Here’s a surprising statistic: Women comprise 47 percent of the overall labor force, but for women in manufacturing, it’s just 27 percent.
Clearly, the industry is not doing a good enough job of getting women into the field. The manufacturing community can do better—but it’s not up to manufacturers alone. Following are three ways to begin moving toward gender parity in manufacturing.
1. Start With STEM.
It’s important to capture girls’ imaginations in elementary school, even as early as kindergarten, by encouraging interest and excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). That means actively promoting these subjects to girls and reinforcing their achievements and progress. Confidence is set at a young age (PDF), and encouragement goes a long way toward establishing spirit and tenacity. Consider the first-grader who brings home an art project from school: If she doesn’t receive praise or recognition for her art, she might begin to think that she’s not good at art or that she should try something else. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, can change that.
For parents, it’s as easy as saying, “You can do whatever you put your mind to.” Think about it: Nobody tells girls that they can’t be firefighters or soldiers anymore. So why not do the same for success in STEM subjects and, in turn, manufacturing? It’s time to show girls what they can do with design or production—that it’s fun, it’s exciting, and that they are capable.
And just as parents play a role in that encouragement, so do teachers. It means a great deal for young and impressionable girls to hear, “You can be awesome at this,” when taking on challenging STEM subjects or, better yet, assignments and projects specifically designed to spur interest in making things. I liken this to sports: When kids start out in swimming, basketball, or soccer, coaches encourage practice and perseverance. So, too, should educators when it comes to STEM.
2. Involve the Community.
The path to getting more women in manufacturing doesn’t end with the foundation set in elementary and middle school. It’s important to continue nurturing girls and young women throughout their education. After all, teens start thinking about college by their sophomore year, and applications have to be in by junior year. Even if kids don’t know exactly what they want to major in but have interests in mechanical engineering or industrial design, they should be looking at schools with programs that support those fields.
Getting in to those schools is another matter. The pressure to attend (and then pay for) the top programs has never been greater. One way to set kids up for collegiate success is through mentoring programs that begin in high school. Whether on job sites, online, or in schools, giving girls a window into the real world of manufacturing can give them an advantage when applying to top universities.
But where do those mentors come from? The answer, of course, is the community at large, including local manufacturers and industry associations. Organizations such as Women in Manufacturing and the Society of Women Engineers can play a huge role in ushering in the next wave of females to the industry. These mentorships are all the more powerful because it’s not just mom or dad or teacher offering guidance, but a woman who has achieved success in manufacturing. She can share her 10 or 20 years of experience and answer any questions about the industry. Talk about a role model.
Mentorships are just one way for the manufacturing community to rally around girls. Industry organizations can schedule educational sessions in schools or at local chapters, guide tours of manufacturers in the area, or host talks about industrial design or production management. What’s more, associations and even private companies can offer opportunities for girls of all ages to get their hands dirty through design competitions, meet-ups, or hackathons. The industry as a whole, both associations and private companies, can also create online destinations with shared information and projects for girls to take part in. The key with any of these ideas is to make them fun, make them interactive, and make them meaningful.
3. Change the Perception of the Industry.
“Stigma” may not be the right word, but there’s an industry perception (PDF) that only men are successful in manufacturing and that it’s not a comfortable or inviting environment for women. That simply isn’t true today, and the industry needs to work hard to change that impression—because when that does change, it will become more of a reality.
Some traditionally male-dominated industry sectors, such as automotive and industrial machinery, can start by promoting the technological and creative aspects of their operations. Too often, the focus is on the size of machines and the inherent danger that exists on factory floors. But robots are increasingly doing the (literal) heavy lifting and hazardous work. Instead, manufacturers should publicize the technology driving the machines; workers don’t need to be a certain height, a certain weight, or have a certain strength to be able to, say, program a CNC machine. Those jobs are open to anyone, and the skill shortage in manufacturing (PDF) is yet one more reason to work harder to attract women to those positions.
No doubt, technology is going to be a huge driver in getting more women into manufacturing. From the Internet of Things and industrial additive manufacturing to generative design and advanced materials, the industry is evolving. Those changes are exciting to women, and women want to work with the tools and technology that are making an impact today.
Still, it’s up to individual companies to start making a concerted effort to find women to fill the new and innovative positions in manufacturing. They need to hire women to run manufacturing floors; to design factory layouts; to manage industrial-design and mechanical-engineering departments; to be vice presidents of production and operations. But why stop there? Manufacturing needs more leaders like General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson.
The good news is that change is starting to happen. It’s palpable in the flood of young women joining the maker movement and in the investment toy makers like Goldieblox, K’NEX, and Technology Will Save Us are making in young girls. The fact that “women in manufacturing” is being discussed at all is a significant step in the right direction. If the industry capitalizes on this forward momentum, along with evolving social attitudes about women and their abilities, it’s only a matter of time before that measly 27 percent figure is nothing more than a historical footnote.