Women Start to STEP Forward in Manufacturing

The skills gap in manufacturing continues with industry observers, officials and employees saying much of the cause is a lack of women in high-level positions.

Women represent 47% of the overall U.S. labor force yet they comprise just 29% of the manufacturing sector, according to the Manufacturing Institute, an independent group that encourages hiring women in the sector.

Despite a recent industry resurgence, manufacturing still suffers from a lack of talent and a lag in the number of women in management. To help narrow the gap, the institute and others set up the Science, Technology, Engineering and Production (STEP) Ahead initiative. Among other things, the institute annually presents awards to honor women who have demonstrated excellence spanning all levels and areas of the industry from the plant floor to the C-suite of top corporate officers. You can find more information here.

Women Are Critical

A highly-skilled and flexible workforce is required to sustain growth momentum in the manufacturing sector. Women represent one of the largest pools of untapped talent for manufacturers. As a group, women:

Over the next few years, hiring women is expected to become even more significant than designing new products and boosting market share. Research shows that diverse organizations are more profitable than those that aren't diverse. Despite the fact that hiring more women has been demonstrated to be smart business, manufacturing has been slow to catch up with other sectors.

Five Strategies for Moving Forward

Attracting and retaining more women for skilled positions in manufacturing is easier said than done. The following five best practices, generally advocated by the Manufacturing Institute, may help:

  1. Top-down policy. The objective of workplace diversity should become a top priority for firms. Senior officers must commit to this initiative and do more than just pay lip service. Some organizations have tied executive incentives to performance. Progress should be monitored from the top and then communicated throughout the organization. Remember that transparency is essential to success.
  2. Flexibility. It's important to provide a more diverse group with more flexible work options. Consider shifting from a presence-driven culture to one that is more results-oriented. Give employees the opportunity to find work-life balance. According to the study, increasing flexibility can go a long way toward retaining skilled workers and that trickles down to the bottom line.
  3. Barrier reduction. Despite the inroads made by women since the days of Rosie the Riveter, many corporate officers still think of the C-suite as a boy's club. Gender discrimination, specifically the perception that men should be in charge, remains a problem. Progressive companies are addressing this bias through awareness training and other educational tools.
  4. Sponsorship. Corporate sponsorships can help women break through the glass ceiling. A sponsor can be a mentor, coach and vocal advocate all rolled into one. Take on responsibility for the person's progress and improvement and provide a clear understanding of the leadership qualities and technical skills required for specific positions.
  5. Targeted approach. Casting a broad net is helpful, but you may be even more successful by zeroing in on specific targets. Manufacturing firms can focus recruiting efforts on schools with significant numbers of STEM graduates and supporting or partnering with STEM initiatives in high schools (see right-hand box). Stress the advantages of becoming role models for other females in manufacturing. Remember that women at your firm should remain highly visible during the recruitment process.

The manufacturing industry has made great strides in this area in the past few decades, but there's still plenty of room for growth. Firms must continue to fight against age-old biases and actively promote high-tech careers in the manufacturing sector to succeed in the 21st century.

Leading the Way

Development of world-class talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is critical to America's growth and is reflected in numerous initiatives around the country.

Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is one of the nation's top providers of STEM programs, helping students develop skills needed to succeed in the global economy. Involving more women is a challenge PLTW is meeting head-on.

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