While reading an article in a business journal, I came across this anecdote about a high school in New Jersey: Morristown High, like many high schools nationwide, has established a STEM program to help prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The school recently expanded its program, doubling its enrollment; but when an instructor in the Principles of Engineering class looked at his students, a problem immediately came into focus: there was only one girl in the class.
Because copious type is committed to lamenting the “skills gap” that manufacturers face, little focus is given to the glaring fact that women are underrepresented in manufacturing. It’s a problem. As noted last year in a report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, women make up half of the labor force, but less than a quarter of the manufacturing industry. For those of us working in manufacturing, all one needs to do is look around.
There are reasons for this for this lack of women in the sector, not the least of which is the lingering perception of manufacturing as a dirty and hard endeavor. This view is shared by both sexes, but it certainly has nothing to do with the capabilities of women. In a time when the industry is crying out for bright, competent, committed labor, it would be foolish to ignore this talented and sizeable resource. Notes the report:
Women represent manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent. Collectively, women earn more than half of the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in the U.S. Once in the workforce, they are advancing in their careers, holding more than half of all U.S. managerial and professional positions.
Read that again, and ask yourself why your company isn’t pursuing women more aggressively for manufacturing positions. Then consider this nugget: research indicates that organizations with diverse leadership are more profitable. A study by Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with a high percentage of women officers had a 35 percent higher return on equity and 34 percent higher total return than companies with fewer women executives. That should get the attention of corporate boards.
The study lists four top recommendations on how manufacturers can address this problem over the next decade:
- Improve the external image of the industry.
- Establish targeted leadership development programs.
- Redefine recruiting strategies.
- Establish formal mentor and sponsor networks.
These are good starting points, but so too is trying to understand what motivates women. I think of the words of the late Maya Angelou:
“A woman who is convinced that she deserves to accept only the best challenges herself to give the best. Then she is living phenomenally.”
If companies can convince women that succeeding in manufacturing is one of the best challenges our economy offers, then they might find a phenomenal solution to the growing workforce problem they face. It’s essential that they do so.