Page 3 style posters set manufacturers back 30 years

Victoria Fitzgerald on a factory's Page 3 shrine and the future of women in the UK manufacturing sector.

In the UK, 8.7% of engineering professionals are women, 17.3% less than Sweden and 20.3% less than Bulgaria.

In the UK school-aged girls are less likely to study STEM subjects than humanities at GCSE and this trend continues through A-level. Usually these subjects are a prerequisite for studying engineering at university or embarking on an apprenticeship in a manufacturing discipline.

These figures are poor, but we are assured they are changing. Programmes like Government’s Your Life campaign, The Glass Academy’s Women in Manufacturing and EEF’s FTSE 100 – Women in Manufacturing report inject new hope for women in a male dominated industry.

At every event I have attended regarding this subject the positive news is that manufacturers are making their workplaces more welcoming to women and actively trying to lure women into the sector by providing access to careers advice and guidance, work experience and inspiration from those who have ‘made it’.

These events give an awesome sense of hope. I have met several women that are blazing the trail for others to follow in their footsteps, as well as, several young women that have blown me away not only with their intellectual capabilities but in their tenacity and will to succeed in an industry they love as much as the most passionate male engineers.

I take this sense of hope with me on factory visits, which is why I was staggered on a recent tour to find a large posterboard revealing a compendium of images of nude women. Not just scantily clad, but fully naked, in full view on the factory floor.

Although I was conducting an interview with a director at the time, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow and say: “Mmmm, that’s nice,” forcing him to acknowledge that I had seen and duly noted the vision before me. His face reddened demonstrably but he continued his spiel. Avoiding confrontation, I continued the interview and the tour.

Later, in his office he sort of apologised. In mid sentence he skimmed over the event saying, “sorry about that, it shouldn’t have been there”. I wasn’t entirely sure he was talking about the pictures because he didn’t explicitly refer to naked women.

I am sure his sense of embarrassment was sincere, that he did indeed feel that the images should not have been there. However, for me the damage was done. The entire atmosphere of the factory changed for me after seeing the images, it became hostile.

The only woman on the factory floor was me, excluding those in the pictures.

Images like this create an uncomfortable environment for women, demoting our role to a collection of provocative body parts to be leered at. I know this because I felt it. It impacted the way I was doing my job and I didn’t want to continue the interview. I wanted to leave.

I was simply on a visit, interviewing for an hour, with the privilege of leaving immediately after. But imagine being a female employee on the shop floor trying to gain experience and progress in that environment?

You might say that if there had been female employees on the shop floor then no doubt the board would not have appeared – or perhaps it would have been matched with an egalitarian collection of nude men?

I doubt the latter and in response to the former I would say that if you wait for a bigger female presence to exert pressure from within to change a macho culture, then that culture will never change. Women will never feel they are welcome to step into it.

On my return to the office, my male and female colleagues were shocked at my experience. But many of them had stories of their own to recount of seeing the odd calendar or poster showing similar images in factories.

Taking offence at casual sexism is often regarded as being over-sensitive, but casual sexism is the most pervasive and deleterious. It entrenches prejudice deeply into our culture. Individuals don’t complain because it is regarded as trivial so nothing changes.

There is no place for this kind of behaviour in the modern manufacturing workplace – or any workplace. An organisation has a professional responsibility to create a safe and comfortable working environment for all its employees – or potential employees.

Manufacturing has changed and is changing. Not every shop floor looks like a 1980s shrine to Page 3. I have visited several factories that have been pinnacles of professionalism and respect.

However, it is both saddening and intriguing that this outdated behaviour still occurs. It makes one wonder, if this is what appears on the surface, what prejudice lies beneath? And more importantly, is it a challenge that can be overcome by our women manufacturers and engineers of the future?