Many women we speak to in manufacturing say that a career in industry was never their first choice. However, once in the sector they can’t imagine doing anything else. We spoke to one woman who has worked in the steel industry for 25 years and has never looked back.
“It was never my intention to get into engineering,” Barbara Evans says to me. It was “by accident” that she started her role at Tata Steel in South Wales over two decades ago, this all too often the case for women in manufacturing careers.
According to a 2018 report by McKinsey, Delivering through Diversity, firms with a more equal gender balance were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability than those without.
Despite this, as an industry manufacturing has a significant gender gap, female engineers comprise just 12% of the total UK engineering workforce.
The most recent statistics from WISE show though that this is changing, even if slowly. Over the past five years, nearly 58,000 women (2018) are working as engineers, more than double the number there were in 2013.
Working in the steel industry
“When I was doing my A-levels, apprenticeships were being advertised locally by British Steel [now Tata Steel] and it was a case of do I want to go to university, or do I want to put into practice what I already know?” Evans says.
She took the plunge and applied to do an apprenticeship in industrial chemistry, this quite the opposite to the choices made by some of her peers. “It was really, go to university and not be promised anything at the end of it, or go somewhere that is going to give me a job anyway, and also educate me in the fields that they want me to work in. When I was younger there was no real encouragement to do anything outside of the very traditional women’s roles.”
Five years ago, she started a new role at Tata Steel as a trainer and delivery manager of NVQs in the operational engineering section focusing on energy and utilites. “I train people on the job, I am a technical specialist who teaches onsite,” she says.
“I didn’t know if I would enjoy it, but I really do. I think it is because you can get into a self-centred way of working when you are in such a male-dominated environment, you just want people to notice you. To some degree that still goes on, but thankfully things have moved on hugely.”
“We need to show people what we do”
Evans says that there are “absolutely” opportunities for women in the steel sector, although she says that her department, which has around 270 people, is a frighteningly 98% male.
“The only people who put difficulties on women getting into engineering workplaces are themselves because they don’t think they are capable of doing the work, they don’t get the opportunity to see that they can do it.”
From steel to coding and even gaming, Evans says, “Young women are becoming professional gamers now! I have a daughter and a couple of her friends are obsessed with it. We didn’t know we could pursue careers like that, so we need to make sure girls and young people know all of their options.”
The perception of steel and its workforce
The perception of what working in the steel industry is like, dirty and unclean, could marry with the idea that only a certain type of person works in manufacturing.
Part of the reason for this she says is because, “it is hard to show people what we do. It is difficult in an environment that deals with toxic gases and hot metals to bring people to just have a look, especially for say school children. I don’t think it is just us who faces this challenge, I think other manufacturers do too.
The process of steel-making hasn’t changed, but the business as a whole are becoming increasingly digitally-driven and sustainable now. She says, “We generate our own electricity on the plant, we take waste by-product gases from manufacturing sites nearby and create energy. It is different in that we are so much more efficient now.”
The stereotypes of steel are slowly being shattered. Evans says, “We are launching an ambassador programme for women in steel, we have a small network within the business known as SWN.”
In Welsh this means sound, as the initiative is about making noise about women in the sector. “What we have it to stand for is steel women’s network, we are trying to raise the profile of women in the business and industry.”
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