Positive discrimination: What women want?

Positive discrimination: Yes or No? Jane Gray canvasses industry feeling.

The Manufacturer is hosting The Future Factory: The Flexible Workforce conference on July 16 in Birmingham. The conference will provide the opportunity for manufacturing leaders to come together and discuss employee engagement and empowerment, workforce planning and strategy and maintaining a talent pipeline to safeguard the future workforce.

We know there is a problem with gender imbalance in manufacturing and engineering businesses. The EngineeringUK Report 2013 ranks the UK as the worst performer in the EU for employing women in engineering and manufacturing with a female workforce representation of just 8.7%. The proportion of female applicants for jobs in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering and electronic and electrical engineering is particularly low (see Figure 1).

In addition, this small percentage of female employees face a problem – generic across sectors – of being confined largely to junior and middle management positions. This was identified in a 2011 report Women on Boards (see figure 2) and the drain has been attributed to several causes including what EngineeringUK terms as “a persistent labour market penalty associated with becoming a mother” and a general tendency for women to be less competitive or outwardly ambitious for seniority.

Voice from the talent ladder

Lauren Attley (24), joined ErlingKlinger in 2011 as a technical assistant in the commercial department. After just four months she was invited to shadow the current applications engineer until his retirement in December 2013, with a view to taking over the role in 2014.

“I don’t believe that there needs to be positive discrimination for women in industry. It is more a case that some employers need to stop underestimating the level of interest that women can have in engineering. In addition, companies recruiting for engineering roles could broaden their horizons in terms of advertising – this may be where women are missing out on opportunities.

“I have not, and do not envisage that I will, hit any glass ceilings with ElringKlinger. The company is more than willing to progress my training and has invested a lot of time into ensuring that my future is with them – this is really motivating. It drives me to work harder and make the best contribution that I can to reach an executive position through my own merit rather than to meet a quota.”

If we accept that this is an important issue to address – that the manufacturing and engineering sector is not optimising its available talent pool at a time when skills are stretched – then what is being done about it?

Most large organisations in the sector have established women’s networks to encourage discussion and experience sharing among female staff. GE, Coca Cola Enterprises and BAE Systems are just a few prominent companies to have taken this step.

Donna Halkyard, head of diversity and inclusion at BAE Systems explains the principles behind its multiple women’s networks. “The networks are there to allow mutual support between BAE’s female employees. They also provide a vehicle for company insight into the experiences of employees and help in overall talent management.”

Around 400 women participate in BAE’s global virtual forum which holds regular teleconferences and webinars for the discussion of topics relevant to female progression. Sometimes guest speakers from academia or other industries join the group, explains Ms Halkyard and she says this environment has helped a number of female role models emerge within BAE. These individuals now assist with mentoring – a crucial capability in any voluntary system to address gender imbalance.

Can SMEs take action on gender balance in industry?

Jan Ward founded Corrotherm, SME manufacturer of niche metals for oil & gas applications, 20 years ago. She has never lost a member of staff in that time and prides herself on the tailored approach to career development and flexible working that the company offers. Part of the motivation behind this, Ms Ward admits, is to mitigate the impact of female staff leaving the business on maternity leave – the single biggest fear for a small business trying to address gender ratios she says, but not an excuse for SMEs to stand back from the challenge.

“I think in some ways SMEs have an advantage over large organisations when it comes to their ability to tackle gender balance,” comments Ms Ward. “They can form flexible policy, created by a small group of people who are within the business every day. In large organisations policy often is often ordained by a group of people disconnected from operations.”

However, Ward says that it is understandable SMEs are wary of embarking on pro-active gender balancing policies. She says they should think carefully about the way this policy is devised and be prepared for the consequences when, inevitably, a female member of staff needs paid maternity leave.

“I am facing this problem right now,” says Ward. “I have two female employees who have worked for me for ten and two years respectively. Now they are both pregnant and both need maternity leave at the same time. There are only eleven of us in the office – so that is a massive proportion of my workforce to loose, particularly since they are both very highly trained.”

With a her small team already overworked Ward says that the absence of two colleagues will simply mean later nights than are already the case. She can only hope that the culture of flexibility and fair play among colleagues will be enough to placate those who remain behind and attract her two critical staff members back as soon as possible.

Voluntary versus enforcement

But is voluntary action enough? Halkyard says BAE Systems is supportive of the UK government approach which sits firmly on the voluntary action side of the fence in the positive discrimination debate. She stresses, however, that this does not indicate lack of ambition. “We believe in positive action rather than positive discrimination,” says Halkyard. “We have set ambitious targets for gaining gender balance at board and senior management level for instance, and our chairman Dick Olver is a mentor with the FTSE 100 Cross Company Mentoring Programme.” Currently 15% of management positions at BAE Systems are held by women and the company aims to double this by 2015.

Others in UK industry however, are less than satisfied with the voluntary approach. One male individual from an international manufacturing firm with UK factories, is particularly strident on the matter but did not want to be named as his views run counter to company policy.

“We recently held a supply chain leadership meeting with over 100 representatives from across Europe. There were nine women in the room. You don’t change that with encouragement and mentoring,” he stated.

“Because of the nature of manufacturing organisations, which function and perform on KPIs and measurement, you will never alter that kind of imbalance until you force a disruptive change in what is measured and how those measurements are acted upon,” he continued.

The source says this disruptive change might take different forms, both in recruitment and “in the way we choose to push careers”. He advocates mandating that at least one woman be on each “recruitment slate” for jobs at every level and that a woman be on the interview panel for each position.

“I accept that this raises concerns around diluting talent. But it is a risk we have to take.” Currently the source asserts that too much recruitment and promotion allows incumbent managers and executives to recruit unconsciously in their own image. “So often that is white male,” he sums up.

@janefagray