Women make up only about 30% of the manufacturing and technology workforce, and they account for less than one-fourth of the sector’s leadership roles. Trust Radius provides further insight with research showing men outnumbering women in the industry by at least 2:1 and by as much as 5:1 in leadership and technology meetings.
The gender gap is palpable, affecting both men and women in the field. When asked if more women should be in manufacturing and technology, the answer is broad and swift: Yes! But advancement is underpacing that in other industries, and women fall out of these careers at a higher rate than their male counterparts.
While the problem is clear, there isn’t a single-threaded cause or solution. Girls don’t study science and math at the same rate as boys in school and are not covertly or overtly encouraged into manufacturing, STEM and trades careers by familial representation, media representation nor career advisors.
And, historically, job requirements haven’t meshed well with other responsibilities often prioritized by women, such as caring for children.
Many companies have openly pledged to work toward gender equality. While this is a welcome mindset change, it’s also a daunting challenge. Currently, the pool of qualified candidates simply isn’t large enough to bring in the number of women required to reach overall industry equity—and most definitely not at leadership levels. In order to truly advance women in these roles, the group of candidates must be more evenly represented—and the same goes for retention rates.
At first glance, it’s tough to determine why females would not be drawn to careers in manufacturing and technology. Manufacturing is on the cutting edge of a new industrial revolution, with the Internet of Things (IOT) and artificial intelligence (A.I.) making their way to the shop floor. Meanwhile, technology careers offer some of the highest salaries outside of the medical field, with travel opportunities and other perks. Young women in search of a good career should be drawn to these sectors. But the numbers are dismal.
Male children outnumber their female counterparts in science and math classes by high school (even though there are more girls in advanced classes). By the time young women reach high school, they are not engaging in science and technology—or vocational-focused studies—at the same rate as boys.
This can be attributed in part to traditional gender roles. In their research paper “Beyond STEM, How Can Women Engage Big Data, Analytics, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence,” the authors (Samuel, George and Samuel) noted: “Building things, dissecting things, gaming and programming are considered masculine activities. Girls are supposed to be impressed by what boys build and repulsed by dissected carcasses. These gendered behaviors as well as other cultural expectations or norms are perpetuated through communication, verbally and nonverbally.”
Parents play a big role. Daughters are 1.8 times as likely than the overall population to have the same job as their working mothers and are 1.7 times as likely to follow in their father’s career path, while sons are 2.7 times as likely to work in the same field as their dad and twice as likely to mimic their mom’s career, according to a New York Times analysis of the General Social Survey (1994-2016) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and the University of Chicago that was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Further, social and entertainment media impact how young people of all genders view themselves. There is a dearth of women in manufacturing and technology positions shown in television and other media, and trade occupations aren’t portrayed in a positive light (a vision of the lead character and her sister on the popular TV show “Roseanne” making plastic silverware enters my brain). But when women in trades are shown positively, interest in the field grows. A good example of this is the sharp increase in women studying forensic science, thanks in part to the cool and hip representation of female forensic scientists on the various “CSI” crime dramas.
A more realistic media representation about career choice may involve family sacrifice. There is a perceived and real lack of flexibility in manufacturing and technology work compared to other careers, but women rank flexibility higher in job considerations. There are also less overt challenges to women entering and thriving in these fields. Studies show that women are less likely to apply for positions where they don’t meet all the requirements, and that biases are written into job descriptions without intention. Typically, human resources will draft a job description, but it must be approved by the hiring manager.
Corporate policies of all types are set by company leadership; in IT and manufacturing, those managers and leaders are overwhelmingly male.
Attempts to use technology to root out such exclusions of women have not had the desired success. A.I. is increasingly used to scan resumes and identify qualified candidates. In an effort of fairness, many of these programs intentionally exclude names and birth dates to prevent sexism and ageism from disqualifying a candidate. A.I. scans a resume based on keywords.
In Mariann Hardey’s book “The Culture of Tech: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman,” she found that the keywords that returned a positive “hit” on a resume were usually programmed by men, and leaned into words and phrases that men are much more likely to use on resumes. “Job descriptions are usually geared towards males and have long lists of skills, most of which aren’t needed or can be learned on the job,” Hardey wrote. “Women who don’t identify with each and every skill tend not to apply for these jobs, but that doesn’t dissuade men. Interviewing committees are also usually all-male and ask questions geared toward boys. (Dropbox, for example, would ask ‘What is something that you’re geeky about?’)”
Further, companies have been slow to respond to barriers that block their stated policies of gender parity from being successful. Foresight, or SWOT, is an oft-used analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Many leading organizations execute SWOT analysis annually to recognize areas of risk and opportunity within their business. In a Kent Business School Study, research found that corporate foresight surveys may not be designed (nor as likely) to pick up on particular concerns of women within the industry. This results in a slower modification curve than when a threat or opportunity is accurately identified.
The challenges to achieving gender parity are multi-faceted and will not be resolved via a single policy or approach. But, fear not, women will thrive! The progress already made by women in this generation will begin to reflect itself in the natural progression of young women to follow mentors into careers. Social media and television can play an active role to positively promote manufacturing careers. Organizations are, in word and deed, moving away from policies that could cause women to fall out of these careers in favor of family, by allowing more flexible schedules and striving for work/life balance on the shop floor as well as in corporate offices.
At the highest levels now, companies are embracing these changes and adapting their leadership, recruiting, scheduling and operational practices to support a blended workforce. Organizations need to measure their activities and results of gender parity initiatives just as they do operational and sustainability metrics, and hold each other accountable. And, to accelerate success, we must reach into our communities, trade schools and vocational programs to deepen the overall resource pool and drive parity of interest, which will drive parity of results.
As leaders, we must rethink the guidelines set a generation ago—to enable flexibility and growth opportunities for everyone and maintain a deep talent and recruitment pool. Top executives must look for opportunities to promote parity in operational leadership positions by not just accepting, but encouraging their diverse workforce into advancements such as programming classes, APICS and Lean certifications. And allow, no encourage, the opportunity to speak out within their communities, career fairs and school programs.
This is an exciting time for everyone to work in manufacturing and technology, and we will all bear witness to a tremendous shift over the next several years that will positively impact the next generation of our workforce.