Why we need more female leaders in manufacturing


Traditionally, the manufacturing, engineering and technology sectors have been heavily dominated by male workers and leaders. Today, the STEM sector (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) remains a heavily male-dominated industry.

Women account for just 24% of employees in STEM industries in the UK, and globally there are significantly less women on corporate boards of STEM sector businesses than in any other industry

Addressing the lack of female senior leaders and employees within manufacturing is increasingly becoming a focus for organisations, as they look to drive their future growth and out-perform their competitors. 

Why does gender diversity matter?

If you want a more profitable business, then a more diverse workforce, leadership and executive team matters. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be simply a box-ticking exercise; there’s so much evidence that highlights the link between diversity and business success. Businesses are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their industry average if they are in the top quartile for gender diversity. On the flip-side, organisations in the bottom quartile for gender diversity don’t simply have a non-leading financial performance; they actually lag behind their competitors.

In the UK, greater gender diversity at senior-executive level has a significant impact, with every 10% increase in gender diversity between organisations corresponding to a 3.5% higher operating profit. Better diversity means better productivity, improved talent attraction and retention, more effective response to customer demands, and innovation to drive organisations forward founded upon a broader range of ideas and viewpoints.

Why does gender diversity matter in manufacturing?

Aside from the clear correlation between gender diversity and financial return in all industries, there are several challenges within manufacturing where a greater gender diversity, not just at senior level but across the workforce as a whole, would benefit an organisation.

In a sector where attracting, retaining and advancing talent is becoming increasingly difficult (with factors such as the impact that Brexit will have on the industry), ruling out a significant proportion of the talent pool simply because the industry doesn’t attract females isn’t going to help the skills shortage at any level.

As a sector undergoing a huge transformation (particularly digital transformation and the implementation of the smart factory), the leaders of organisations are increasingly going to require transformational qualities if they’re going to be successful. These transformational leaders are inspirational, empowering and creative; research shows that women possess more transformational qualities than men, so manufacturing businesses should be incorporating bringing in female leaders now, and more females at all levels as potential leaders of the future, as a key part of their ongoing digital transformation strategy.

Why do manufacturing and STEM industries attract less women?

A key issue in attracting women into roles within the STEM sector is the number of young women choosing to study STEM subjects, both at secondary school level and at university. There just isn’t a pipeline of STEM qualified females to then take up roles within the sector. While in the past, it’s been indicated that biological difference in cognitive capability may have contributed to men choosing STEM subjects and women choosing HEeD (health, elementary education and domestic) subjects, evidence suggests that these differences are, in reality, very small and should have little to no bearing on natural academic capability within STEM fields.

This indicates the issue we are really dealing with is gender stereotyping that leads to a difference between boys and girls in self-efficacy and social-belonging when it comes to STEM subjects. Essentially, girls see themselves as being less competent at STEM subjects than boys despite there being no significant difference in average ability, and they see much fewer women than men within STEM sector roles.

How can we attract more women into manufacturing?

While the issues with self-efficacy and gender stereotyping are much harder to resolve, self-belonging should, in theory, be relatively straight forward.

By making more of the female workforce within manufacturing visible, we’re nurturing the concept for young women that there is very much a place for them within the industry.

Introducing policies such as flexible working to attract and retain female employees (in fact, flexible working is also very appealing to male employees, too), implementing development programmes for female workers and training hiring managers on inclusive recruitment practises and unconscious bias are all positive steps towards tapping into the talent pool of female workers. Long term, organisations should be reaching out to schools and colleges to raise their profiles and that of the industry as a whole.

For organisations to survive and thrive through the transformation of Industry 4.0 and beyond, we can’t ignore the void that a lack of females in the manufacturing industry is creating. Before your competition wises up and starts attracting the previously mostly untapped talent that the female workforce has to offer, you need to ensure your diversity and inclusion strategy means you’re going to attract the female leaders of now and tomorrow.

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