Are Women Really Making It?

May 13, 2013
When capable manufacturing workers are in high demand, why are so few resources aimed at bringing women into manufacturing?

If there were any doubts about the advancements of women in the United States, one need only look to the 113th Congress to be convinced. Until now, there have never been 20 female senators in office at one time. Of the 2,000 senators throughout our nations’ history, only 44 have been women, lightly peppering the halls of Congress. There are also a record number of women in the House of Representatives, with 77 women sworn in this year. The Center for American Women and Politics explains there are only four states yet to elect a woman into their delegation at some point in our history, something the women in Mississippi, Delaware, Iowa and Vermont are sure to soon remedy.

Clearly, women in politics are making it but those steady advancements have been slow to translate into advancements for women who really do make it; women in manufacturing. Women who work in our steel mills, machine shops, rubber plants and on our assembly lines. Women, who manipulate coils of copper, adjust tolerances and controls, hoist ladles of liquid into the air and spin the fibers of our clothes. Women who make it are women who make America great. But in an industry that employs 12 million people, having just 27% of those jobs held by women begs the question; will Rosie the Riveter eventually punch her last time card?

Certainly the past decade has revealed a decline in manufacturing employment for everyone but women bore the brunt of job loss in three of the four highest paying manufacturing sectors. According to a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), women’s employment in chemicals, petroleum & coal products, and computer & electronics products manufacturing decreased while men’s employment increased. Where did Rosie go?

Our nation’s lack of a clear, comprehensive plan to drive innovation, education and job growth is partly to blame for the decline in manufacturing. When most industrialized nations have their own strategies already in place, and are seeing the benefits from them, it appears we have planned to fail by failing to plan.

A national manufacturing strategy should encouragecollaboration between the government and the manufacturing sector at home while addressing our unbalanced trade relationship with other countries. Smart improvements to our infrastructure using American-made materials will strengthen our transportation and energy systems, and in turn our manufacturing capabilities. We must also keep our trade laws strong and ensure they are enforced. Lowering our trade deficit will help lower the budget deficit by increasing employment and strengthening the tax base. When more people are working, inventing and making things here at home, we are making great gains to prosperity for our communities and our tax base and building our nation. Any woman can surely tell you; the house is only as solid as the foundation it’s built upon.

New Generation of Rosie the Riveters Needed

The lack of estrogen on the shop floor has long-term repercussions for manufacturers across the country. At a time when capable manufacturing workers are in high demand, very few stakeholders are strategically courting the female population to fill the void. Our educational institutions have also missed this key demographic. Since only 15% of the students enrolled in manufacturing-degree programs are women, the likelihood of making it at the same pace as men is far from reality. Weshould make a greater investment in our vocational and technical skills programs and alleviate the shortages of qualified workers in the manufacturing sector by recruiting a new generation of Rosie the Riveters.

Those of us with manufacturing experience should promote the industry to our sisters and our daughters, and dispel the outdated notion that manufacturing jobs are difficult, dirty and best left for men. Today, jobs in manufacturing are often high-tech and offer better pay and benefits than many other sectors. Looking beyond typical career paths for women toward the endless possibilities in manufacturing can lead some to agree that, “sometimes the best man for the job isn't.”

A manufacturing strategy will allow for our nation to thrive, our industry to grow and it will open up more opportunities for women to lead in innovation. America’s manufacturing women are counting on women in Congress to make it a priority to keep making it in America.

Rachel Bennett Steury is a Midwest field coordinator with the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) and resides in Indiana. Prior to joining AAM, Bennett Steury worked in an automotive component manufacturing facility and operated conveyor-driven production machinery.

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