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Women in Manufacturing Conference Attendees Urged to Take Risks, Have Greater Confidence

Posted By David Brousell, September 29, 2015 at 11:24 AM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

WiM-Logo-for-website.jpgI travelled to Minneapolis last week to participate in the fifth annual conference of Women in Manufacturing (WiM), an organization that is dedicated to inspiring women in industry.

My expectation in going to WiM’s Summit conference was that I would hear discussions about the future of manufacturing, about how to improve the innovation process, how to attract the next generation to manufacturing’s ranks, how best to be a leader in today’s global market, and a number of other subjects related to key aspects of manufacturing such as supply chain management. I moderated a panel discussion about Manufacturing 4.0, the next wave of industrial progress.

Most of my expectations during the two-day conference at the Radisson Blu hotel were certainly met by a roster of very good speakers and timely roundtable discussions. But then there was the unexpected – a palpable feeling among the 277 attendees that the role of women in manufacturing is not what it should be, that women are not only under-represented in industry but that they are being viewed and judged differently than men.

As one female executive from a large high tech company said to me: “I’m not a man, but do I have to behave like one?”

Part of the imbalance is likely found in the numbers. Women represent about 27% of the manufacturing workforce in the U.S., a couple of speakers said, and in the day-to-day routine of the business many find that they are a distinct minority – usually of one – in departmental and other meetings.

But more important is how women perceive they are being evaluated and judged. “Research shows that men are promoted on potential, women on performance,” said Krista Brookman, a vice president at Catalyst, a New York-based non-profit organization focused on expanding opportunities for women and business, and a founder of WiM. “Women feel they have to check all the boxes.”

During a panel discussion, Brookman said the word “chutzpah” – a Yiddish expression that means audacity, impudence, fearlessness – “describes the courage we all need” to be a greater force in manufacturing, and one that drove her own career.

That sentiment, as well as a need for women to have greater confidence and self-esteem, permeated the WiM conference last week.

The message from Pamela Wiseman, senior director of supply chain planning at Medtronic, a Dublin, Ireland-based medical device manufacturer, was typical. “Be confident,” she said. “Take calculated risks. Take stretch assignments and put yourself out there.” Added Vicki Holt, president and chief executive of Proto Labs, a Maple Plain, Minnesota-based provider of prototype and low-volume parts, “Be true to your core values.” Proto Labs won the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s Manufacturer of the Year Award in June.

How historical perceptions of the role of women in manufacturing need to change was emphasized in a talk by Sarah Krasley, founder and principal of a new, Brooklyn, New York-based company called Unreasonable Women (“Despite our name, we’re actually quite cooperative”, its website says).

Saying she has had a love/hate relationship with Rosie the Riveter, the Norman Rockwell painting that became a symbol of women who rolled up their sleeves to work in shipyards and factories in the early years of America’s involvement in World War II, Krasley said that the image reduces women in manufacturing to “a sweeping generalization that is 70 years old.”

But understanding Rosie – the part that is true, she said – comes from the “we can do it” attitude that was the message in the caption that accompanied Rosie’s image, an attitude that reflects the spirit of community. It is this spirit, Krasley said, that women must embrace and advance today.

Rosie first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943. She was modeled after Mary Doyle Keefe, at the time a 19-year old telephone operator. Keefe died last month at the age of 92.

In some ways, Rosie’s image is tied to a perception of manufacturing itself that is now also dated. In discussing manufacturing workforce needs today and in the years ahead, a number of speakers at the WiM Summit offered guidance on how best to recruit younger people, especially millennials and those from the newer “Gen Edge”, into the industry by presenting a more accurate picture of today’s increasingly high tech manufacturing company.

But the confidence gap, particularly with the Gen Edge generation, said Hannah Ubl, a generational expert at Wayzata, Minnesota-based Bridgeworks, will continue to remain an issue. “[Gen Edge] men overestimate their abilities and performance, and [Gen Edge] women underestimate both,” she said.

If that’s the case, many manufacturing companies will have a lot of work to do to make their working environments more inclusive and motivating in the years to come. Differences between men and women will always exist and stereotypes will take time to change, but the trends in manufacturing – toward more information sharing thanks to communications and information technologies; flatter, more collaborative organizational structures; and more role models of enlightened leadership – are in everyone’s favor.

And just in time, too. With the manufacturing industry facing massive talent shortages in the next decade, the time is right for more women to learn about careers in manufacturing and for the industry to recruit them.

Rosie, you’ve always been right. As an industry, we can do it. And now we must.   


Written by David Brousell

Global Vice President, General Manager and Editorial Director of the Manufacturing Leadership Council

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Posted on
David, this is an excellent summary of the conference last week and the overall sentiment that I heard as well. Now is the time to make a difference, and it has to start with those of us that are in the manufacturing industry already. There were so many good take aways from this conference and some challenges as well. Keeping top female talent and recruiting new female talent will continue to be a focus for Lexmark into the future. Thanks for the article.
Posted on
Thanks, Shauna. I couldn't agree more that the burden is on industry itself.
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