November 1, 2013

Where the Women Are

Strong diversity programs tap skills and talent that manufacturers can’t afford to ignore

More than a dozen Girl Scouts last spring learned a new skill: welding and plasma cutting, forming iron into shapes that could be used as decorations and lawn ornaments. The scouts, ages 10 to 14, were “empowered,” says Sue Silverstein, an instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, where a nontraditional occupations career day has been held for the past five years.

Alongside Silverstein was Karen Gilgenbach, a certified welding supervisor from industrial products distributor Airgas USA’s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, plant. “Even some of the parents got into it,” Gilgenbach says. “It was really exciting to show [the girls] they could do it.”

When she started her career, Gilgenbach didn’t know any other women in welding. In the past few years, though, she’s met several, including Silverstein. Gilgenbach was the first woman to be certified as a robotic arc-welding technician and has additional credentials as well. She believes that as more young women become aware of welding as a career, they will discover it both as “exciting science” and as an advanced technological skill in an industry that “makes life better for all of us,” as she puts it.

Silverstein, who is a member of the local sheet metal workers union, says the Girl Scouts program “definitely changes the perspective of the girls and the mothers who come as leaders or helpers.” The girls “learn fast, and that success eliminates any fear in them or their mothers about the trade.”

A New Future

The Girl Scouts’ experience provides a snapshot of the future of manufacturing careers for women as envisioned by optimistic female technicians, executives and educators. It’s a future in which the decline of women in manufacturing is halted and reversed. A future in which women move beyond the outdated notion that manufacturing is “dark, dirty and dangerous,” in the words of Manufacturing Institute President Jennifer McNelly. 

Companies like Airgas, a distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases, and welding supplies, are actively seeking more women and already have more in technical, management and sales roles. (Currently, 18% of the Airgas workforce is female, according to a spokesman.) 

Meanwhile, the Manufacturing Institute, the consulting firm Deloitte, the University of Phoenix and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers have launched the “STEP Ahead” initiative, with a nifty pink work boot as its emblem. It spotlights women in science, technology, engineering and production, and showcases “best practices for attracting, advancing and retaining strong female talent.”

In February 2013, the inaugural group of 122 STEP honorees was celebrated at a dinner at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Gilgenbach was among the 122 women honored. She also was a speaker, as was McNelly. The new, clean, well-paying jobs available in mining, steel, autos and other fields were very much on view at the STEP dinner: The women honored included CEOs, computer scientists, environmental specialists and human-resource executives as well as welders, engineers and chemists.

Even so, the most recent national numbers are not encouraging. During the four years of economic recovery (June 2009 to June 2013), men gained 364,000 manufacturing jobs while women lost 121,000, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Women in the United States hold only 27% of manufacturing jobs, the lowest percentage of the past four decades.

The stark figures have been acknowledged (perhaps belatedly) by people in the field and by some companies that have set targets for growing their percentages of women. It was only four years ago that women in the Precision Metalforming Association got together at a trade show to discuss career challenges. After much networking, they created Women in Manufacturing, a trade association. The group held its first annual summit in 2011. 

Why the Lag?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in many industries, women are holding their own or exceeding the number of men. In financial services, for instance, 2012 numbers showed about 5.1 million women and 4.5 million men. In the education and health services sectors, women outnumber men 3 to 1. 

The reasons manufacturing lags behind other industries in gender equality are not hard to find. One issue is STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Because smaller numbers of women take advanced courses in high school or major in these areas in college, there are fewer women prepared for many manufacturing careers. In addition, there’s believed to be an outdated perception among young women that manufacturing requires physical strength and dexterity. Add to these issues a scarcity of role models, fewer flextime opportunities for women with children, plus cases of outright sexism and discrimination, and it’s easy to measure the dimensions of the problem.

In May 2013, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the vice chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, held hearings on the issue. Both STEP and STEM figured prominently. McNelly testified that “we are not fully tapping a potential major source of human capital for the industry.” She spoke about the STEP awards as well as the National Association of Manufacturers-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System, which aims to help women obtain “stackable credentials.”

Klobuchar, a Democrat, said, “We have already made a lot of steps in the right direction to make sure people know this isn’t your grandpa’s factory floor anymore. It is cleaner. It is safer. The skills are higher.” Now the task is to “bring that message home to girls all around the country.”

Nothing does that better than a woman who is in what’s still considered a “man’s job” speaking to high school and college women. Another 2013 STEP honoree, Darlene Miller, chief executive of Permac Industries of Burnsville, Minnesota, has spoken to high school students and helped get the national “Right Skills Now” fast-track program for community college students underway. At Klobuchar’s hearing, Miller repeated to the committee what she had recently told a group of high school seniors: “We females actually have an advantage in our industry. We think differently. We think critically. And our asking … ‘why’ leads to improvements and efficiencies in our processes.”

