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What’s the Big Deal about Unconscious Bias?

May 23, 2024
Being more aware of how you communicate is a natural step toward creating a manufacturing culture where women want to work.

Since I am a woman working in manufacturing, one might assume that discussing this topic comes naturally to me.  Surprisingly, it's actually one of my least favorite subjects because I strongly believe in the importance of diversity in manufacturing of many talents and perspectives, not just championing one group or another.

Nevertheless, the statistics speak volumes:

  • Despite comprising 47% of the American workforce, women represent only 30% in manufacturing.
  • Merely 1 out of every 4 management positions in manufacturing are held by women.

So, when trade association The Refractories Institute invited me to address the topic of women in manufacturing at their annual spring meeting, I pondered how I could make a meaningful impact within the limited time of one hour.

A natural place to start is by addressing unconscious bias towards women in the workplace.

Unconscious bias refers to the automatic, implicit stereotypes that individuals hold towards certain groups of people, often without conscious awareness.

How does unconscious bias manifest itself in the workplace in the context of women?

Managers may unconsciously favor male candidates over equally qualified female candidates in the hiring and promotion process because they are influenced by stereotypes about gender roles and abilities.

Decision-makers may perceive men as more competent and assertive, while viewing women as less suitable for leadership positions due to a more collaborative approach.

And, women may be excluded from certain projects or opportunities for professional growth due to unconscious bias about their abilities or commitment to their careers.

Once you are aware unconscious bias exists, then you can address it with proactive measures to promote equality and inclusion.


Studies have found that on average, women only apply to a job if they meet 100% of the qualifications, whereas men will apply if they meet 60% of the qualifications.

To attract more women to manufacturing roles, it's crucial for companies to ensure that their job descriptions are not biased towards masculinity. This means avoiding terms like "self-sufficient," "lead," or "driven," and striving for gender-neutral language. Tools like Gender Decoder can assist in this process.


Once you've successfully hired more women into your manufacturing facility, the focus shifts to retention strategies. Continuous investment in training and development ensures that all employees, regardless of gender, have the skills needed to thrive and adapt to industry changes.

Effective communication is paramount. Ensure you maintain open lines of communication, allowing employees to express their ideas, concerns and goals. Use a coach approach—focusing on collaboration, support, asking questions and guiding—when providing constructive feedback on their performance. Recognizing achievements, even with simple gestures like handwritten notes, goes a long way.

Supporting a healthy work-life balance is essential. Flexibility for parents to attend to family needs or for employees to take mental health days also promotes productivity and overall well-being.


Despite lingering misperceptions, data shows that women excel in leadership roles. In a study that appeared in Harvard Business Review, women scored higher than men in most leadership skills, including taking initiative, acting with resilience and driving for results. Utilizing external resources for a 360-degreee assessment can help mitigate unconscious biases in promotion decisions.

Addressing systemic issues is also critical. For instance, consider how the treatment of parents impacts workforce retention. One company addressed this by modifying its performance appraisal system, eliminating biases against employees who took maternity leave and improving conditions for everyone.

Attracting, retaining, and advancing women in manufacturing requires a multifaceted approach that addresses biases, promotes inclusivity and supports work-life balance.

Now that I've shed light on the possibility of unconscious bias, what steps will you take to boost the representation of women in manufacturing?

Ashleigh Walters is a leadership consultant at the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services. Walters was president of industrial furnace manufacturer Onex Inc. through 2022 and is the author of "Leading with Grit and Grace."

About the Author

Ashleigh Walters | Leadership Coach

Ashleigh Walters is a business executive with a proven track record of leading transformational change turning around a 55 year old industrial furnace manufacturing and service company. Part of the key to Ashleigh's success is her coach approach leadership style which is very different than the traditional command and control leadership you typically see in manufacturing.

You can read all about how she made things better in her book, Leading with Grit and Grace.

Today, Ashleigh guides leaders to implement changes necessary in their organizations through keynote speaking, executive coaching, peer groups and company boards. 

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