Women & Diversity in Manufacturing: Key ways to solve your talent challenge

Various sources offer conflicting statistics, but one thing is starkly apparent –UK manufacturing has a shamefully large gender and diversity disparity, and progress appears to be moving at a glacial pace.

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.

With the country facing a seemingly perpetual skills shortage, industry’s traditional approach towards recruitment and engagement needs to be left in the past, where it belongs.

What form this new approach might take, and the benefits it may bring, sat at the core of almost every conversation I heard during the inaugural Women & Diversity in Manufacturing Summit.

The Summit’s innovative format revolved around a series of intimate roundtable discussions, enabling delegate to sit next to their peers and topic experts and have their concerns addressed first-hand.

  • Companies with a more equal gender balance are up to 20% more profitable (McKinsey 2017)
  • Companies with greater ethnic and cultural diversity are up to 30% more profitable (McKinsey 2017)
  • UK engineering is losing more than £11bn a year due to LGBT+ engineers feeling unable to be themselves at work – a 30% reduction in productivity (InterEngineering 2016)
  • UK has an annual shortfall of 20,000 engineers (conservative estimate)

An opening keynote from Karen Tattersall, global head of brand marketing for FMCG, healthcare, at PZ Cussons, gave a global perspective, with Tattersall sharing her experience of working with manufacturers around the world.

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Tattersall has lived and/or worked in seven countries across three regions.

“Women won the right to vote 100 years ago, yet we are still talking about gender diversity. The headlines of 2018, such as FTSE firm’s excuses for lack of women in boardrooms ‘pitiful and patronising’, reflect society’s lack of progress,” Tattersall said.

“We know intuitively that diversity matters, but how can we drive genuine focus? We need to be asking serious questions about why senior leadership teams aren’t more diverse,” she added.

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

The day’s first panel discussion aimed to address exactly that with a conversation around how society and industry can overcome the barriers to achieving equality.

Chaired by Terri Moloney, director of employer success at Salesforce, the debate covered a lot of ground and you can read the key takeaways here.

Tomorrow’s challenge

My first roundtable was hosted by Oracle’s Sara Nichols and explored why manufacturers should be placing a greater emphasis on diversity and the challenges they face in creating a more future-proof workforce.

“The skills gap, particularly around more specialist skills, means that we don’t have the luxury of being choosey,” Nichols noted. “We need to be welcoming everybody and anybody with open arms.”

The director of a specialist precision engineering company noted how industrial jobs were changing so rapidly that schools, colleges and universities can’t keep up. That means businesses like hers had to focus on training and developing their existing workforces themselves, as well as being more flexible in terms of their own requirements – a potentially challenging proposition for smaller organisations.

She explained how her business offered support and admin workers – predominately women – the time and opportunity to experience work on the shop floor and “get their hands dirty”. Those that thrive in the production environment and show a strong interest in relocating on a permanent basis, receive additional training and support to do exactly that.

Furthermore, those that choose to return to the back-office often perform better thanks to having a greater understanding of the whole business and its shop-floor activities.

One delegate was impressed with the innovative approach, and noted: “HR functions need to be far more proactive in spotting those that could perform better elsewhere in an organisation. They need to truly advocate training and development, rather than having it as simply an annual appraisal or box-ticking exercise.”

Importance of school engagement

Maureen Askew highlighted that female interest in becoming engineers has been shown to decline as they get older - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
Maureen Askew highlighted that female interest in becoming engineers has been shown to decline as they get older – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

In her keynote address, Maureen Askew, senior controller at the Unipres Training Academy, highlighted that female interest in becoming engineers has been shown to decline as they get older.

An EngineeringUK study in 2017 found that 25% of girls aged 11-14 wanted to become engineers, falling to 20% for those aged 14-16, and dropping further to just 12% for those aged 16-19.

Conversely, that same study found that 38% of boys aged 11-14 wanted to become engineers, climbing to 40% for those aged 14-16, and falling to 32% for those aged 16-19.

“Engagement has to start young,” Askew said, “and Unipres (UK) continues to engage in a very effective School Engagement Strategy which encourages young people to complete a nationally recognised Industrial Cadets programmes.”

Currently, Unipres (UK) works with 30 schools, five colleges and two universities, to help raise awareness of the different roles available in industry – particularly process, plant and machine operatives, roles which have a far lower ratio of women compared to other STEM-related professions.

“School engagement is essential to open up choice, but only schools and industry working together can influence these choices and end the gender bias,” Askew concluded.

Future proofing

My second roundtable was hosted by Susan Jones, senior quality systems specialist at Tata Steel and one of The Manufacturer Top 100’s ‘Exemplars of Industry’.

There seems to be a misalignment between what’s happening in industry and current careers advice, the table agreed.

The traditional methods of promoting careers in industry aren’t working and there needs to be a widespread move towards selling the opportunities engineering and manufacturing offers – creative, dynamic, challenging, well-paid, globally-recognised skills, and a chance to make the world a better place.

