Shaping a balanced manufacturing landscape: The Changing Perceptions conference

Posted on 20 Oct 2023 by Lanna Deamer

While women make up approximately half of the UK’s labour force, they only represent 26% of the manufacturing sector. Gender stereotypes and norms continue to segregate men and women into distinct roles and industries. This underrepresentation extends to leadership positions, influencing decision-making and organisational performance. The Manufacturer’s Lanna Deamer reports.

The ‘Changing Perceptions’ conference is led by the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge (IfM) and Innovate UK’s Made Smarter Innovation programme, with support from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, InterAct Hub and Lloyds Banking Group. It is part of a series of activities organised by the Women in Manufacturing Initiative, a network of industrial and academic professionals with a shared interest in encouraging diversity and inclusion in the sector.

The one-day event is aimed at anyone interested in fostering positive change and advancing gender diversity in manufacturing. Taking place at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry on October 31, the conference features inspiring speakers, engaging workshops, and networking opportunities to drive progress in the manufacturing sector.

Kate Willsher, Chief Operations Officer at IfM Engage

Here, I have the privilege of conversing with two influential figures in the industry: Megan Ronayne, Head of Manufacturing & Industrial Technologies at Innovate UK KTN, and Kate Willsher, Chief Operations Officer at IfM Engage (the knowledge-transfer arm of the IfM). Both of these exceptional women have played a pivotal role in shaping my own career aspirations, and they are the driving forces behind the upcoming conference.

Where did it all begin?

Kate recalled that the inspiration for this initiative originated at a conference, where a senior government stakeholder, a woman, expressed her frustration about skills shortages and the lack of promotion of gender balance within the sector. This perspective triggered Kate’s contemplation about how they could contribute to addressing this issue.

Megan shared that the inception of this initiative predated her involvement with Innovate UK’s Made Smarter Innovation programme. It all began with a research report focused on gender representation in manufacturing and the potential role of digitalisation in improving it. However, since 2015, there had been a noticeable void in both research and actionable measures. While reports underscored the gender imbalance in manufacturing, practical steps and action plans were conspicuously absent.

Collaborating with the IfM and leveraging its event management capability, they decided to establish a forward-looking Women in Manufacturing initiative. On a personal level, having spent significant time working in the manufacturing sector, Megan felt it a mission to improve diversity and inclusivity in the sector, particularly as recruitment consistently highlighted a significant gender gap.

Megan Ronayne, Head of Manufacturing & Industrial Technologies at Innovate UK KTN

Positive change

This initiative’s primary aim is to bridge this void and effect positive change. The shared commitment to this cause brought Kate and Megan together as they had frequently found themselves as the only women in the room when attending events. This led to a small, closely-knit circle of women in manufacturing who quickly recognised each other in this male-dominated environment.

It is clear to see how both Megan and Kate are driven to improve this situation. Their objective is to ensure that the next generation does not face the same obstacles they encountered. They aspire to make the manufacturing sector accessible to all, showcasing the diversity of roles it offers, whether in service support, engineering, marketing or sales. Their ultimate goal is to challenge entrenched masculine stereotypes and demonstrate that UK manufacturing possesses a more inclusive and diverse side that welcomes everyone.

Their vision is to raise the current 26% female representation to 35% within the next five years and progressively strive for a more equitable 50%. Kate emphasised that the panel sessions during Manufacturing and Engineering Week 2023 provided substantial evidence supporting Megan’s observations. When spaces are created for women in the sector to connect and network, they enthusiastically participate and it was clear there was a strong desire to take action on this.

Addressing challenges and improving gender representation

Kate noted that the main goals of the conference are rather ambitious, encompassing a combination of strategic actions, policy discussions and practical sessions. She highlighted the InterAct report by Jennifer Castaneda-Navarrete, Policy Analyst at IfM Engage, which both Megan and Kate reviewed. This offers recommendations for both policymakers and the industry.

