It’s a man’s world?

Posted on 3 Mar 2010 by The Manufacturer

As Manufacturing Week attempts to redeem the public image of manufacturing, TM hones in on women’s perceptions of the industry.

On Tuesday Jane Gray visited Manchester Creative and Media Academy to witness their annual event designed to motivate enthusiasm for STEM subject careers – Challenging Stereotypes.

Considering the widely acknowledged negativity among young people with regards to studying STEM subjects, this might seem like challenge enough. When taking into account that the Moston-based school is a single sex girls institution for 11-16 year olds, however, a new dimension is added.

Pleasingly, the event has been enjoying great success for over ten years and, with help from The Manufacturing Institute’s Make It campaign, has been giving special exposure to opportunities in manufacturing and engineering careers for the last five years. It is a key part of the girls’ curriculum, with teachers saying that it plays an important role in getting students to think beyond the gender typical choices that many of them would tend towards as result of tradition and upbringing.

This year Challenging Stereotypes was coordinated with Manufacturing Week and included presentations from inspirational female role models from a broad range of the UK’s manufacturing organisations.

Among the most impressive participants were the young apprentices from Rolls Royce and MBDA. Their confidence was inspirational for the girls in the classroom, as they demonstrated engineering accomplishment coupled with lively social ease. They were living proof of what Nicola Eagleton-Crowther, Make It campaign manager, points to as one of the greatest misconceptions amongst women — that taking up a career in industry will somehow compromise their femininity.

The vision the apprentices gave of their career choices was enticing. Jennifer Clarke of Roll-Royce pointed out that while she had a car of her own and had started saving to buy a house on the back of her apprentice wage, her twin brother was building up debt at university. She continued, “Furthermore, when I finish my placement in a year’s time I have a well paid job waiting for me. That’s a big comfort.”

The aim of Challenging Stereotypes was to get students to think more broadly about the subjects they enjoyed and their possible application. As Christine Noblett, founder and MD of Aboveline, says, “School is not the real world, and if young people are really to make the connection between what they are learning in the classroom and what they can do at work we have to come and show them.”

With the message of Challenging Stereotypes in mind, TM approached women in the broader manufacturing community to canvas their opinions on diversity in manufacturing. Margaret Wood, MD of specialist glazing company ICW UK strongly supported the initiative, praising its assault on the image problem which she sees as the major detracting factor for industry in the eyes of young women. “Tradition and war time imagery of women doing heavy labour in boiler suits hardly make an attractive prospect for girls and young women looking at their career options. Female role models from within industry need to be proactive about telling their story. We need to show the finesse of modern manufacturing in the digital age,” she said.

Asked what value she thought a higher female demographic might add to the manufacturing industry, Watson was quick to identify their creativity while Ann Watson, MD of the engineering NVQ awarding body, EAL, referred to recent research from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills that indicated increasing the female presence in the UK labour market could release £15bn – £23bn GDP. However, “Currently only 9.7% of our qualifications are taken by women. This is a vital gap to fill for future productivity,” said Watson.

Wood did, however, warn against a concerted campaign of female recruitment for industry. “We must remember that young people today grow up with very different views of gender divides. We must be careful not to project the concerns of our own upbringings onto them.”

Furthermore, she sees the challenge of breaking into a male dominated workforce as one which should appeal to tomorrow’s career women; “It’s a chance to make a mark, make a change and I think that is an attractive prospect for anyone with ambition.” Tammy Imber, apprentice at MBDA, agreed, saying “It can be tough sometimes but that just makes you want to do more and more”.

Overall, it seems that women in industry enjoy taking the challenges of a male dominated workplace in their stride but look forward to a time when gender diversity is not a talking point. Nor is the battle for better balance one sided. There is strong evidence that leading male role models in manufacturing have identified the benefits to be gained — a recent event at The Advanced Metal Engineering Centre proved this point. Wood recalls, “There must have been 50 men and 3 women, including myself. All of us were senior figures in our companies and the men were asking serious questions about how to encourage more young women into the industry.”

The shortfall has been realised. The question now is how to overcome years of ingrained cultural preconceptions.