Women in Manufacturing

Working for women

By Nick Wright

Women in Manufacturing leverages education to move professionals up the ranks

November 2015 - In the manufacturing world, it’s no secret that fewer than a third of jobs are occupied by women, slipping into a steady decline from 32 percent since the 1990s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Combined with a skills gap that looms over manufacturing like a dark cloud, the lack of women—both entering and advancing in the field—highlights the hurdles facing manufacturers to fill the pipeline with qualified people.

Women in Manufacturing, a Cleveland-based group, is doing its part to clear those hurdles. In its earliest form, WiM grew from about a dozen executives mostly in the metalforming industries (as the group was founded under the auspices of the Precision Metalforming Association). Members discussed best practices, industry conditions and fostering education for women. That was in 2011. This past April, WiM officially became a 501(c)(6) trade organization, giving it greater leverage and authority when hosting summits, launching educational programs and advocating industry issues.

With a membership roll exceeding 500, WiM has strongly influenced the careers of women who tap its resources and attend its summits. WiM considers itself an umbrella group and works with existing 

female-centric organizations like the Association of Women in the Metal Industries (AWMI), rather than duplicating their efforts. Although its foundation was metals, WiM draws members from all parts of the manufacturing world. Sheila LaMothe, a WiM board member and manager of marketing and public relations at Trumpf Inc., says there were two women from Post Foods at a previous summit’s breakout session.

“They make cereal. And I thought, ‘Yep, that’s manufacturing,’” she says. “We really have a broad base. The benefit to having members from every corner of manufacturing is the depth of knowledge shared,” whether it’s from segments like aerospace, medicine, packaging or textiles.

As WiM expands into its role as a trade association, it’s streamlining its mission, says WiM President Allison Grealis. “At the time we formed, we wanted to attract, retain and advance women in manufacturing. Attraction was the piece that we focused on at the start.”

Yet, several established organizations successfully already recruited women to careers on multiple levels. “So for us to be focused on the attraction and retention piece [is not] in the best interest of our core members, who are in manufacturing already.”

At its board meeting last year, WiM decided to pull back from recruitment and is seeking to best serve its population of women already in myriad manufacturing professions.

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Shop floor, corner office, all in between

The stated aim of WiM might lead one to think that women on the shop floor, hoping to rise to a supervisory position or higher, are the target for WiM’s efforts. While there’s support for women who are directly involved in making products, the prevailing demographic makeup of WiM’s members are those working in a professional capacity. About 38 percent of its members are in executive roles and another 32 percent are managers. The rest comprise students and employees in operations, production and professional services. That breakdown also reflects the backgrounds of WiM’s first champions—a fact not lost on WiM’s board.

“When you talk to senior levels, there’s a big drop-off at the higher ranks in the manufacturing space. As women rise in the ranks, it’s harder to get past the supervisory level and they plateau in their existing positions. We want to help women get past that level,” says Grealis.

LaMothe has made it a personal goal to inspire more women who aren’t necessarily in managerial and executive roles. WiM counts some of these workers as members, including women whose membership is sponsored by their employers but who aren’t managers or weren’t when they joined. 

Her employer sponsors WiM’s annual summit, which means spots open for six additional attendees of LaMothe’s choice. Next year, she hopes to bring three managers and three who aren’t working at Trumpf. LaMothe encourages her local Connecticut WiM chapter members to attend national summits.

Aside from the summits, which draw hundreds of participants (see sidebar), WiM will next evolve its professional educational curricula. It offers white papers and webinars on subjects like lean manufacturing, discussion forums and a jobs board. Most notable is a program WiM is launching in conjunction with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It will be the first-ever leadership lab for women in manufacturing, with the primary goal of career advancement, says Grealis. 

The course is designed for three in-person sessions each day, featuring intense training. The cohorts will be no more than 35 peers in manufacturing. Students will learn the methodology of conducting business case studies, participate in panel discussions, peer education and peer evaluation. 

“We want to [help] women navigate their career more successfully,” Grealis explains. The Case Western pilot, slated to begin next spring, could become a template for chapters around the country.

WiM members represent 300 companies across 31 states. Even before it became a trade association, it wasn’t easy to manage WiM’s growth, Grealis says. “As a startup, you want to be everything to everyone immediately. Lots of people [are] excited about what we’re doing and who we’re focused on, but want it all immediately.”

Managing growth and resources were challenges without the formality of a board, says Grealis. The requisite process of paperwork, legalese and tax guidelines to become a 501(c)(6) is no breeze for any professional group. But given its rapid expansion and flood of interest, WiM is handling its agenda, association status and outside queries with poise and efficiency. At its recent summit, WiM sold out all its plant tours, and nearly 300 women turned out. The backing of big-name sponsors like Alcoa and Medtronic are a testament to the work WiM is doing.

For 2016, it will attempt to provide access access to its training and education materials to women in small and midsize companies. And, of course, WiM’s programming isn’t free. The group is seeking sponsors and financial support to broaden its educational aims. But as WiM gains momentum, its leaders hope attracting such support will be an easy sell. FFJ

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