How to Hire More Women in Manufacturing

Manufacturing is behind the times when it comes to employing women. So what can we do about it?

From 1995–2000, I worked for a company that manufactured and distributed high-quality seals and components to OEMs. I’m not going to reveal my exact age, but suffice to say I was in college at the time. It was my first “real” job and also my first experience working in what I would soon learn was a male-dominated industry. Most of my female friends had jobs at the grocery store, lifeguarding, or babysitting. For some reason, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t normal to work in a warehouse, especially as a female.

Now that I am significantly older and wiser, I realize that women are sorely underrepresented in the industrial sector. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 47% of the labor force, but only 29% of the manufacturing workforce.

Initially, this led me to believe that there just aren’t that many available positions in the manufacturing industry. I later discovered that this is not the case at all. Manufacturing faces an estimated 2 million–worker shortfall over the next decade.

Two recent studies paint a very compelling picture of how there’s an incredible amount of potential for women in the manufacturing industry. They also analyze why that isn’t being taken advantage of by more women and more industrial companies. In other words, they dare to ask: Why aren’t women interested in manufacturing and how are industrial companies failing to engage them?

How Women See Manufacturing

One of the studies I read recently, “Women in Manufacturing Study: Exploring the Gender Gap,” was commissioned by the Manufacturing Institute, APICS, and Deloitte, in order “to understand why manufacturing isn’t attracting, retaining, and advancing its fair share of talented women.” This study surveyed over 600 women professionals who work predominantly in the manufacturing industry. These women are all experienced and well educated, and hold senior positions within their respective companies.

The other study, “The Future of Female Talent in the Manufacturing Industry,” was sponsored by Women In Manufacturing (WiM) and Plante Moran. This study surveyed 877 women from two groups: young women between the ages of 17–24 and women currently employed in the manufacturing industry. The objective of this study was to better understand what young women who are undecided about their careers think about manufacturing and then compare their perspectives with those of women who are currently employed in manufacturing.

If you ask a woman who doesn’t work in manufacturing her opinion on the industry, you will likely to get a response that includes visions of factories, assembly lines, and men in overalls. Today, this is only a small percentage of what working in manufacturing actually looks like. There is a wide variety of positions — including high-level, high-earning positions — in manufacturing in areas such as life sciences, technology, media and telecommunications, energy, automotive, and many others. Unfortunately, manufacturing seems to have a reputation for being old fashioned.

The women in the Deloitte survey cited industry bias toward men for leadership positions, organizational cultural norms, lack of mentorship, and the negative perception of manufacturing as “contributors for underrepresentation of women in manufacturing.” What does that mean? It means that women aren’t being considered as often as men for promotions, they are working in a system that still favors men, there are no female role models at their companies, and manufacturing generally does not conjure up positive thoughts for women. Ouch.

Many women surveyed also responded that they do not feel they receive pay equal to that received by their male counterparts and yet the standards are higher for women than they are for men. Of these same women, only one in three feel their industry allows them to tend to family commitments without repercussions that could affect their careers. In the WiM study, a whopping 59% of the young women surveyed don’t know of any leading manufacturing companies that actively seek to employ women. Of this same group of women, 68% are “not likely to consider manufacturing as a career path.” Double ouch, manufacturing.

Manufacturing also seems to do a bad job of educating kids and young adults —especially females — about the industry. Kids don’t grow up knowing much about manufacturing unless they have a family member who works in manufacturing. In the Deloitte study, most women said they would recommend a career in manufacturing to other women. However, these same women would consider leaving their jobs in manufacturing due to poor working relationships, lack of promotion opportunities, and low income. You’re just racking up infractions, manufacturing!

Making Manufacturing Appeal to Women

In the last section I brought up a lot of issues the manufacturing industry needs to overcome in order to attract female talent. Something can be done, right? The simple answer is “yes,” but it’s going to take some work to get a significant number of women interested in manufacturing.

The first order of business is to change internal culture. If a company doesn’t change its culture, it can recruit all the women it wants but won’t be able to retain them. Offer women equal pay, a clear path for advancement, work-life balance options, and improved working relationships between genders. Erase the outdated notion that manufacturing is a “man’s job” and refuse to employ people who perpetuate sexist attitudes. Just these changes alone would have a tremendous effect on efforts to attract more female candidates.

Once you’ve hired women at your company, nurture them! Women need other females in the workplace as role models and work friends. The women in the Deloitte study rank programs that help “identify and increase the visibility of key [women] leaders who serve as role models for employees” in the top three most impactful things their organizations offer.

Also on the list were “formal and informal mentorship and sponsorship programs.” Seek out programs that will allow your company to connect women employees with other women in the industry! There are plenty of “good ole boy” clubs out there. It’s time to initiate more female-only programs in manufacturing so females in manufacturing can have a support system.

Another obvious win for manufacturing would be to expose young women to the industry from an early age. Have your company reach out to schools and help them understand all the amazing ways manufacturing shapes our lives. Engage these young people and energize them with the many options manufacturing careers offer.

Better yet, have a woman from your company go out and connect with young females from K–12 so those young women can see that there is a place for them in the industry. Hold Q&A sessions for young women only so they can ask questions they may be too shy or intimidated to ask in front of their male classmates. Then take the information you’ve learned from these sessions and encourage your company to recruit women!

Some Good News for Women in Manufacturing

There’s still a long way to go. The good news is the changes manufacturers need to make to attract and retain female talent are not that difficult. One notable company has already made strides to appeal to females — Harley-Davidson.

According to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 25% of the workforce at Harley is made up of women. Tony Macrito, Harley-Davidson’s Manager of Corporate Media Relations, is quoted as saying, “Harley works with local and national professional women organizations, attends career fairs and campus events specifically targeted to women, and leverages its Professional Women’s Business and Employee Resource Group to actively recruit other females in their social network.”

Erin Spengler, an employee at Harley, says in the article that she hasn’t felt any personal gender bias at Harley and feels she is respected in the workplace. She goes on to say, “Harley is really good about hiring women. I would like to see more women step up in manufacturing and not be held down at lower positions.”

If other manufacturers start to actively recruit women and shift their internal cultures, Spengler may see her wish come to fruition. I sure hope she does.

Do you know of any manufacturers that have made an effort to hire more women? We want to hear about them. Please tell us about your experiences or call out programs you think would benefit both women working in manufacturing and those who might consider a career in manufacturing.


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