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In Her Own Words

Breaking the Glass Ceiling Is Good for Business

“Every business has a language and a rule book, it’s just not written down. Understand those so that you know how the game is played, and you can jump in and play it.”

— Emily Poladian , President of Bridgestone Mobility Solutions, Americas Sales & Customer Success

Getting more women into leadership roles is important for every industry, but it is especially vital for manufacturing. The sector lags others in terms of female representation, particularly in the C-Suite. What does it take to attract female talent to the industrial space and what can companies do to retain these women? And what guidance do current women leaders have for the next generation to improve their chances for a successful career in manufacturing?

Manufacturers Alliance took up these questions with a particular emphasis on women manufacturing leaders in operations, engineering, and those in legal, finance, and human resources. We had frank conversations with more than two dozen women in manufacturing who are passionate about their jobs, manufacturing as a career, and the importance of increasing gender equity. Each of these first-person perspectives is unique, and there is no monolithic female point of view. At the same time, we do see clear patterns in terms of where women are making progress and how.

Along with sharing the career journeys of these women, we've pulled together actionable advice for companies looking to be seen as an innovative place for women to work. For executives looking for a competitive advantage, you don't want to miss this report.

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Let's Talk About the Insights

We've launched a special event in conjunction with this research. Join us October 11 in Chicago for Women in Leadership Is Good for Business: Forum & Luncheon to discuss the report findings, network with manufacturing leaders, and hear from our keynote speaker Randi Braun, the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Something Major: The New Playbook for Women at Work. Check out the details and save your seat today.

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Why It Matters

Four million jobs need to be filled in manufacturing in this decade, about half of which require skilled talent. The sector is punching below its weight in terms of its ability to attract that talent, and when it comes to hiring and retaining women, manufacturing is struggling even more. Women represent 47% of the U.S. workforce overall, but only 29% in manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only about one in four manufacturing management positions is held by a woman, which is on par with private sector averages. Moving up in the hierarchy, only 12% of C-suite positions in manufacturing are held by women, versus 16% in healthcare, and 21% in utilities.

The current situation marks a setback from recent trends. The number of women in manufacturing overall had been on a slight, but steady ascent from 2010-2020. But when the pandemic hit, women were disproportionately affected, accounting for a higher share of manufacturing separations compared to men relative to previous years. Women’s share of manufacturing also dipped in 2020 prior to recovering in 2021.

In many ways, history was repeating itself. Back up 75 years to World War II when more than 3 million women took jobs in manufacturing. Contrary to the Rosie the Riveter myth, most of these women were not housewives who flocked to factory jobs for the sake of their husbands serving in war. Only 8% of working women had a husband in the armed forces. Rosie was more often than not already employed in a different sector but attracted to manufacturing for the higher wages. When the war ended, surveys revealed the vast majority of these women wanted to stay on the job. But conversion from war-time production meant cuts and the jobs that remained were given to men based on biased government policies of the day and plant rules selectively enforced against women, such as demotion to janitorial work or transfer to third shifts. The result was such a significant uptick in hiring for men, the male labor force participation rate hit 86.6% in 1948, a rate that has never been achieved since (the 2021 rate for men is 68.5%).

Then, as now, manufacturing offered a particular fascination for many women. The vibrancy of the manufacturing environment was cited by several women we interviewed for this report. “I got a degree in Civil Engineering because I had a strong desire to work outdoors,” Emily Pajek, General Manager of Euclid Consumables at Lincoln Electric, told us. “That all changed the first time I walked into a manufacturing plant. There was so much noise, activity, and so many people, I instantly thought it was cool. I’ve been in manufacturing ever since,” she said. Lincoln Electric’s Executive Vice President and CHRO Michele Kuhrt said, “I love manufacturing, walking on the floor and even how it smells!” Several women told us about the inherent satisfaction of being in an industry that makes tangible goods. Whether you’re a woman or a man working in the field, you are more likely than not to recommend manufacturing as a career.

“I found that my biggest challenge, in every role I’ve had, has been being the only female executive reporting to the CEO. It made my job much harder.”

— Pam Schneider , Senior Vice President and General Counsel, ACCO Brands

Marching in Place

Yes, women are increasing their share of employment in manufacturing, but the pace is very slow. Between 2010 and 2021, manufacturing added less than half a million women to its workforce. By 2031, manufacturing is expected to employ about 12 million overall, and if current trends hold, only about 4 million will be female, or 30% of the sector’s total workforce. We are marching in place.

From slow progress to no progress is not the right direction according to the women we interviewed. Jacquie Boyer, Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Sensata, captured the magnitude of the problem: “Especially after COVID, women took a really huge step backwards in the workplace. Prior to COVID, the World Economic Forum was saying women were going to reach parity with men globally in about 60 years. After COVID hit, it was more than 130 years. And that statistic hit me like a ton of bricks. So it wasn’t going to happen in my lifetime. It wasn’t going to happen in my daughter’s lifetime, and it wasn’t going to happen in my granddaughter’s lifetime. That made no sense to me.”

Has manufacturing become a better place to work? Views are mixed. We asked if significant progress had been made in manufacturing over the last five years in terms of providing equal pay and opportunities. Women were divided, with 37% saying “no,” 38% saying “yes,” and the rest unsure.

Men we surveyed had a different view. The vast majority (82%) reported progress with only 7% saying progress had not been made. The gap between male and female views echoes larger disparities in perceptions by gender. According to research by Pew, nearly one in three American men believe that gains by women come at the expense of men. Men and women also have different views about whether the “old boys club” culture still prevails in business with 25% of women seeing this as a continuing problem versus 16% of men.

The View Changes Depending on Your Gender

Do you believe the manufacturing industry has made significant progress in providing equal opportunities and pay to women in the past five years?

Survey results on has manufacturing changed - men vs women responses
Source: Manufacturers Alliance survey

Success Strategies for Companies

Getting more women into manufacturing leadership roles is not inevitable, nor will it happen on its own. Progress requires prioritizing the advancement of women, tracking progress, and holding managers accountable. So many of these recommendations are good for all employees, regardless of gender or background, and as the concepts of universal design have already proven for decades, designing for one group often helps all groups.

  • Benchmark your organization on flexibility and paid FMLA
  • Be intentional about recruiting and interviewing
  • Improve and expand job rotation programs
  • Update your mentoring program and assign sponsors
  • Audit and build female bench strength
  • Be transparent about career ladders, job descriptions, and salary bands
  • Make intimidation, harassment, and discrimination zero tolerance zones
  • Consider incentives and data transparency
  • Get leadership on board

Read More

You'll find more on these recommendations, plus the nine stubborn obstacles facing women as well as advice for female employees wanting to build a successful career as a manufacturing leader. Don't miss these insights about how to change your corporate culture to attract women — from women who have spent careers working in manufacturing.

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