Strengthening the Ability of Women in Manufacturing Leadership

Kathleen Buse is the director of the Leadership Lab for Women at Case Western Reserve University .

Strengthening the Ability of Women in Manufacturing Leadership

Leaders can help women develop a belief in themselves to achieve by supporting mentors and sponsors. They can encourage employee resource groups, especially those that support women’s advancement.

The business case for more women in manufacturing leadership is strong. Research has shown that there is a verifiable link between women in leadership and improved business performance.

So what accounts for the fact that in 2017 women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce and 52% of all professionals and managers, but only 29% of the manufacturing workforce and 5% of manufacturing CEOs?

Studies conclude that the under-representation of women in manufacturing is a complex matter which extends to societal and cultural expectations and so precludes finding a simple solution.

However, there is hope. Our work is showing promise in how to address the various aspects of the problem. Study after study supports the fact that women are less likely to believe in their ability to achieve than their male colleagues. Some call this a confidence gap. This is not surprising, especially in the manufacturing industry, as women are subject to bias and barriers related to stereotypes about women’s roles. And when it comes to manufacturing leadership, women have few role models.

In our work with women in manufacturing, we have conducted a number of research studies to identify the underlying factors that enable women to persist and succeed. Among those factors is the woman’s belief in herself to achieve, which our studies show to be found in women who 1) can articulate a personal vision that includes their career and 2) have developed a high level of self-efficacy.

Personal Vision

A personal vision is a holistic description of one’s desired future. It is grounded in one’s values, identity, strengths and dreams. It encompasses personal goals such as health, family, career achievement, skills attainment, and intellectual and spiritual growth, as well as developing and maintaining important relationships (e.g., with one’s spouse).

Developing a personal vision is particularly difficult for women. Many women are raised to take care of others and to focus on the needs of the people around them. It is especially difficult for professional women to find any time to focus on themselves. In our work, we have found that women who are able to articulate a holistic vision for themselves are more likely to be committed to their careers and to advance to leadership. In working with women to develop a personal vision, we have found that they become energized by their vision. These women recognize that they have support and enlist those around them to help achieve their goals.

Here is a quote from a mid-level leader in manufacturing who worked with us to develop a personal vision:

“As someone who keeps my dreams and goals to myself, I’ve been consciously more vocal about my desires for my future.  At work, I’ve expressed my short-term goals to my manager, so that he will hopefully assist me in reaching that goal.  At home, I’ve talked to my family and close friends about my longer-term goals, so they can keep me honest about them, and help me achieve them.  It’s liberating, and a tiny bit scary, because it means I have to live up to my dreams and goals, or be willing to explain why they’ve changed.”

Self-Efficacy and Confidence

In our early research, we found that women who achieved in manufacturing were likely to be more confident in themselves than women who left the male-dominated workplace. This was surprising because all the women we interviewed had achieved much in their lives and in their careers. Examples of what we heard included this from a technical director who had more than 30 years of experience in manufacturing:

“If I believe I can do something then I can do it. And just because somebody tries to stop me, it’s usually not enough.”

We heard the opposite from the women who left. This was from a woman with an 11-year engineering career who now teaches business at a community college.

“I had very little confidence and I kind of waited for the other shoe to drop that somebody was going to find out what was going on. And so if I had a boss who wasn’t confident in me, who treated me with no respect, then I got into that completely.”

Confidence and self-efficacy are related terms, but success is inherent in the definition of self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to succeed. These beliefs determine how one thinks, behaves, and feels. Confidence, on the other hand, is not necessarily linked to success. An individual can be confident that she will fail.

The good news is that self-efficacy can be developed by anyone at any time with intentional effort, through one or a combination of these four factors:

  • Accomplishments
  • Role models
  • Positive affirmations
  • Renewal

When faced with a challenge, those who develop their beliefs to succeed through accomplishments build on past successes to achieve even higher goals. Their thinking is, “If I did that then, I can do this now.”

Seeing others being successful, and having personal contact with role models, also helps build confidence to succeed. Positive affirmations can be conveyed in words, gestures or rewards for a job well done. There is a small body of research that shows women are more likely to develop self-efficacy when they see role models and receive positive affirmations from others.

Renewal is important because it reduces anxiety. Renewal can increase hope and optimism. It allows us to move toward our goals while also maintaining a work life balance.

What Can Leaders Do?

Anyone who has worked in manufacturing knows that women role models and positive affirmations in the workplace are likely to be scarce. There is often a focus on “continuous improvement” where nothing and no one is ever good enough.

Leaders can help women develop a belief in themselves to achieve by supporting mentors and sponsors. They can encourage employee resource groups, especially those that support women’s advancement.

Leaders also can offer women professional and leadership development, especially programs that include the development of a personal vision. Additionally, leaders can ensure that women obtain interesting and challenging work that will help increase their self-efficacy, provide continuous learning and lead to higher-level opportunities.

What Can Individual Women Do?

Women who want to achieve in manufacturing should seek out challenging assignments, ask for help when it is necessary and reflect on past accomplishments. If positive affirmations are important to you, seek out others who can provide what you need.

If women role models are not available in your place of work, join a resource group. We recommend the following: Women in Manufacturing, Society of Women Engineers, Women in Automotive, Women in Metalcasting, and Women in Materials Engineering. Seek out professional development opportunities. Read books on increasing your belief to succeed.

Kathleen Buse is the faculty director for the Leadership Lab for Women, and is an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio

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