Standing Tall: How Women Keep A Foothold In Manufacturing

March 10, 2007
Confidence is the core compentency.

How do you walk through a factory floor realizing that you are the only woman around? With your head held high. How do you present your ideas when you are the only female in the group? With poise. How do you prove that you are as knowledgeable as your male counterparts? With degrees and training.

Confidence, it turns out, is the key to entering into and staying within the manufacturing industry. Confidence is what kept one woman from backing down or being deterred from the field. If no one in the manufacturing company looked like them, some women ignored it, and others turned it their advantage. One woman told me that being the singular female presenting ideas made her ideas stand out. Confidence is what propelled her to present those ideas.

Working on the factory floor required confidence during the early days when women were viewed as oddities at best. A woman manager told me that as she walked across the factory floor there would be comments and stares. Armed with confidence she would boldly approach the man, look him square in the eye (or the chest in some cases) and speak kindly to him about his family. Her point was to remind him that he had a mother, a wife, or a daughter and he wouldn't want them treated in the manner he was treating her. It always worked.

With those old ways fading away, women have a stronger presence both on the floor and increasingly in management positions. However, it still takes confidence to stay in this environment. Confidence these days stems from training, on-the-job experience and education.

Metrics have become a great equalizer for women. As manufacturing is based on meeting specific quantifiable goals, the face of the person meeting production goals is not a material factor.

The new collaborative nature of manufacturing today has created an arena in which women can excel. One woman told me that she was constantly promoted in the organization as she had the knack of putting together teams of people who could solve whatever problem arose at all levels of the company. This skill seems to be a core competency of many women.

See more on women in manufacturing, including additional articles and educational resources.
Taking these skills and combining them with the determination to succeed is how women have risen to management and executive roles in manufacturing. But are there enough women currently in roles of influence to attract the next generation of women engineers, MBAs and computer scientists into manufacturing careers?

Everyone I spoke with seemed to feel there was room for improvement. While colleges and companies form partnerships to bring women into companies, the process is slow. Once again confidence enters the picture, but this time it's the graduate's degree of confidence in the manufacturing companies. Can this field offer the opportunities, environment and future that young graduates need to pursue careers?

Education might be the answer. Starting as young as middle school, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers holds week-long camps to show young women the essential role that manufacturing plays in society. An SME board member told me that we have to capture a young woman's attention early and instill in her the confidence that women can and do excel in math and science. It's not a males-only club. At the high school level SME offers curricula geared towards manufacturing, and for those looking towards college, SME offers scholarships. ( See Educational Resources)

Once in college many companies offer internships and work with engineering programs to move women into manufacturing companies. New employees at companies are placed in mentoring programs to ease the transition into the company culture. Building confidence with every step should guide more women into the field.

So now it's the turn of the manufacturing sector to show confidence in itself. Show the younger generation that the opportunities in creative thinking, management skills and technical knowledge form a great marriage with manufacturing. Automation, advance manufacturing, collaborative product design and managing a global operation offer the perfect environment for innovative, curious minds. The opportunity to design, create and manufacture products is a high calling. A single product can save lives. A new product can solve environmental issues. And a new product can single-handedly create an entire new industry.

Manufacturing is a key determinant of a society's values, both monetarily and socially. It creates a high standard of living. Young graduates should want to be part of this noble endeavor. We just need to instill in them the confidence that their contributions are absolutely vital to the future.

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