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Training & Education

We can do it

By Emily Vasquez

Women in Manufacturing summit aims to boost visibility in U.S. industry

Women in Manufacturing (WiM), a 500-member advocacy group, held its annual summit Sept. 29 to Oct.1 in Schaumburg, Illinois, bringing together women from a variety of manufacturing fields to discuss how to maintain visibility and encourage others to take jobs and let their skills shine in STEM-related fields.

Lead by example

According to a survey conducted by WiM, 68 percent of young women ages 17-24 said they were not likely to consider manufacturing as a career path. However, 29 percent of women who already work in manufacturing say they believe that strong positive exposure to industrial settings and opportunities at an early age is imperative to encourage STEM field careers. Exposure is crucial.

“We need women on every level,” said Chandra Brown, deputy assistant secretary for manufacturing for the U.S. International Trade Administration. 

One of many speakers at the summit, Brown spoke openly about the lack of women in executive and leadership positions. “We know that we need more women on corporate boards. As of July 2014, women held only 4.8 percent of CEO positions. We held 15 percent of executive officer positions and 17 percent of corporate board seats at Fortune 500 companies. And there has been basically zero to no growth.”

Brown also suggested events like National Manufacturing Day should highlight women working at every level of a company. “If there are women on the [shop] floor, make it visible. The reality is, we must be visible and seen in order to be models and mentor people as they move up the ladder,” Brown said. “Most women in STEM are in [the biological field] and are not always in fields related to manufacturing. We should also focus on STEM manufacturing.” 

Five seasoned professionals in a discussion panel each shared failures, successes and voiced a critical need to give manufacturing a facelift, from the hiring process to its portrayal of females in media.

Among the panelists was Mission Systems Engineer Natalie Panek from MDA Space Missions, who works on Canadian space robotics and other space exploration projects. Her message for young girls: Embrace challenge and failure. “We need to start teaching [women] at an earlier age how to deal with failure, critical thinking and problem solving skills that will help in a real world environment,” she said, pointing out a need to restructure media messages aimed at young women. “Everybody knows Kim Kardashian but few people know Jessi Combs, a welder who is also in the media.” Combs co-starred in two reality television shows featuring metal shop skills.

Risk-reward ratio

The WiM survey also found young women aren’t aware of the rewards in pursuing STEM careers because they don’t see many women in these fields or in executive positions. Fifty-three percent of women working in the industry said this is a reflection of corporate culture.

Lisa Blais, North America industrial practice leader at Egon Zehnder, a leading executive search firm, said the biggest challenge in obtaining a higher position for women was experience. “The hiring manager makes the role spec so narrow that only 10 white men in the U.S. can fit the spec,” said Blais. “Women need to raise their hands to advance.” Often, she said, women don’t take ownership of their careers and deliberately attempt to move up. Instead, they “put their heads down, waiting to be recognized or plucked up.”

But what about visibility on the shop floor? The Symbol Training Institute offers post-secondary career and technical hands-on advanced manufacturing training in the Chicagoland area, an initiative that panelist Diana Peters founded in 2005. “We’re proud to say that we are the only school that has two female instructors. When [women] come in and see that a female is teaching and there is a mentor, they sit up and feel more confident because they see themselves in that role one day as well.” 

Bottom line, having women on an executive or advisory board can benefit companies financially, Brown said. “Fact is, statistically these companies that have women on their boards make more money.” Unfortunately, the lack of female presence can be credited to the antiquated image of a dirty, dark manufacturing environment. But Brown insists that there are great opportunities out there. Women just don’t know about them. FFJ

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