, Women in Manufacturing held its inaugural summit in Cleveland, Ohio, in October 2011, attracting more than 130 female executives, presidents and managers in the manufacturing sector from around the country. The conference addressed topics such as management best practices, principles of leadership and communication strategies.

“PMA’s Women in Manufacturing is an inspiring and energizing opportunity for dynamicwomen to support and propel one another to the next level,” said attendee Heidi Garcia of Ontario, Canada-based Karico Performance Solutions, an organization that helps people working in manufacturing environments achieve their full potential both professionally and personally.

A key goal of these summits is to provide women with the knowledge, skills and a strong and diverse network through which these tools can be shared, so they can comfortably enter the field and move up in their companies.

The second annual Women in Manufacturing Summit 2012, held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in October, featured prominent female leaders in the sector such as Gayle Tauber, founder of health food subsidiary Kashi Company; Gail Lione, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of Harley-Davidson, Inc.; and Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute. More than 200 women attended.

The sessions included topics such as negotiation, talent attraction, project and risk management, and maintaining business in a tough economy. A number of roundtables discussed professional development, mentoring, marketing and creativity.

“Sometimes I am disappointedwhen I attend meetings where I am the only woman in the room full of men,” said attendee Jennifer Ineman of Wickliffe, Ohio-based Lubrizol Corporation, a specialty chemical company that produces and supplies technologies designed to improve the performance of products in global transportation, industrial and consumer markets. “Seeing so many other women, especially in high positions, involved in the industry is empowering.”

PMA’s Women inManufacturingis aimed at nothing less than changing the culture of the industry. It hopes to do that by creating a community of women in the sector to share perspectives, gain cutting-edge manufacturing information, improve their leadership and communication skills, participate in mentoring programs and network with industry peers. Members have access to an online directory of 50 female mentors plus discounts on programming, including the annual summit. Students join at no cost. More information on the initiative and membership can be found at www.womeninmanufacturing.org.

Admittedly, changing the culture of the manufacturing industry will require tremendous sustained effort, but we are convinced that effort will ensure even greater payoffs. The support gained through mentoring programs will promise longer job retention. The recognition women receive for their work will motivate them and inspire a stronger sense of loyalty to their companies. Careers in manufacturing will be seen as lucrative and rewarding. In turn, the entire sector will be revitalized.

Allison Grealis is Women in Manufacturing’s program director.