MFG Advocate …

Our new Rosie – women and today’s manufacturing industry

By  Penny Brown, MTAdvocacy Manager

There has been a lot of attention given lately to women in manufacturing, or a shortage thereof. There was the recent Women in Manufacturing Summit in Chicago, an annual event aimed at women with careers in the industry. In Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland put its focus on manufacturing as the Wisconsin Women’s Council hosted a symposium titled Rosie Revisited – Women and Manufacturing in the 21st Century.

Our industry continues to face a mounting skills gap that is a growing threat to our ability to grow productivity and continue as the world’s leader in innovation. It isn’t just the sheer number of skilled employees needed to keep factories running; it’s also about the brain drain that curtails ideas and concepts that go from imagination to development to production.

Women continue to be vastly underrepresented in manufacturing’s employment ranks. While statistics vary, a 2013 study from the National Women’s Law Center found that while manufacturing added 517,000 net jobs between January 2010 and March 2013, the total number of women employed in manufacturing actually dropped by 18,000 in that time period. A September 2014 Plante Moran survey co-sponsored by Women in Manufacturing found that women make up just 24 percent of the industrial goods manufacturing sector employment nationwide.

Anecdotally, this doesn’t seem to be because women face inherent workplace sexism. The Plante Moran survey found that 64 percent of women already working in the industry self-reported that they were “definitely likely” or “very likely” to recommend manufacturing careers to other women. The issue might have more to do with how women perceive the industry, or even themselves. 

Do women still see manufacturing as a man’s domain, and themselves perhaps lacking or even unable to obtain the necessary skills for the industry? It’s a similar challenge to getting women involved in other STEM-related fields. A 2010 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) states that in K-12, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys graduate prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college. 

Somewhere along the way, however, women decide to put their attention elsewhere. The AAUW study points to environmental and social barriers — including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of STEM departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s participation and progress in STEM fields.  The same can be said for manufacturing careers. 

In reality, women and manufacturing make a great fit. Much of working in manufacturing is about using creativity to solve problems – finding solutions to improve products and processes. The creativity aspect is something that many women overlook. 

Changing these perceptions is no easy task, especially when they have less to do with how women view the industry and more to do with the belief they have in their own abilities and talents. But it isn’t impossible.
The recent women-focused industry events are a step in the right direction. Showcasing the women who have found success in manufacturing is powerful. Likewise, developing strong mentorships between women can be a strong factor in raising interest in skilled trade careers. Maybe you, as AMT members, have a few of these women in your own company who’d be willing to take action?

With the industry’s burgeoning need for skilled talent, it’s important not to overlook a significant source that can help close the gap. Rosie the Riveter doesn’t need to be a vintage relic of a time gone past. She can come forth in a modern era and lead a whole new generation.

What do you think needs to be done to get more women involved in manufacturing? Email me at pbrown@AMTonline.org.