Overcoming the barriers to achieving workforce equality

Posted on 16 Aug 2018 by Jonny Williamson

Manufacturing faces a significant and enduring skills shortage, yet at the same time it’s gender and diversity disparity is woeful. Could achieving greater workforce equality hold the key?

workforce equality - 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 to explore the need to address industry’s gender and diversity disparity – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

That was the topic of conversation during the opening panel discussion at this year’s inaugural Women & Diversity in Manufacturing Summit – held in Liverpool as part of this summer’s International Business Festival.

The discussion was chaired by Terri Moloney, director of employee success at Salesforce – the world’s leading cloud-based CRM solutions provider.

For the past three years, Salesforce has supported The Manufacturer Top 100, a growing community of the most dynamic leaders and innovators working in manufacturing. Now in its fifth year, the initiative helps change popular perceptions of careers in industry by providing role models for those who once thought manufacturing in the UK was a thing of the past.

“The Top 100 is something Salesforce is very passionate about because it absolutely aligns with our ethos and culture,” Moloney explained. “The value of the now 500-strong community cannot be understated; each individual story of struggle, grit, determination and success against the odds showcases a vibrant future for industry.”

Four of those named within The Manufacturer Top 100 2017 report joined Moloney on stage for the discussion:

  • Kodi Gledhill, an engineering apprentice at Coca-Cola European Partners
  • Rajkaran Singh Kharbanda, head of aerospace & defence – UK strategic programmes at Siemens
  • Alison Dowd, global director of continuous improvement at Dura Automotive
  • Susan Jones, senior quality systems specialist at Tata Steel.

The elephant in the room

Diversity is such a large, sensitive topic, where can a business or individual possibly hope to start, Moloney asked.

workforce equality - The day’s first panel discussion debated how society and industry can overcome the barriers to achieving equality - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
The panel discussion debated how society and industry can overcome the barriers to achieving equality – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Susan Jones agreed that it was difficult to cover all aspects of diversity, especially organisation-wide; so, she suggested individuals narrowed their focus. “Look at your team, are they all of similar ages, from the same backgrounds and of the same opinion?” Jones asked.

“If so, that can create a potentially stale environment, one in which growth flatlines. If no one is capable of thinking outside the box, of challenging your perceptions and ways of thinking, then where will innovation come from? Every team needs individuals who will ask why and challenge those around them.”

Could one of the barriers be internal conflict, suggested Rajkaran Singh Kharbanda. “Do black and minority ethic [BME] members doubt themselves? Do they question their skills and talent, and whether they belong? If they do, what can we do to better support them?” he put to the room.

“For me, the key to overcoming any barriers lies in building an environment where it’s comfortable to debate the topic openly and question traditional methods,” he added.

Positive role models

Two barriers to achieving greater workforce equality, according to Kodi Gledhill, are the lack of visible, personally-identifiable role models, and the way careers in engineering are promoted.

“Seeing someone like you already performing a role or in a senior position can be tremendously empowering and inspiring,” Gledhill said. “Currently, there are a few ‘rogues’, but nowhere near enough for change to become mainstream.

“That places a huge amount of responsibility on certain people to stand up and become role models, to speak at events, to work with schools and so on. Not everyone wants that sort of responsibility, or can handle it.”

Additionally, Gledhill noted, engineering is too often classed as just one career, when in reality there are so many different aspects to it in terms of roles, sectors, career paths and daily activities.

Continuous improvement

Alison Dowd described how a recent advert for a continuous improvement (CI) role in her global organisation elicited zero applications from women. “It was very disheartening; I have spent much of my career as the only women present at meetings or such forth working in CI,” Dowd said.

If women comprise around 30% of a room’s occupancy, the men present feel the gender split is roughly 50-50.

However, if women actually do comprise 50% occupancy, the men feel that women are over-represented.

Far too often, women hit glass ceilings, whereas men ride glass elevators.

What happens if you train someone and they leave? What happens if you don’t and they stay?

According to Dowd, the inherent skillset many women have – such as multitasking, intuition, patience, collaboration – made them ideal candidates for CI roles.

For her, the critical step is going right back to schools and helping to change young people’s perceptions about manufacturing and how gender roles are defined in society.

Back to school

As someone who devotes a lot her time to school outreach activities, Moloney asked the panellists whether they were engaged in similar programmes to share their experiences with the next-generation.

In 2016, Dura Automotive won four The Manufacturer MX Awards, including the highly coveted title of ‘Manufacturer of the Year’. Following its success, Dura opened the doors to its Birmingham-based factory to local schools. The site now regularly hosts groups of 13-14-year-old students and tasks them with automation and CI-related challenges.

“Every student receives a goody-bag, something tangible to take home, and the feedback we’ve received so far from students and teachers has been very positive and highlighted how inspiring and rewarding the experience had been,” Dowd explained.

Could more sites undertake similar activities? Many can and indeed do, but there are just as many who probably could but don’t, one panellist noted.

In her workshops with young people, Susan Jones emphasises how STEM subjects can be combined with other subjects, such as languages, to create truly unique pathways.

“STEM doesn’t need to be taught in isolation, it offers an opportunity to apply problem-solving to anything you do, even if that happens to be outside of traditional STEM careers,” she noted. “STEM teaches you a lot of valuable, highly transferable skills that when combined with other subjects can lead to a huge variety of roles and careers.”

Retention strategies

The UK has an annual shortfall of more than 20,000 engineers; and companies with a more equal gender balance are up to 20% more profitable, and those with a greater cultural and ethnic diversity are up to 30% more profitable.

Moloney got right to the heart of issue; “The figures are compelling, so how do we retain the talent we work so hard to attract in the first place?”

Constant training and development, Kodi Gledhill suggested; “Individuals have to feel they are being nurtured and invested in.”

Alison Dowd agreed; “Businesses have to create opportunities for people, otherwise they risk losing them. Most people are looking for something more than a paycheque at the end of each month, they want other benefits such as training and progression.”

One ask

Moloney rounded off the discussion by asking each panellist, ‘If you had one ask, what would it be?’

  • Kodi Gledhill – “As parents and influencers, let people know about manufacturing and the opportunities it provides.”
  • Rajkaran Singh Kharbanda – “Make the BME community more aware that manufacturing needs them as much as or more so than they need manufacturing.”
  • Alison Dowd – “Coach someone, take some responsibility and don’t just point the finger.”
  • Susan Jones – “Appreciate that you or people like you in your organisation may be positive forces for change, but that may not be the case everywhere. There may be many still struggling beyond your or your organisation’s reach