A balancing act

Posted on 7 Oct 2010 by The Manufacturer

The Equality Act 2010 sets out new provisions for the employment of minority groups in a male-oriented industry. With fewer women in manufacturing than in the 1980s and 1990s, Jane Gray asks that needs support, or the industry that need to shake-up its equal opportunities efforts.

In September the provisions of the new Equality Act 2010 came into force, reigniting the debate on equality and diversity in the British workplace. Much of the Act simply compiles and clarifies existing discrimination laws, but certain clauses are likely to necessitate careful review of HR and recruitment policies in all businesses. For example, Section 60 of the Act will outlaw making preemployment health enquiries, and there are sections concerning associative and perceptive discrimination claims.

Throughout August and September, the manufacturers’ organisation EEF has run a series of workshops and seminars for manufacturing HR professionals to highlight what actions are required to respond to the Act. Charlotte Hagestadt, principle advisor and solicitor at EEF, says the seminars have been popular: “The Act will affect certain types of businesses more than others but every company will have to review their recruitment policies to make sure they are not in breach of new rules. There are subtle changes in definitions and codes of practice. Most people will need to update their equal opportunities policies and bullying and harassment policies to name a couple.” Hagestadt told TM that although many manufacturers have voiced their concern to EEF, the new Act will incur an untimely burden of retraining, making organisations far more vulnerable to claims from dissatisfied employees.

There is also a definite trend for companies using the introduction of new legislation as a catalyst for more radical change to their diversity agendas.

Speaking to manufacturers, one strong area of activity focuses on tackling the longstanding gender imbalance in manufacturing, taking a more pro-active approach to attracting and fostering female talent. John Whelan, HR director UK at BAE Systems, says: “At BAE we welcome the Act. It will give extra motivation to the emphasis we already put on attracting talented women to the company and to the diversity forums we have established to ensure that potential barriers to career progression are addressed.” While such enthusiasm from companies like BAE is laudable, it does beg the question why there is such a dearth of women in manufacturing and engineering careers. Figures from the National Office for Statistics lag behind the actual picture today, but show that the number of women employed in manufacturing actually dropped from 15% in June 1985 to 5% in September 2008. Will this gender disparity have a negative effect on industry? What are conditions like for women who have forged careers in such a male-dominated environment?

A woman with metal
Jan Ward, CEO and founder of specialist metallurgy company Corrotherm, shared her views and experiences: “I don’t advocate forcing women and girls into industry or creating a false architecture to attract them. At the moment, women are not offered engineering and manufacturing careers as a choice. That is where the problem or current imbalance comes from. It’s not that they are excluded.

“The optimum age to present career choices and to challenge preconceptions is around 15 to 16.

At that age I did not understand what engineering was, never having had it explained to me. Now I know that saying ‘I want to be an engineer’ is a bit like saying ‘I want to be an artist’. There are an incredible range of industries, applications and disciplines that you can study. Explaining the wealth of opportunity is something which is not done very well, for boys or girls.” Ward’s own road to this discovery was far from easy. Leaving school at 15, pregnant and with no qualifications, her prospects looked bleak.

Estrangement from her husband and young child only worsened the situation, but through her growing determination to carve a career path she qualified as a mechanical engineer and pursued a varied, demanding but ultimately very successful career in the special metals industry. “Early on in my career discrimination made things difficult,” she says. Ward moved jobs twice because immediate bosses would not allow her the same opportunities as her male counterparts. “I was not allowed to travel because I was a ‘young woman’ and it was considered somehow dangerous. But now things are different. These days there are only misconceptions to stop manufacturing and engineering careers being attractive opportunities for women. Women have a great deal to offer to industry by broadening and diversifying workforce skill sets and the talent pool industry has available to it.” Ward makes it clear that the decisions she had to take as a wife and mother have been hard but necessary. “Ambitious women need to accept that they will have to pay a price. If you want a family and you want to be in full-time work you have to face the fact that you can’t be in two places at once. You will have to walk a middle line: balancing how much time you can afford to spend with your children with the time you give to your job. This is no different than the choice men have had to make for years.” Given her self-made path to success it is unsurprising to hear that Ward is slightly suspicious of mechanisms for mentoring or giving special help to women in industry. “I find the idea that girls will need extra help frankly quite insulting.

There may be scenarios in which a female or male employee needs some special support, due to family circumstances or a slight weakness in a certain area of their work. But those cases should be based on the needs of an individual and not on their gender.” This view is echoed by female success stories in other industry environments. Gil Riley, managing director of construction firm GGR-UNIC, says: “It’s fair to say that when you enter a heavily male-dominated industry you have to be harder and shrewder as a woman. The women I know who have done well in industry have all worked their way up from the bottom and are all highly respected. While women and girls may not instinctively think of careers in construction, manufacturing and engineering due to reasons as basic as the toys they played with as children, and the generic gender roles we still subscribe to, they would still enjoy those careers if they are talented.

As long as you know what you are talking about and are confident in yourself you can do well.”

Digging deeper
Despite this advocacy for women proving their worth in male-dominated environments, many feel that a more structured approach to analysing why certain manufacturing and engineering disciplines seem so unappealing to women could expose prejudices and hidden obstacles to career progression.

Dame Athene Donald, Professor for Experimental Physics at Cambridge University and director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI) which supports positive action on gender equality in the STEM-oriented academic world, says: “The problem WiSETI sees across the board is that women feel quite isolated in their work and, if they do feel there is an equality issue, that they are ill-placed to defend themselves.

“To combat the diffidence that this isolation can create, WiSETI runs workshops to build confidence. We do this in partnership with local engineering company Schlumberger who, although they recruit a lot of women, is aware that it has a problem with progressing those women.” This problem is complex, says Dame Donald, in both research and industry environments. Confidence is probably one major cause, and achieving a worklife balance for family commitments is undoubtedly another. Schlumberger is an oil drilling company and a lot of jobs are out in the field. “Clearly this is not ideal for supporting stable relationships and raising children,” she says. “But there are less easily defined reasons why certain disciplines seem particularly unattractive choices.” WiSETI and support networks like AWISE [the Association for Women in Science and Engineering] seek greater understanding of these jobs. “A recent study of the experiences of female chemistry and bio-chemistry students showed that the latter group tended to be a lot happier in their work than the former, despite very similar occupations. We find that different disciplines have different cultures.

It is rare to find explicit discrimination but there are some groups where there is a culture of put-down and this can be very hard to progress against. I don’t advocate that women should go against their instincts about what jobs they feel are right for them, but it is important that we make sure we are not loosing talented women for the wrong reasons. Women should question whether it is the job they are not enjoying or the environment that they find demoralising.” Support networks, like WiSETI and AWISE, and also internal forums such as those used at BAE Systems, seem to be taking the next steps to understand career obstacles and subliminal discrimination for all minority groups, not only women. It is hoped that the Equality Act 2010 will continue to build impetus and give voice to their findings.

The Act identifies the potential of role models to challenge preconceptions about the suitability of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and other social demographics for particular career paths. Perhaps the most important issue identified, however, was that the broader problem of how manufacturing is perceived by the wider public needs to be tackled before specific imbalances can be properly understood and analysed. Creating better links between industry and society, in particular at critical decision points like GCSE subject selection, is imperative in that cause.