Megan elaborated on the intriguing speed networking session, involving delegates engaging in a 50-minute discussion on effective networking, followed by 30 minutes of actual networking guided by key questions. This dynamic approach is complemented by insights from the Interact report and six workshop sessions scheduled for the afternoon.

These workshops span diverse subjects, such as imposter syndrome, mentorship, building professional profiles, social media, digitalisation, and even a tour of the MTC. Their focus extends to addressing critical issues, such as the oversight of women’s needs in digital innovations, exemplified by VR goggles designed for men’s head shapes. Their aim is to rectify these oversights within the innovation and technology development arena.

You can view the full conference agenda here.

Furthermore, Megan shared a compelling example to emphasise the importance of empowering women in the manufacturing sector. At a recent event where she chaired a panel, a woman from a manufacturing SME,  had a remarkably insightful and technically informed point to make. However, she approached Megan after the event, expressing regret for not sharing her insights with the predominantly male audience. Her confidence was hindered as she primarily focused on internal matters within her company and rarely had the opportunity to speak openly.

Megan encouraged her to attend the upcoming conference and participate in the empowering workshops. These sessions, Megan explained, serve as a form of training and skill-building, offering the tools and confidence to contribute valuable insights at future events. This story underscored the real impact the duo aim to make by inspiring and enabling women to share their perspectives and ideas within the industry.

The lineup of speakers, panels and workshops

In the ‘Building Professional Profiles and Supporting Peers on Social Media’ workshop led by Megan, attendees will delve into building professional profiles and supporting peers on social media, drawing from her extensive LinkedIn experience. This workshop serves as a platform for sharing her journey in professional profile development, which has played a pivotal role in promoting women in the sector.

Joining her is Sarah Black-Smith, General Manager Motion Control at Siemens Digital Industries, who is also actively increasing her social media presence to inspire fellow women, especially the younger generation, to participate more in the industry. She provides insights into the service support aspect. And Neo Chatyoka, a small business owner in skincare manufacturing at Uhuru Botanicals and the Formulation Academy, represents the small business sector. The primary objective is to foster visibility, empowering women to engage more confidently in the manufacturing sector. The diverse perspectives within the workshop lineup offer a comprehensive view of how women are making their mark in the field.

Furthermore, another workshop, led by Jo Britton and Carolyn Hobday from The Broad Room, focuses on creating a safe space for women to build confidence and address issues like imposter syndrome. The workshop, titled ‘From Critic to Cheerleader’, is designed to encourage women to uplift each other, enhancing their self-assurance and resilience. The overarching goal is to provide a range of workshops that offer diverse viewpoints and support mechanisms to empower women in manufacturing.

Kate expressed particular excitement about ‘Perceptions of Manufacturing: International Perspectives’ which is Jennifer’s session offering international perspectives. The data-driven approach is a core aspect of the event, making Jennifer’s insightful report a pivotal component. It provides a pragmatic examination of challenges and emphasises the importance of data collection in addressing them. Jennifer’s session will set the tone for the day, stimulating contemplation on the hurdles faced by the sector.

Another standout practical focus session explores the utilisation of digital technologies to enhance diversity. Led by Zoi Roupakia, Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge, and Nicole Ballantyne, Head of Customer Success & Partnerships at MESTEC, this session holds particular interest as it will be hosted inside the MTC. It delves into the potential of digital technologies, which is not always designed with women in mind, but can serve as instrumental tools for promoting diversity. The session will explore how digital innovations can reimagine business operations and roles, offering greater flexibility and freedom in manufacturing firms, making it an exciting and essential topic to explore.

Key takeaways and outcomes

The conference serves as a pivotal point in the launch of the Women in Manufacturing Initiative. While the IfM has been actively involved in research and surveys related to women in manufacturing in recent years, this event marks a formal introduction of the initiative. The goal is to make this conference an annual event, and it will also serve as a platform to address key themes from the Women in Manufacturing policy report.

