More leading ladies needed

Posted on 7 Feb 2014 by The Manufacturer

Jane Cox, a Partner at national law firm Weightmans, assesses the persistently low numbers of women in the manufacturing sectors and gives some tips to employers to help them recruit, retain and promote women in their ranks within the remit of equality law.

Jane Cox, Partner, Weightmans LLP

The appointment of women to high profile senior roles still makes headlines, even in 2014.

This is some forty years after the introduction in the UK of legislation outlawing sex discrimination and inequality of pay between the sexes and there are still a considerable numbers of firsts still out there for women to achieve.

Manufacturing is only one sector in which women are still under represented. This is the case at most levels, through from those commencing apprenticeships up to board level. However the appointment of Mary Barra as the first CEO of General Motors is a definite sign that things are changing.

A complex problem

The reasons for the persistent under representation of women in manufacturing are not straight forward.

They include the subject choices made by girls at school, the attitudes of schools and careers advice, few opportunities for work experience, poor perceptions as to work environment and the fact that many women take the greater share for family responsibilities including caring for children and other relatives.

This last factor is not unique to manufacturing and becomes more of an issue in relation to senior roles.

As someone who studied A Levels in maths, Physics and chemistry, I gave very little thought at 18, to a career in manufacturing.

I can’t remember any teachers telling me about what great opportunities a career as, say, an engineer could offer, and I certainly had no female role models to look to for inspiration.

These days the competition for young talent is higher than ever so the challenge for manufacturing is to convince students that they can offer them a more compelling career than other professions such as law and medicine.

Finding solutions

The under representation of women at board level in this country has attracted much attention in recent years with the Government commissioning Lord Davies to develop a strategy to increase the number of women on the boards of UK listed companies.

The Davies Report, published in 2011, did not advocate quotas to improve gender diversity, unlike some other European countries, but argued that appointments should be made on the basis of ‘business needs, skills and ability’ and that a ‘more focused business-led approach’ could increase female representation.

Representation of women is therefore not simply about equality and recruiting and promoting women but is about getting the right person for the job.

Since 2011, the statistics demonstrate that things have improved with manufacturing leading the way. But whilst the pace of change is very positive everyone would accept that there is a long way to go.

Women can provide manufacturing with an untapped talent pool with huge potential at a time when many employers are complaining about a lack of appropriately skilled employees.

Further, a gender balanced workforce benefits from wider perspectives, varied ideas and broader experience which evidence shows helps an organisation to achieve better decision making, more innovative products and better services.

Whilst there is no conspiracy to stop talented women reaching the top in any sector, stories of prejudice in the workplace because of gender do still persist. The view remains that to succeed women not only have to prove themselves but prove that they are better.

Manufacturing is doing much to improve and enhance its external image and promoting a working environment that is clean, high tech and innovative.

The younger generation need to understand that by working in manufacturing they will have real opportunities to do a job that can help save lives, send people into space and improve quality of life.

Having Victoria Beckham involved in the design of the Evoque no doubt not only helped Jaguar sell more cars to women but also helped them to recruit more female employees.

Leadership and responsibility

Attitudes to the recruitment and promotion of women start at the top.

Senior executives must visibly lead by example, maintaining a positive and genuine attitude to equality. Implicit bias can be addressed with training which raises awareness of decision making processes.

HR must encourage clarity and objectivity in defining capabilities and experience that roles require, implement appraisal systems that better assess, encourage and develop talent as well as addressing poor performance, identify employee strengths and help managers to better utilise their employees and achieve key business objectives.

Family friendly legislation has increased dramatically over the last 20 years, with maternity leave increasing to 52 weeks and the addition of flexible working and parental leave.

Some might suggest that this increased legislation has discouraged some employers from employing women.

Equally, many employees feel that employers only play lip service to their obligations through lengthy policies and inferring that taking maternity leave or working part time will hinder their career progression.

Maybe the extension of flexible working rights to all employees and men being able to opt to take a considerable proportion of maternity leave will change attitudes and encourage employers to think more creatively about when, where and how work gets done.

Ultimately there are no easy answers but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. The economy in this country can only benefit from maximising the potential of all our employees.

Employers and employees need to work together to not only identify and discuss the problems and barriers that women face but also to come up with solutions and be committed to achieving change and improvement.