Building a culture of gender equality in manufacturing

Posted on 12 Sep 2022 by The Manufacturer

As COO and Co-Founder at Origin, UK-based manufacturer of doors and windows, Victoria Brocklesby has spent over twenty years building a business that provides equal opportunities in a traditionally male dominated industry. A strong advocate for women in manufacturing, she uses her experience to support and encourage more women into the industry at all levels.

Here, she explains how a carefully crafted company culture can create a level playing field for men and women and offers advice for both employers and employees in the industry.

For an industry to move forward and make important cultural changes, companies must grow with the right type of people. Otherwise, by working with the wrong type of people who have a tendency to stereotype and create the illusion of a barrier to getting women into manufacturing, the whole industry will stagnate and will struggle to overcome its biggest challenges.

When I started Origin in 2002, the manufacturing industry had just experienced its lowest rate of female employment in decades. The number of women in factories had drastically diminished since the 1970s with the rise of service sector employment. While manufacturing accounted for 29% of female employees in the early seventies, this figure had dropped to just 12% by 1992.

Despite joining the industry at a time when women were less likely to consider manufacturing as a career choice, this has never prevented me from achieving my goals. I will admit, it was a far cry from my original plan to find a desk job in the city after university, but after experiencing a huge gap in the market for high quality bi-folding doors made in Britain, it was too big an opportunity to miss.

The family business was co-founded alongside my cousin, Neil Ginger. Together, we started Origin after struggling to source bi-folding doors while working for an indoor swimming pool construction company.

With no previous industry experience, we were in the fortunate position of being able to create the company culture from scratch. From day one, we were determined to build a business that sees people for the value they add, not their gender. From the outset, we’ve had a zero-tolerance policy to any form of discrimination in the company; people have always had equal opportunities in all roles throughout the business no matter who they are.

The commitment to our company culture has, I believe, allowed us to sidestep many of the pitfalls that businesses can fall into in terms of gender roles and stereotypes. For example, while certain jobs, particularly those on the factory floor, were traditionally filled by men in other companies, we have encouraged women into these roles with great success. In fact, five women have started on the factory floor and in the loading bay this year. The feedback has been that they have improved the working environment and have brought a new set of skills and fresh perspective.

However, whilst the industry as a whole has made progress in recent years, with more and more women now thriving in the workplace, there is still room for improvement. Despite growing efforts from UK businesses like Origin to encourage more women into manufacturing, they still make up only a quarter of the workforce.

Employing women in manufacturing: creating a level playing field

At Origin, women are in prominent roles in all departments of the company, in everything from sales, marketing and customer service through to transport, data analysis and production. Our Operational Board of Directors includes several female members and women hold positions across all levels of the business, including Heads of Departments, Directors, Executives and Assistants. In fact, 35% of our senior leadership team are female, well above the industry average.

Rather than hire based on traditional gender roles, everyone who works at Origin has been appointed based on shared values. By hiring people with the right attitude, we’ve built and nurtured a culture of diversity and inclusion.

My advice for employers is to do the same; prioritise company culture and invest in communicating your core values throughout the business. Nurturing a positive and inclusive culture is the key to eradicating gender inequality.

When hiring, include value-led questions when candidates are interviewed for roles. It’s so important that they align with your internal culture, so you don’t end up hiring candidates that don’t match up with your values.

When onboarding, use existing employees to demonstrate and reinforce values. We host roundtable meetings for new starters where they can meet colleagues from other departments. Everyone is asked to introduce themselves and discuss which value they encapsulate the most. After the meeting, everyone is asked to think about which value they need to improve on.

Internal marketing is a vital tool to reiterate messages, so use it to your advantage. At Origin, our values are printed on signage and stationery, plus we have included a ‘value focus’ in our internal newsletter. Each month, this focuses on one of Origin’s core values and we encourage employees to submit examples of when a colleague has demonstrated these within their role.

By deeply embedding values into your company culture and repeatedly communicating and reinforcing them, you will create an inclusive and supportive working environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Joining the industry: advice for female employees

The industry has made significant steps forward in recent years and many leading UK manufacturers are making big changes to encourage women into their workforce and support them in their roles. It’s an exciting and innovative industry to be a part of with great opportunities.

My advice for women who are considering a career in manufacturing is to do your research before applying for roles. Make sure the company you’re applying to has a strong culture that prioritises equality. You may see indicators of this during the recruitment process. Check that the workforce is diverse and ask about the company culture at the interview stage. Take time from the outset to explore the company culture and ensure the values of a business align with your own.

Moving the industry forward

We have high hopes that women who want to join the industry in the future won’t be put off by an outdated perception that manufacturing is only for men. It’s now a level playing field and anyone who wants to get into the industry should go ahead and apply for any position that interests or inspires them.

The industry is automating at a fast pace, is highly diverse, and the jobs are varied. It’s crying out for skilled and talented people who can add value, no matter their gender. It’s an extremely rewarding workplace which excels in innovation and plays a vital role in the British economy.

About the author

Victoria Brocklesby founded Origin in 2002, alongside her cousin Neil Ginger. Having studied physics and space science at university, Victoria moved straight to a career in manufacturing aluminium bi-folding doors – a far cry from her original plan to find a desk job in the city. The mum of two sons is constantly juggling her busy family life with running Origin.

As Victoria rose from admin manager to COO, so did the company, becoming one of the biggest UK aluminium manufacturers of bi-fold and residential doors and windows. Like its creators, Origin has evolved, now with an annual turnover of over £39m and operations in Dubai, North America and Europe.