Manufacturing Is ‘Cool’

What better word than “cool” to appeal to new career recruits? Like Gilgenbach, Miller used the adjective to describe the parts her precision manufacturing company produces. “We at Permac make very cool and difficult parts. These components go into airplanes, medical devices, submarines, robots, food and beverage items, and yes, even motorcycles,” Miller told the committee.

Several women in manufacturing also use “exciting” to characterize its opportunities for higher pay and satisfying work. “On most days, you can clearly—even physically—see results and changes happening as a direct result of your work,” says Anne Herman, director of global quality for the Mine Safety Appliances Company in Cranberry Township, north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Whether it is “developing a new process, installing a new production line [or] completing a key test,” she adds, “each day is different, even in some little way, so I’ve never been bored.” 


There are compelling reasons for young women to take a fresh look at manufacturing. This is where the jobs are—and many of those jobs pay quite well. A report by the National Women’s Law Center, issued in March 2013, called attention to three sectors with exceptional job gains: transportation equipment, machinery and fabricated metal products. Transportation equipment is “one of the top-paying manufacturing sectors,” while machinery workers’ weekly pay is “well above manufacturing wages on the whole,” the report said.

Of 600 women in the sector who were interviewed in a 2012 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, three out of four agreed that manufacturing was an “interesting and rewarding” career. The top reasons they found it attractive were “compensation” (37%) and “opportunities for challenging assignments” (34%).

Slowly Changing Attitude Problems

Still, many women in manufacturing have stories about prejudice, misconceptions and slights. Karla Aaron, president of Hialeah Metal Spinning in Hialeah, Florida, says that when she joined the company, “the phone would ring and buyers would have a hard time with a female on the other end of the line.” Hialeah makes a wide variety of precision metal-formed parts. As she quickly established her competence, that attitude was gone “after two minutes,” she says. Now that she owns the company and has been there 20 years, she’s no longer asked, “Can I talk to a guy?” 

Gilgenbach was once told to “wait in the lunchroom while my male counterpart worked with a customer on a robotic issue because they felt my presence would distract the welders.” In another instance, an owner asked her to send a man in her place because “he didn’t feel his welders would listen to a woman.”

Another STEP honoree, Erikka Storch, chief financial officer of Ohio Valley Steel Company in Wheeling, West Virginia, has encountered “surprise” at job sites and among male customers who are “most familiar with interacting with men.” Storch has had to straighten out managers who “tried to use their historical knowledge or years of experience to sway the outcome” of a discussion. “That didn’t last for very long,” she says. “I’m a strong personality.”

Thinking Differently 

Being “strong” is not the same as acting or even thinking like a man. Many women emphasize that female managers often seek consensus rather than stubbornly claim their own ideas are best. Asked if she feels her management style is different from that of men, Herman replies, “Absolutely!” While she always starts with a base plan of her own, her style is more collaborative, she says. “I like to get input from people and develop a solution with them,” Herman says. “Our attention to detail helps minimize mistakes, and our passion helps keep everyone motivated and working toward the same goal,” Miller says.

Amid a drastic company retrenching in the early 1990s, one male manager had “an epiphany” about the strength of women. Steven J. Bowsher, an executive at a division of Inland Steel (now part of ArcelorMittal), had his employees come to work on Saturdays without pay. On those days, they would discuss the “massive problems” faced by the company and the industry. Bowsher teamed up staffers who competed to devise the best and quickest answers to pervasive issues.

One Saturday he matched an all-male senior management team against one composed entirely of women. The women, he says, “really crushed it.” They came up with a solution in three and a half hours. The team made up of men? “I think they’re still working on it,” Bowsher says. 

The women’s solution was implemented immediately, and the company showed major benefits. What this and other experiments taught Bowsher was that women are much more skilled at what he calls “one plus one equals three” thinking. But before other male leaders can reach that same conclusion, Bowsher says, they must realize that women don’t need to act like men. “You have to make them feel safe,” says Bowsher, who feels he did so in those Saturday meetings. Ultimately, he concluded that even more diverse teams are “altogether more powerful.”

For their diversity innovations, Bowsher and four of his associates eventually won an award from the Business Enterprise Trust, a nonprofit founded by television producer Norman Lear. However, too much of the talk about affirmative action and promoting women is merely “technical compliance,” Bowsher says. “The industry as a whole has a huge responsibility” to come up with a comprehensive approach. 

Diversity doesn’t apply only to gender, of course. Of the 122 inaugural STEP awardees, the great majority was white. Women mention over and over that because white men are so dominant in the industry, they often reflexively seek to hire people who look like them. Given the contraction numerous industries experienced during the most recent recession, “we can’t afford to be hung up on gender or ethnicity,” says Gena Lovett, a former plant manager for Alcoa who is now its chief diversity officer. “There has to be a realization that talent trumps all.”

