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Women in Manufacturing: Why the Future Needs More

Women in Manufacturing (WIM), a subgroup of the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), held its annual WIM Summit recently. We heard from some notable women who began their careers as engineers.

Woman Engineer

Women manufacturing leaders share insights about the workforce crisis

Women in Manufacturing (WIM), a subgroup of the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), held its annual WIM Summit recently. We heard from some notable women who began their careers as engineers, including:

  • Latondra Newton, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer, Toyota North America, who began her career as an engineer, purchasing capital equipment for Toyota
  • Gwenne Henricks, VP Product Development and Global Technology and CTO at Caterpillar
  • Alicia Boler-Davis , SVP Global Quality and Customer Experience, GM, and former vehicle chief engineer and plant manager

Each of these strong leaders spoke of obstacles they had overcome in male-dominated cultures, leadership lessons they had learned, and the importance they placed on focusing on helping more women find a place in manufacturing. The overarching message implied that manufacturing must change. Today’s women should be able to enter the manufacturing world without the struggle for acceptance we faced at the start of our careers.

Why do we need a group like WIM? It’s no secret that fewer women work in manufacturing than men — much fewer — but why is the underrepresentation of women a problem for manufacturing? Well, it’s more than a matter of fairness or quota-filling.

We know that technical jobs are getting hard to fill because we don’t have enough trained and experienced people available. Not enough young people are interested in engineering and manufacturing. And of those who are interested, girls are still outnumbered by far.

Want some facts? According to the National Science Foundation, 5% of engineers were women in 1983. By 2010, still only 10% of the engineering workforce was female, unimpressive growth. In contrast, women hold almost 50% of the country’s total number of jobs. When we have a critical career field with only 10% of any class of people, something is missing. 18% of engineering bachelor degrees are going to women, still too few — so the numbers tell us that something is happening to them on their way from college to manufacturing careers.

WIM wants to take action to shine more light on the issue. They are encouraging manufacturers to do much more outreach to girls in schools and give more support to them in activities like FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology. This organization strives to live up to the meaning behind its name by organizing robotics competitions for students at all levels as showcased in the below video from Team 1540 in Portland, Oregon:

Another example of outreach to young girls is through Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (G.A.M.E.S.) This organization is part of a program at the University of Illinois College of Engineering that advocates creating opportunities for women in engineering.

Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (G.A.M.E.S.) camp activity

WIM encourages manufacturers to sponsor more summer camp experiences for girls such as G.A.M.E.S. and to create more mentorship opportunities for young women.

Leadership molds may need to be shattered. Our idea of leadership skills may be rooted in a culture that has held onto an unnecessarily narrow view. We don’t need women to be just like men in the workplace. They often approach people and problems in a different and equally valid way from men.

As a woman in manufacturing, I’ve always been in a small minority at an industry event, so it felt strange to be surrounded by a couple of hundred accomplished women engineers, manufacturing sales representatives and marketing professionals. At the same time, I wished more men had been there. It can be an eye-opening moment when a man first sees our manufacturing culture from a woman’s point of view. And that is something we all must do if we are to expand the pool of people we attract to careers in manufacturing.

G.A.M.E.S. image courtesy of Women in Engineering (WIM) at the University of Illinois.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.


    November 19, 2013

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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