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Forging a Path for Women in Manufacturing

women sitting around table

It was my honor to connect with the Empowering Women in Industry group in January. We focused on “In Her Own Words: Breaking the Glass Ceiling is Good for Business,” research from Manufacturers Alliance Foundation. We spoke about where we are and how women can help make moves on their own personal journeys up the ladder. 

So where are we? 

Women make up around 29% of the manufacturing workforce, significantly lower than their representation in the overall U.S. workforce at 47%. We’ve stayed around the one-third mark in manufacturing since the 1970s. The underrepresentation becomes more glaring at higher levels of management. Only around 25% of manufacturing management positions are held by women, and a mere 12% occupy C-suite roles.

Manufacturers Alliance Foundation undertook this research with the hypothesis that we could help solve the talent and skills gap in manufacturing with female talent. If there is a more equitable workforce in manufacturing, there is more talent to support companies’ continued growth. Companies need to be able to compete with other industries, such as life sciences and tech, going after STEM talent. 

How do we get more women in manufacturing? And at the top?

The research found no cut-and-paste career path or role for successful women in manufacturing, but there were must-haves based on the interviews we conducted. These can be modified to different functions and levels of women’s careers.

  • Make lateral moves, strategically. Several women talked about the strategic value of stepping laterally to build their scope of experience. Find the right balance between gaining experience that will be valuable in the future versus being stalled or accidentally stuck.

  • Ask questions and learn the business inside out. One health and safety executive from a multinational manufacturer tells emerging leaders “Go to every facility, get to know the people, know the process, know the product, know what’s going on” as you’ll bring in value outside of your functional knowledge.

  • Grow your network with mentors, advocates, and sponsors. Many interviewees emphasized the importance of having support in and outside of their organization. Women’s ERGs, professional societies, and school/training connections are great places to start. Sponsors are a significant part of the promotion equation. Whereas mentors provide career guidance, sponsors leverage the power of their own network to unlock doors.

  • Speak up about what you need and find an employer who will provide it. Work-life balance, career progression, work from home, travel, and burnout are all topics that came up frequently. Women are speaking up more frequently about where they want to work (fully remote, hybrid, onsite) and how much they’re willing to travel. Even on the shop floor – adjusted shifts and schedules to allow flexibility are becoming more common.

  • Get support at home. Among the women manufacturing leaders we spoke to, about half mentioned substantial support from their partners at home including childcare, managing the household, moving, changing jobs, and downshifting their own careers. While this one may be easier said than done, it’s a green flag to look for in relationships.

  • Find your authentic voice. Perhaps the best advice centered around authenticity. “If I could say one thing to women, it’s this: You have to find your voice, and whatever way you do it, it needs to be really authentic to you,” said one interviewee. 

Companies also have some work to do. These strategies include prioritizing the advancement of women, tracking progress, holding managers accountable, and implementing measures that benefit all employees, regardless of gender or background. The recommendations encompass areas such as flexibility, recruitment, job rotation, mentoring, and transparency in career progression. 

Despite the recognized challenges, our interviews had incredible hope and optimism – optimism informed by facts on the ground as seen through the lens of different generations, functions, and industries. 

By: Kristin Graybill, VP Commercial Strategy, Manufacturers Alliance

Connect with Kristin: LinkedIn

Virtual Meet Up with Kristin Graybill

Kristin Graybill joined us for Empowering Women in Industry’s January virtual meet up to talk about: 

In 2023, Manufacturers Alliance undertook research with the hypothesis that women are a critical asset to meet manufacturing’s talent crisis. If companies and individuals can reduce some of the obstacles facing women in industry, what can the future of manufacturing look like for us all? Kristin will share some of the results of “In Her Own Words: Breaking the Glass Ceiling is Good for Business,” including:

  • The status quo

  • Divergent opinions

  • Sponsorship versus membership

  • Success strategies for women

  • Success strategies for companies

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