Executives gathered at Manufacturing Innovation Summit 2018 to explore the need to disrupt or be disrupted – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
A powerful three-minute video provocatively showed delegates how early in their education children define career opportunities as male and female – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

“Who at 15 actually knows what they want to spend their life doing?” Jones questioned. “Rather than pigeonholing young people and forcing them down paths which may prove wrong for them, why aren’t we promoting the inherent value of STEM subjects – i.e. open-ended, leads to a broad range of roles, and desirable in a lot of different industries and sectors?”

Improving your own skills

My third roundtable was hosted by Alison Dowd, global director of continuous improvement at Dura Automotive – which won The Manufacturer MX Awards for ‘People & Skills’ and ‘World Class Manufacturing’ in both 2016 and 2017

Dowd urged delegates to work on and develop their ‘own brand’ by taking on training opportunities, leading on projects, and gaining unique abilities or skills whenever and wherever possible.

Several delegates didn’t feel that they had the bandwidth to focus on their ‘brand’, however, citing perceived personal pressures to have to work harder than male counterparts in order to prove themselves.

If those opportunities don’t exist in your organisation, then you need to ask why and help create them, Dowd said.

“Are you going down the expected path – one which typically dead-ends? Or, are you stepping off and getting onto another path which has the potential to take you further?” Dowd challenged the table.

Lunchtime workshops

Delegates had the opportunity to take part in two lunchtime workshops. The first was delivered by the founding director of valuingYOU and The Manufacturer Top 100 ‘Exemplar of Industry’, Fiona Anderson, and explored how a focus on behaviour can increase productivity by up to 70%.

The second was delivered by the director of Skills4UK, Elizabeth Bonfield, and focused on how increasingly diverse workplaces require leaders and managers to demonstrate enhanced empathy, communication and people-management skills.

Bonfield’s workshop ended with a powerful three-minute video which provocatively captured how early in their education children define career opportunities as male and female:

Creating an inclusive workplace

You can’t have diversity without inclusivity, noted Dr Nike Folayan, chairperson of the Association for BME Engineers (AFBE-UK) in her keynote.

Folayan noted in her keynote that 25% of engineering graduates are from minority ethnic backgrounds, yet that same group represents just 6% of industry. “Where are the other 19%?” she asked. Perhaps it may be down to perceptions that engineering can be a little unwelcoming, with prevalent tokenism and has consequences for not fitting in, Folayan explained.

So, how can we make engineering more inclusive?

By making diversity and inclusion more relatable, by ensuring there are visible role models at all levels, by offering mentoring and reverse mentoring, by creating awareness without alienating others, by having transparency in progression, by listening and acting upon feedback, and starting early via school outreach initiatives, Folayan suggested.

Can quotes be a positive step?

The day’s second panel discussion was chaired by The Manufacturer’s managing director, Grace Gilling, and debated whether or not there should be quotas in manufacturing.

The question split the panel, with some saying that quotas simply promoted tokenism, box-ticking, and represented an unsustainable short-term fix. Others noted that if we don’t use them, what will it actually take for businesses to sit up and actually make changes?

The day’s second panel discussion debated whether or not there should be quotes in manufacturing - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
The day’s second panel discussion debated whether or not there should be quotes in manufacturing – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Verity Davidge, head of education and skills policy at EEF, noted that we have three primary methods to tackle the challenge: enforcement, encouragement, and education.

“The recent Gender Paygap Reporting mandate from government was a form of enforcement, and 1,500 businesses missed the deadline. Before we opt for another enforcement tactic in quotas, let’s try promoting better education first,” Davidge suggested.

Panellists agreed that, ultimately, diversity couldn’t just be a HR priority, it had to be a core business strategy and part of the organisation’s culture, with sufficient representation across every level.

An ideal workforce

My final roundtable was chaired by Jade Aspinall, a senior manufacturing engineer at MBDA, and explored what an ideal workforce might look like.

Aspinall noted that people sometimes feel ‘overskilled’ for their current role, but in her ideal workforce, everyone would be overskilled as that’s where she believes innovation stems from.

Businesses can be concerned about investing in and developing employees only to see them leave and take those new skills elsewhere, however as one delegate succinctly put it, “What happens if you train someone and they go; what happens if you don’t and they stay?”

There were several key takeaways delegates took from the day’s conversations. For me, they were:

Replace yourself – if you make yourself irreplaceable, then you’ll never move from your current role. You should be always looking to train your successor, freeing you to move up in an organisation.

Recognise your ‘brand’ – take on every and any opportunity to develop your skills and gain experience, and be more confident in putting your hand up and taking on new projects or promotions.

Reach out – what are you doing to help the next generation come through? If you are promoted or hold a senior position, are you offering a hand to help pull up those behind you? Are you mentoring or coaching a colleague? Are you making yourself a visible role model?