Step up

By Caitlin Tucker

Pictured from left to right: Myrna Reyes, Ph.D., Annette Doyle and Christine Benz

Women leaders discuss their STEP careers and the gender gap

April 2013 - From the 2012 presidential election campaign’s “war on women” to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent rejection of telecommuting, it appears America can’t get women off its mind. Through the years women have fought their way into the workforce, out of the home and up the corporate ladder, but that pesky glass ceiling remains, especially in science, technology, engineering, and production fields. The fact is there aren’t many women in manufacturing roles. The question is why?

In January, three Trumpf Inc., Farmington, Conn., employees were recognized by the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte, University of Phoenix and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers with a Women in Manufacturing STEP award for excellence and leadership in manufacturing. The 122 honorees represent all levels of manufacturing from the factory floor to the C suite. 

ffj-0415-webex-women-benz“The women in manufacturing award was, to me, a little bit of an eye opener of how big the gender gap in manufacturing really is,” says Christine Benz, manager, product engineering. “Working at Trumpf I always felt that being a woman doesn’t play a big role in what I do and how people work with me or interact with me,” she continues. “Talking to other women in the field showed me that there is a problem with women in manufacturing.” 

The problem with girls

At the heart of the issue is a lack of interest in STEP subjects. Some women are never exposed to STEP, while others lose interest along the way. Benz was working in a hospital in Germany when she recognized her enthusiasm for medical equipment. “I wanted to learn how these things worked exactly,” she says. “I wanted to go away from just using that equipment to learning how it works and I wanted to get into the development side.” Benz then pursued a degree in micro and precision engineering with a focus on medical technology.

Contrary to Benz’s experience, research shows young girls exposed to STEP tend to lose interest as they progress in their education. Psychologists attempt to understand why men are “better-suited” for mathematics by studying the genetic differences between the sexes. However, the July/August 2010 issue of Monitor on Psychology unveiled a different culprit: culture.

In the article, “Math + culture = gender gap?,” Cornell University psychologists Steven Ceci, Ph.D., and Wendy Williams, Ph.D., concluded that culture impacts achievement and interest in math much more than genetics. “If you look at the students scoring in the top one in 10,000 in mathematics in 1983, there were 13 boys for every girl,” says Ceci. “Since then, until 2007, that gap has shrunk to somewhere between 2.8 and four boys for every girl.”

Ceci’s logic is that if the difference were just in the genome, there would be no opportunity for girls to improve. The article then posits the shift is caused by an increase of girls taking higher-level math courses. Changing cultural norms make math more appealing to girls, increasing their likelihood to pursue advanced coursework.

Annette Doyle, assembly department manager at Trumpf, believes encouragement at a young age will help girls feel confident and able to achieve in STEP. “When they’re in middle school they need to learn that being good at math is feminine because being smart and being able to earn your own money is feminine,” she says. “Young girls need to see this and understand it and see how it is cool and get into that.”

The trouble with manufacturing

Becoming a veterinarian and discovering the cure to cancer are “cool” STEP careers, but working in a factory on an assembly line seems archaic and unappealing. “Half the problem is the image of manufacturing still being dirty and dark, something that grandpa did,” says Doyle. However, manufacturing in the U.S. is very high-tech and far from dingy. 

“There’s got to be a change in parents’ mindsets in what they want for their little girls because we, as parents, we set the goals and the standards,” says Doyle, who has three daughters and one son, all interested in working in production. Because of Doyle’s career choice, for her children, “that’s what women do. They don’t stay at home and cook, they go lead a production unit,” she continues. “And you just need a critical mass of women doing it for more women to do it. If I interview a woman and she walks through here and she sees 70 guys, she’s less inclined to go into this job than if she walks through and one third of the people in here are women.”

ffj-0415-webex-women-reyesApplications engineer Myrna Reyes, Ph.D., agrees. “We need to change the image of what the manufacturing industry is and make it more appealing for young girls to think about.” She says manufacturing is not on women’s minds at the moment, but women are “capable of doing any job in the manufacturing industry.” 

The reality of manufacturing

Studies have shown women enjoy careers that allow them to help people and be creative. For Reyes, engineering fulfills these requirements and more. “The whole thing from start to finish—the idea, the design, production and have a working product at the end, and then seeing how the clients receive this product—it’s rewarding,” she says.

Seeing an idea come to fruition is appealing to Benz, as well. “You work on a project, you develop a product and there is always a goal and you achieve it,” she says. “In development there are a lot of failures also. You work on a certain product or a piece of a puzzle and at some point you have to admit it doesn’t work and you have to start all over again. But at some point you reach a goal,” she continues. “And this is the most rewarding thing in manufacturing and development. There is an end product and you can look at it and be proud of it.”

Although manufacturing is all about machines, Doyle appreciates the human element. “There are definitely people here, who, the way they spend eight hours of their day depends on me,” she says. “It can be super miserable for a day or it can enriching and interesting. Because I’m in management, it’s a very people-oriented job and I love that.”

Challenges remain

In Doyle’s department of 70 workers there is only one other woman. “It singles you out in a positive and negative way,” she says. “I remember from the time when we were in school, if we went on a tour of a company the person giving the tour would remember me because I was the only girl.” In a working environment , she says, “we all kind of like to be around people that are like ourselves and there is not a lot of that in manufacturing. So it makes you sometimes feel like you’re on your own.

“I can’t necessarily say it’s harder for me than for men, but yes, challenges certainly exist,” says Doyle. “The trick is to use the advantages we have as women and minimize the disadvantages. In General, I can really say only positive things about the men I work with, I have received a lot of support from my superiors at Trumpf.”

Reyes says there are no part-time engineering jobs, which complicates family responsibilities for women. “I wish I could sometimes work from home or have part-time to spend more time with my kids,” she says. “But you have to be here and work with the machines, it’s not something you can do from home.”

Certainly a lot has changed for women in the workforce, but there’s always room for progress. “We are 50 percent of the population,” says Reyes. “If the industry needs skills, they need to promote it in a more friendly way so women are attracted to it.”

Having role models like Benz, Reyes, Doyle and the other 119 Women in Manufacturing STEP award recipients encourages young girls. “I felt honored and happy to receive this award,” says Doyle, “And I hope this gets some publicity so more 13-year-old girls try a little harder in math and physics to get into the same position.” FFJ



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