Jane Robinson believes the message to women about getting involved in manufacturing is all wrong – and it has been for some time.
It seems like nearly every week we’re hit with another report about how we’re failing to attract girls and women into STEM-related careers.
Campaign after campaign is launched aiming to “challenge stereotypes” and show girls that a career in manufacturing or engineering is indeed “not just for boys”. But the message never seems to quite hit the mark.
This isn’t just a feminist issue or something we need to tackle because of fairness or equality; it’s critically important to the success of our industries. Last month, the 2015 Annual Manufacturing Report revealed that nearly half of all manufacturers think school and college leavers are poorly prepared for work.
It highlighted that skills shortages and staff retention continue to be a challenge for most manufacturers, with more than a third of manufacturing companies saying they have 10 or more vacancies.
To me, the answer seems to be staring us in the face. If STEM-related careers aren’t attracting women, we’ve effectively halved our talent pool. If we could find ways of increasing the interest from the female half of the population, filling those vacancies shouldn’t be a problem.
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A report by the Society of Biology calculated that increasing participation by women in STEM could add an extra £2bn to the UK’s GDP. It’s a no-brainer that this should be a priority for all of us.
So what’s going wrong? Why do girls baulk at the idea of a life in manufacturing or engineering? It’s simple. We’ve got our PR wrong, and it has been for decades. The sell to girls has to be framed in a different way.
An Oxford University study published earlier this year highlighted that girls rate “lifestyle” issues more highly than boys when it comes to making career choices. They tend to value job security and a sense of purpose within their careers.
Young women, according to the study, were looking for jobs which made them feel “worthwhile” and met their emotional needs. This very clear difference between the sexes needs to be carefully considered and it’s integral to how we package careers within manufacturing.
Ceri Roberts is a case in point. Last year this talented young woman spent 10 weeks at my laser cutting and engraving company, Cutting Technologies.
Ceri was the only female on her product design course at Bangor University. She’d always enjoyed “making stuff” at school and was fortunate to be encouraged by really good teachers.
At university she is supported by an excellent mentor who has helped her develop the confidence to reach out to companies for vital work experience.
Ceri says the placement at Cutting Technologies opened her eyes to the possibilities within manufacturing and engineering. The world became a much bigger place for Ceri when she realised how her creative skills can actually be employed, and how she can achieve the job satisfaction and sense of worth she seeks.
She left the placement with increased confidence about the breadth of work she can do, a better idea of the opportunities available in UK manufacturing and, of course, with an increased determination to succeed.
Like Ceri, I want to see more companies giving young women the chance to explore their skill set, and to work out how they can achieve the sense of purpose they are seeking.
A new movement which started in the US and is gaining momentum, has real potential for engaging more girls in manufacturing and engineering careers. STEAM is all about incorporating Arts into the traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths configuration, and highlighting the important role that creativity plays in both the understanding and application of STEM.
We know the opportunity to be creative is a real draw for girls so anything we can do to push that element of manufacturing and engineering to the fore can only be a good thing. Let’s hope STEAM starts gaining traction within schools and industry on this side of the Atlantic too.
In the meantime, if we are to encourage a new generation into STEM-related careers we have to think very differently about what we’re offering as employers and how our processes may help or hinder our efforts.
The Oxford University research found that men tended to contemplate, then actually make career choices, earlier in their university degrees than women. Men race ahead again when it comes to academic work and extracurricular activities and are more confident in approaching the recruitment process.
We need to help young women gain confidence, feel empowered about the recruitment process and then we need to ensure we help them maintain their confidence over time. This means supporting women to reach the very pinnacle of their profession.
While this confidence building starts with gender stereotypes and in the classroom, we all have a role to play in ensuring women are encouraged to believe and achieve. Those women already working with the sector must become much more visible whether that’s through sponsorship, mentoring, accepting committee roles or being available for comment when journalists call.
We need to be more vocal about the opportunities for women within manufacturing. We need to trail-blaze, set an example and show young women that, stellar jobs do exist which reward both financially and emotionally.
I was honoured to be named one of The Manufacturer Top 100 role models last year, and it’s something I’m taking very seriously. All women in senior positions within male-dominated industries have a crucial part to play in opening doors to younger women and showing that jobs in sectors like manufacturing aren’t just for boys.
If talking about my experiences and the benefits I get from my career can encourage a handful of girls to consider a career in manufacturing, I’ll be happy. I often joke that if girls don’t have the voice for X Factor but still want the sports car and designer shoes, then manufacturing can be a pretty good alternative route.
It might raise a giggle but there’s a serious point too – it shows that manufacturing doesn’t have to mean dirty workshops and no glamour, as well as highlighting the financial rewards available.
Since 2012 the number of women in engineering has doubled to 26,000. But women still comprise only 9% of the profession in the UK, which is the lowest rate in Europe. The figures speak for themselves and remind us why we must take action and do everything in our powers to support more young women like Ceri and remove any barriers to their growth and success.