Women in manufacturing – a job for the girls

Posted on 19 Apr 2010 by The Manufacturer

Margaret Wood, MD of ICW UK ltd, says manufacturing must make itself amenable to female workers...

For those of you that haven’t noticed, I am a woman. In fact, even more surprisingly, I am woman in manufacturing.

We’re a rare breed and I’m not suggesting our positions should be presented with an award, just that the lack of women in manufacturing is a subject close to my heart and one that needs to be acted on. Earlier this month I was interviewed by Jane Gray for this publication for a feature on attempts to redeem the public image of manufacturing, to encourage more women into the industry. Her piece was very eye opening and showed that there is reason to be optimistic.

My passion for promoting the involvement of women in industry is not part of a feminist movement; it’s for the benefit of manufacturing. In 2008 a McKinsey report highlighted that companies which have more women on their boards – or their senior executive team – on average outperform the rest of their sector in terms of return on equity, operating result and share price.

Part of the challenge lies with the image of the industry. You will have to excuse me for sweeping generalisations, but I fear that manufacturing is seen as a dirty job populated by men in dull, grey overalls – hardly an image that’s attractive to women. Fortunately those of us in the industry know this isn’t the case. Modern manufacturing is about high-tech innovation and pushing the boundaries, and many women are naturally creative and have much to contribute in this area. I wholeheartedly want women to regard manufacturing as an industry where they can be independent without erasing their femininity.

Breaking into any male dominated area is regarded as an achievement and this should appeal to ambitious women. Also, those who have succeeded should be encouraged to articulate their powerful story – there is nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth.

I am far removed from suggesting that men are against this movement. The Advanced Metal Engineering Centre hosted an event recently at which there were around 50 men and just three women, including myself. All of us were senior figures in our companies and the men asked serious questions about how to encourage more young women into the industry. Both groups have identified the issue; we just need to act on it.

Some companies are already making the right noises. According to PepsiCo, two thirds of their non-operations employees regularly work from home. They also offer flexible working and seek to create new ways of working to enable more job shares, flexed hours and variable locations – actions designed to encourage women to get on board.

Experts have predicted that if European employment rates for men and women remain constant, there will be a 24 million shortfall in the workforce by 2040. This plummets to just 3 million if employment levels for women can be raised to match those of men.

I admit there is no magic formula to entice more women into manufacturing. Some require flexibility which may not always be possible, or help with childcare. While the UK is moving forward with such offerings, manufacturing seems to be lagging behind. Admittedly the industry doesn’t lend itself to some of the practices employed in other sectors, such as home working made possible through advancements in technology. However, some companies approach the subject from a different angle. Lightbody Celebration Cakes, for example, operates ‘lone women’ shifts to work around school runs and ‘grandparent shifts’ on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Will more women be attracted to manufacturing in the short term? Possibly not. But let’s keep striving to improve the situation over the long term for the ultimate benefit of our great industry.

By Margaret Wood, founder and MD of ICW UK ltd and regional chair for the Institute of Directors in Yorkshire & Humberside.