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Manufacturing Is Losing the Race to Recruit, Advance Women

Aug. 10, 2023
CEOs consistently say that finding ways to bridge the talent gap is their greatest concern, but they aren’t seriously tackling the problem.

Here we are, almost a quarter through the 21st century, and women are still bumping their heads against a glass ceiling in manufacturing. Not only does the latest data show women hold only 1 in 4 management positions in the sector, they hold just 12% of C-suite positions. And they comprise just 30% of the total manufacturing workforce.

Set aside (legitimate) concerns about diversity and inclusion in the sector; the vast majority of manufacturing CEOs consistently say that finding ways to bridge the talent gap is their greatest concern.  If that’s the case, their current pace engaging more women is too slow. In effect, U.S. manufacturers are marching in place (and have been since the 1970s).

How to speed things up? As IndustryWeek  reported recently, the Manufacturers Alliance Foundation decided to go straight to the source and interview 30 women at different stages of their manufacturing careers on guidance for companies that want to attract more diverse employees, and for those new to the workforce on how to create a successful career path. The findings are found in our latest research, “In Her Own Words: Breaking the Glass Ceiling is Good for Business.

Interviewees were candid about the hurdles women face. It starts with the gap between how men and women view the progress made in the sector. More than eight out of 10 men in manufacturing believe their industry has made “significant progress” in providing equal opportunities and pay to women over the past five years. The proportion of women who agreed?  Just 38%.

The problem is obvious: if most leaders – who happen to be men – don’t see a problem, how can true change be implemented?

Another obstacle, according to interviewees, is a lack of work flexibility in many companies, including unpaid parental and family leave. An underlying reason glass ceilings exist can be traced to societal norms establishing that women should stay home to raise children – thus pausing their career journeys. Consequently, many women leave manufacturing (or don’t join in the first place) because they desire more flexibility and childcare options, which have become more accessible in other industries such as life sciences, tech and consumer products firms.

Then there were the impediments that, while unquantifiable, are all too tangible:

  • A perceived “competency bias,” where male leaders are automatically perceived as competent, while female leaders needed to prove their competence
  • Being “the only” – in other words, the challenge of a lone woman sitting at the decision table with men and being misunderstood simply because no one else can see the world through a female leader’s lens.
  • Not being heard – a quarter of women surveyed said they felt their opinions were not respected by senior leaders, and almost half said their judgment was often questioned in their own area of expertise. 

Let’s be frank and label these what they are: workplace biases. If manufacturers want to bridge talent gaps and surmount the decades-long aversion women have had to the sector, it will take leadership on the parts of both men and women to change the culture.

Here are some recommended changes according to the women with whom we talked.

First, companies need to benchmark their organizations on their flexibility, including paid FMLA.  Ironically, with all the other challenges the pandemic posed, it forced a recalibration that ultimately started opening some doors. For example, as one leader noted, as more men regularly worked from home – and continue to, albeit to a lesser degree – it has altered the traditional structure of household responsibilities, providing more flexibility for women who have children. 

To retain the female professionals that manufacturers recruit, women leaders also recommended job rotation programs. These provide an opportunity for women to build a broader scope of skill sets by expanding their experience and learning as many aspects of the enterprise as possible – even if it involves making strategic lateral moves. 

Another strategy that some companies are implementing is helping up-and-coming women create networks. A relatively simple tactic – but one that most women say they don’t have access to – is to implement mentoring programs and sponsorships. (Organizations like Manufacturers Alliance focused on peer networks is another valuable way female leaders can connect, meet, and grow their careers.)   

Yet another recommendation: Create career ladders as blueprints for women and their advocates to help strategize about next career steps. These take the emotion and subjectivity out of conversations related to career ambition, which is often viewed differently based on a person’s gender identity.

In a society that has become torn by cultural divisions, straight talk about gaps between men and women can devolve, literally, into “he said, she said” diatribes. Employers looking in the coming years to attract and retain the best talent, and compete in an increasingly complex global business market, need to rise above the divisive polemics and listen more closely to the unbiased data and the guidance of the women leaders in manufacturing.  

Stephen Gold is president and CEO, Manufacturers Alliance.

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