The key themes from the report will also be used to create working groups in various areas. These working groups will cover topics such as communication, social media, perceptions of manufacturing and leadership. The objective is to engage a diverse range of individuals, including men, in addressing these issues, as it’s not solely an issue for women. We need everyone in the manufacturing sector to participate in these open and supportive conversations.

The initiative aims to provide reassurance and encouragement, creating a safe environment to discuss these important topics. By establishing working groups focused on different areas, the initiative plans to provide the space and structure for people to have these conversations and to take action to advance the agenda. The conference will help confirm these working groups, and feedback from the event will be used to refine and shape their objectives and focus areas. Kate and Megan will then announce the working groups and invite participants to get involved in shaping the future of women in manufacturing.

Alongside the broader initiatives, the goal is to create tangible and meaningful changes. It’s about empowering delegates to go back to their respective roles and organisations with a newfound sense of confidence and the belief that they have a voice in shaping the industry. This can involve improvements in how they articulate themselves on social media, how they interact in their daily work, what they advocate for within their companies and even influencing changes in recruitment practices. All these aspects can significantly impact the representation and progress of women in manufacturing. The ultimate measure of success for this initiative will be its ability to instill this kind of confidence and drive change at multiple levels.

Open to all

I asked how the conference will be structured to be inclusive and open to all individuals interested in promoting diversity in the manufacturing sector, regardless of their background or gender.

Megan said: “It’s important that we emphasise the title as ‘Changing Perceptions’ delivered by the Women in Manufacturing Initiative rather than the other way around. This approach helps convey that it’s not solely a women-focused initiative. We’ve made efforts to include male speakers and engage a broader audience.

“For example, Ninder Johal, CEO of Nachural is participating in the panel on promoting diversity in the UK manufacturing sector, and there is also Simon Yarwood from Innovate UK KTN, who is joining during the speed networking session with Elizabeth Bonfield.

“Furthermore, the team have organised a private dinner with Lloyds Bank in the evening, with 20 women and 10 men attending, promoting a balanced representation in our discussions. We’ve secured signups from prominent industry figures, like Christopher Greenough and Thomas Flude, who are enthusiastic about learning and taking back insights to improve their own businesses. The content is designed to be valuable for everyone, regardless of gender, and we encourage more men to participate as well.”

This initiative is about driving change in the manufacturing sector that benefits everyone, and the diverse perspectives that both men and women can bring are essential for its success.

Kate said: “The topics covered in the conference, including digital technologies, impostor syndrome, and social media, are broad and relevant to a wide audience. Impostor syndrome, for instance, affects many individuals, regardless of gender. It’s essential to offer opportunities for all to learn and grow in these areas. We hope everyone find value in learning how to build their social media profiles or overcome impostor syndrome. The goal is to provide a supportive environment where everyone can expand their skills and knowledge to benefit their careers and contribute to the industry.”

The conference title ‘Changing Perceptions’ holds immense power because women have the ability to transform how business is traditionally conducted. Women often bring a unique perspective to the table, emphasising the human, psychological and environmental aspects of business, as we naturally tend to be caregivers and bring a different kind of energy to the forefront.

Megan shared: “I can relate to this personally as I was the first woman in the role of Head of Manufacturing at Innovate UK KTN. It was met with some surprise initially because traditionally, that position had been held by men who had extensive industry experience. However, I’ve introduced a different perception of managing the team and the types of projects we undertake in manufacturing.

“The team has embraced these new ideas and innovative solutions, finding them to be invigorating and positive, leading to a dynamic shift in how we approach our work. This change in perception has been refreshing and welcomed and it has opened doors to new possibilities and innovative approaches that were previously unexplored.”

The good news is that some of the conference content will be available online. While the afternoon workshops won’t be, attendees will still be able to access the morning talks and the panel session online. This ensures that important content can be accessed by those who can’t attend in person on the day.

The conference is taking place at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry on October 31st and is FREE to attend, make sure you book your ticket here.

The conference is led by the Institute for Manufacturing, and Innovate UK’s Made Smarter Innovation programme, with support from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, InterAct Hub and Lloyds Banking Group.

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