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A girls-eye view of the Manufacturing Executive Summit

Posted By Marie Gervais, May 14, 2011 at 12:30 PM, in Category: Manufacturing Leadership Council

A girls-eye view of the Manufacturing Executive Summit this week

Marie Gervais, Global Leadership Associates

This morning in my local paper* there was an article about why more women are not entering the field of engineering in spite of mentoring and awareness programs at universities. The article made me reflect back on my recent experience with the ME summit in Florida this week. I really enjoyed the summit, met some wonderful people and was inspired on many occasions by the level of intelligent discourse taking place all around me. And anyone who doesn’t enjoy a conference surrounded by beach, warm sun and palm trees should be suspect.

But I had this cathartic moment at one point during the week’s events. During the Hologic presentation there was a short video clip that the company uses to appeal to their “customer’s customer”. Hologic sells medical machines and supplies for women’s health clinics, doctors, hospitals and other health organizations, but their customer’s customers are all women. As I watched the video, which was a magnificent piece of marketing, I was aware of a sudden sense of relief. I determined that the relief came from several things. First, the Hologic presentation was speaking to me personally, the customer’s customer. Second the images in the video were all the things that matter to me: diversity of race, culture, profession, age, meaningfulness, the capacity to make a difference, providing services to all socio-economic groups.

Thirdly it was artistic, beautiful and very feminine in its imagery, with frequent social groupings showing interaction, natural surroundings and references to the arts. The video allowed me to stop translating my experience from the predominantly male experience I was having and simply take in the information from my natural comfort zone as a woman. I suddenly realized how much energy it takes for me daily to deal with a male-oriented world. It’s not that I don’t like the experience or can’t negotiate it. After all as human beings we have a lot in common across gender otherwise we wouldn’t be able to communicate at all.  It is just that it is always outside of my comfort zone.

I felt another surge of relief when Maureen Steinwall (Steinwall Scientific) made her presentation about her longitudinal study to engage employees in reducing human error in product standardization. Unless I was asleep, this was the only reference to the role of people in manufacturing during the entire summit! Manufacturing employs more people than any other industry worldwide. How refreshing to know that at least one other person is thinking about the rest of the humans in the industry!

If this concept is not making sense yet, a couple of analogies might help:

I have a sister-in-law who is left handed and so are her children and husband. They restructured their house so that it is left-land friendly. When I go there everything feels wrong to me. The doors open on the wrong side and the hot and cold taps are opposite where they usually are. Things veer to the left and are visually left-dominant. When I leave, I am struck by how frustrating it must be for left-handed people to live all day in a right-handed world.

Here is another example. I have lived in several countries for a number of months at a time. The experience is always very full and rewarding but frustrating. Streets don’t act the way I expect them too, all the usual cultural indications I depend upon unconsciously are not there. Irrespective of language contexts, I constantly second guess my actions, words, and behaviors because I am acutely aware that whatever I’m doing, it is not what the locals would do. When I get home the relief at just understanding what is going on and not having to negotiate my cultural adjustment constantly is palpable.

So what I’m saying is that I have had to develop lots of flexibility by learning to negotiate across difference and I am really happy about those opportunities. But I think that many people are not quite as willing as I am to stay uncomfortable for long periods of time until they find a place where they can fit in. This brings me back to the problem of attracting women into engineering, which sparked this reflection. Basically the article said that women feel very uncomfortable in the male-dominated world of engineering so they stay away. Likely this is how men feel in a female-dominant nursing faculty but the difference is that there is more financial incentive for women to go into engineering than there is for men to go into nursing.

If the manufacturing industry in general and the ME summit in particular would like to attract more talented women and keep them actively engaged, we will have to do some thinking and talking about what would make the industry, and industry events, more female-friendly. I suspect that will have something to do with having more women in on the planning discussions. But it can also mean having more people who understand this cultural negotiation process at that planning table. Generally the more diverse the planning group, the more attractive it is likely to be to a variety of participants. In that respect Hologic and Steinwall Scientific could provide valuable input along with some of our international members.

So what do you think? What does it mean to be female-friendly? Does it matter?

*Edmonton Journal, May 13, 2011. Recruiting women to the 'man's world', K1.

Written by Marie Gervais


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