Closing the gender gap in U.S. manufacturing

Article By : Abe Eshkenazi

An APICS study details how gender diversity improves how companies operate and the steps a business can take to foster an inclusive corporate culture.

The U.S. manufacturing industry is facing a big problem: women make up half of the total workforce, yet only 29 per cent of women have careers in U.S. manufacturing. According to research from Deloitte, there will be a shortage of two million workers in the manufacturing industry over the next decade. Recruiting more women to join supply chain, especially in the area of manufacturing, is key to overcoming this anticipated talent gap. Hiring more women is an obvious strategy, but retention hinges on the ability of employers to provide a work environment where women flourish and advance.

To determine how the industry can better attract and retain women, APICS along with Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute conducted a study to discover what women value most in their manufacturing careers. “Women in Manufacturing: Stepping up to make an impact that matters” includes insights from more than 600 women professionals in the manufacturing industry and nearly 20 interviews with both male and female manufacturing executives. The study showcases how gender diversity improves how companies operate and the steps a business can take to foster a welcoming, inclusive corporate culture.

In nearly every way, it makes sense to include women in manufacturing. Beyond the sheer size of talent pool, the diverse perspectives women bring to the table are critical in decision-making. Additionally, having women in corporate leadership leads to improved financial performance. Even a company with just 30 per cent of women in leadership roles can see an increase of 15 per cent in net profitability.

Figure 1: *The infographic shows how having women in leadership posts can benefit companies. *

There are many things we can do to solve this talent gap. First, we need to introduce manufacturing careers to all students much earlier—preferably before high school. In addition, we need to make manufacturing careers appealing to young women and help them understand the significant opportunities available to them. Women who are currently in manufacturing roles see the benefits—70 per cent said they would stay in the industry if they started their careers today. Programs like the Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead Initiative are are vital towards raising the visibility of opportunities for women, both in the industry and within their own companies. STEP Ahead Award winners have impacted more than 300,000 individuals over the past five years, with 70 per cent of award winners volunteering within the K-12 system to encourage young girls to consider careers in manufacturing. In addition, APICS has created a Supply Chain STEM program designed for K-12 students to demonstrate the importance of supply chain management and the promising career paths available to them.

Once we have women interested in manufacturing, we need to nurture that interest by addressing career choice concerns. Women cite three employment characteristics as most important: attractive pay, the opportunity for challenging and interesting assignments, and work-life balance.

A long road ahead

Though some progress has been made to reduce the pay gap and make pay more attractive for women, there’s still work to do. Eighty-seven per cent of women surveyed believe standards for pay increases and promotions are higher for women than for men. While half of those respondents believe the pay gap between men and women in the manufacturing industry has been significantly or moderately shrinking over the last five years, this must continue until the pay gap doesn’t exist at all.
As for more challenging and interesting work, more than one-third of respondents said a lack of challenging assignments was a reason to leave the industry. Employers should be encouraging women to take on strategic, high-visibility assignments—not only will this help retain women in the industry, but their knowledge and expertise can be deployed throughout the organisation, positively impacting the bottom line.

Work-life balance, the other cited factor, is lacking in manufacturing. Less than 15 per cent of the women we surveyed see the industry as ‘very accepting’ of family and personal commitments. Most women feel it’s often a choice between addressing their personal commitments and maintaining a good standing within their careers. One executive implored organisations to take a second look at maternity policies, as flexibility among those policies can be quite impactful, saying “companies should consider their maternity and paternity policies to improve workplace flexibility. It doesn’t affect a huge number of people, but the message that it sends is so important.”

The companies that address these key concerns will be the most successful. Beyond the above examples, there are many ways in which a company can attract, retain, and advance talented women within the manufacturing industry:

  • Start at the top and lead by example. Seventy-two per cent of women surveyed believe they’re underrepresented within their company’s leadership team. Successful organisations have created programs that engage all levels and genders of workers, promoting a diverse workforce.
  • Establish an innovative, inclusive culture. This begins with the hiring process. Human resources should do the advance work to ensure the organisation is attracting a diverse candidate pool. Quite simply, the more diverse the team, the more likely it will have unique ideas and opportunities.
  • Tackle workplace diversity issues head-on. The study stresses the need for allies—both men and women—to reinforce that gender gaps are unacceptable. Formally addressing issues, like the pay gap or parental leave policies, is the key to solving them.
  • Promote professional development. Women stressed the need for mentors and role models within their profession. Attending conferences and exploring other opportunities for professional development should be encouraged. Women with more experience can also be brand advocates by speaking at these types of events.
  • Partner with the community. Educating the community early and often is vital to addressing the manufacturing skills gap. Showcase the opportunities while dispelling any negative misconceptions.

Taking the steps to recruit, retain, and advance women should be a top priority for all organisations. Sustaining these practices will lead to opportunities for individuals and increased success for business.

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