Mentoring Can Make a Difference

More experienced women in the industry point out that sometimes women “are harder on other women than they are on men,” in the words of Karla Aaron. For women in a male-dominated field like engineering, she says, a mentor, whether male or female, can help them navigate the waters. Women who study engineering in college, as she did at the University of Michigan, found they are “already different.” If such women “don’t want to push uphill a little,” they would be better off in a different field.

Mentoring is a tricky issue. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg writes in her best-selling book Lean In, too many women still don’t understand that mentors choose mentees, rather than the other way around. “Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works,” she writes. Women should not be told, “Get a mentor and you will excel,” but instead: “Excel and you will get a mentor.”

Storch says she found her mentor by observing how a dynamic female bank president operated. In a conversation one day, the banker gave her tips in dealing with men that were symbolic but effective, such as making her chair the highest in the room and wearing high heels to emphasize her femininity while gaining a height advantage.

While mentoring might be as complex as Sandberg suggests, many women do take the first step: They encourage girls, students, and their own daughters and granddaughters to view manufacturing as a viable career opportunity. Diana Perreiah, president of New York, New York-based Alcoa Building & Construction Systems in North America, originally was nudged by her own mother to look into manufacturing as a career, even though Perreiah was a liberal arts major. It started when her mother implored her to attend a job fair that she wanted to skip. When an Alcoa recruiter showed interest in Perreiah, her mother, who was an early advocate of environmentalism, urged her to consider the company because she had read that Alcoa was involved in recycling.  

Now, Perreiah is ready to tell her own 14-year-old daughter about the value of manufacturing as a career. “I encourage her in her math and science,” says Perreiah, noting that her two sisters, one of whom is a mechanical engineer, do the same with their children. Why? Not just because the pay is better than it might be in other fields, but because manufacturing is a “job engine” and because it’s “a very rewarding way to work with people.” 

The Company Approach

Companies themselves have differing approaches to welcoming women. In Canada, aluminum corporation Rio Tinto Alcan has a woman, Jacynthe Côté, as its chief executive. Alcoa was one of three multinational companies that received 2013 awards from Catalyst, the nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding women’s opportunities in business. In 2008, Alcoa’s “Building Opportunities for Women in a ‘Hard Hat’ Company” initiative set targets for raising the company’s numbers of women on both its executive and management levels. Using Catalyst benchmarks, Alcoa devised a five-year plan; it reached the benchmark of 19% at the executive level in four years and exceeded its target of 25% women in areas below executives. Now, says Lovett, it has moved its targets higher.

The aluminum giant’s push started at the top. Alcoa Chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld made hiring more women a priority upon taking over in 2008, according to a company press release, despite often “demanding work conditions”—such as 24/7 plant operations, and heavy industrial work in mines, refineries and smelters. The company put teeth into its drive for more women by linking diversity goals to compensation for its top 1,000 leaders.

Alcoa has maintained its goals for gender diversity even as it had to cut back on employees. Alcoa’s global workforce decreased 30% between 2008 and 2012, yet women’s representation increased during that period, according to a Catalyst announcement.

Lovett says the company wants close to a 50% female workforce. “We don’t know if we’ll get there in the next three years, but that’s the point of stretch targets,” she says. “We want to have a workforce that’s representative of the world we live in.”

Nevertheless, one longtime executive in the field who asked not to be named warns about too much optimism. “Women are not emerging yet” to lead the charge, she says. However, she cites two ways to boost their numbers: First, men “have to get comfortable with people who are different from them,” as too many male executives are not comfortable with “women or people of color.” Second, women themselves need to be willing to take risks and step outside their comfort zones. With downsizing and other adverse economic developments, “that’s hard.”  

A Future With New Diversity Programs

It should be fascinating to look at the male/female imbalance in manufacturing five years from now, as more companies set gender-equality goals, as industry women organize their cohort, and as more female high school, community college and four-year college students notice new opportunities.

Signs of change are evident. The nonprofit Automotive Women’s Alliance Foundation has handed out more than $170,000 in scholarships to women pursuing careers in the automotive industry in a little more than 10 years. The second STEP Ahead “class” of women in manufacturing will be showcased in February 2014.  

A fast-track program endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers, “Right Skills Now,” began in Minnesota in January 2012 and currently operates in community colleges in eight states. Students who complete the program get credentialed in specific jobs. Approximately 600 participants have graduated from the program, although it is unclear what percentage are women.

The Girl Scouts are showing interest, beyond events such as career days. The national organization last year released “Generation STEM,” its first research report on what girls say about science and industrial skills.

Maybe someday the Girl Scouts will have a merit badge for welding. After all, the Boy Scouts already have one.