Can we fast track gender diversity in manufacturing?

Last Month, The Manufacturer attended a panel discussion at the House of Lords which recognised the clear problems that industry faces over achieving more equal gender balance. Recruiting is poor, retention is poor and progress is glacial. Can we ever overcome this?

Only 60% of girls aged 11 to 14 think they could become an engineer - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Only 60% of girls aged 11 to 14 think they could become an engineer – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Recent research reports only 60% of girls aged 11 to 14 think they could become an engineer if they wanted to, and this figure sharply drops to a quarter when girls reach 16.

Rather miserably, women also currently only make up 11% of the entire engineering workforce.

The discussion chaired by MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, Gill Furniss, explored the findings of the Skills Commission’s recent inquiry into women in engineering.

Examining the issue

One of the panelists, Susan Henry, director of calibration development at Cummins UK, said of her personal experiences: “I am one of the most senior engineers at Cummins and often the only woman in the room. Sometimes people think I’m in my role because of my gender and not my skills set.”

The statistics are tragic; only one in ten engineers in the UK, 15% of engineering graduates and 20% of A-level physics students are female, so perhaps it is no wonder that when women actually do reach senior positions they are the only female in the room.

The discussion heard that education is stretched and in the UK young people specialise too early and give up core subjects like maths and sciences. If women do make it into industry, 57% give up their professional registration in the engineering sector by age 45, opposed to 16% of men, according to the report.

Yet, gender diversity is crucial and improves the workforce in many aspects. This heard in The Manufacturer’s Women & Diversity in Manufacturing Summit earlier this year.

The possible resolutions

There are many ways to include a more gender-balanced workforce, from encouraging younger women into industry, to supporting them already in or returning to their careers.

Executives gathered at Women & Diversity in Manufacturing Summit 2018 to explore the need to address industry's gender and diversity disparity – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
Executives gathered at Women & Diversity in Manufacturing Summit 2018 – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Numerous studies suggest that participating in hands-on activities and speaking to engineers has a positive impact on young people’s – particularly girls – knowledge of engineering and manufacturing jobs.

The skills commission believes engineering needs to be defined, stereotypes broken down and ‘leaky pipelines’ addressed. But that of course needs to be acted on.

Henry added: “We need to focus on retaining the women we have. It has improved, previously it was seen to be a woman’s problem but now we have men championing diversity, and that has only come about in the last three years. It needs to happen from the top, but also crucially the bottom, the people who you work with every day.”

Some of the solutions discussed in the room included; teaching parents and educators about the sector to allow them to encourage their children into a prosperous career; from an early age making girls aware of all the opportunities the sector holds; and also crucially not pushing women out when they are in industry and adding to the ‘leaky pipeline’ that sees women drop off at points over their career.

Advice to women in industry

The issue is apparent and things need to be vastly improved. With progress glacial previously, it doesn’t look like gender diversity will be fast tracked across industry anytime soon.

The Manufacturer asked Henry exclusively after the event what advice she would give to young women who want to forge a career in industry, she said: “I have so much advice to give other women entering industry. If you have made it [to industry], don’t leave before you are ready, even if you aren’t enjoying it or you don’t think you will be able to work and have a family. Take a chance on yourself and build a good support network around you.

“But also when you see something that isn’t right, call it out. Often people don’t always know they have done it, so help change it for future generations. If they look at you to take the minutes of a meeting don’t do it, don’t be afraid to say ‘are you asking me to do that because I am a woman?’ It is unconscious – I have never met anyone who is doing that for malicious intent – it is all because they do not realise.”

She concluded: “We need to tackle this in different ways, it is no good to just enforce a gender quota. There is a business incentive to having a diverse workforce now, and that can only improve things.”

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