Research from the Manufacturing Institute reveals some troubling facts about the gender gap in manufacturing in the United States.
For starters, women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, yet only 27 percent of the workers in manufacturing are women.
That disparity troubles the institute because, while the industry says that one of its biggest problems is lack of skilled labor, it's ignoring or not cultivating a major potential source of employees.
The executive director of the Manufacturing Institute, Jennifer McNelly, says women are “manufacturing's largest pool of untapped talent.”
She maintains companies won't be able to close their skills gap without closing that gender gap, and that closing the gender gap is smart business.
I met McNelly in her Washington office as part of our research for our second annual “Women Breaking the Mold” report.
The institute, which is part of the National Association of Manufacturers, surveyed 600 female employees in manufacturing as part of a 2015 report on the gender gap.
It's a complex problem, for sure. It gets into how young girls are socialized around math and science, things that happen long before manufacturers start hiring.
But yet there are strong feelings of gender disparity in the report. It noted that two-thirds of the women quizzed believed that performance standards aren't the same for women (most said they were tougher for women).
Three in four said they see an industry bias toward men in leadership, 71 percent say their experience causes them to believe there's a pay gap in favor of men, and only 33 percent say their companies are good at recruiting, retaining and developing women.
McNelly framed those partly as opportunities: “The research was telling us there's a huge opportunity to reposition manufacturing careers for women.”
The women surveyed reported a positive outlook about their careers, with more than two-thirds saying they would stay in manufacturing if they were to start their career over today.
As for progress, the report offers up the proverbial glass half full/half empty. It noted that 51 percent of the women reported positive change in attitudes toward female professionals in manufacturing the last five years.
Of course, the half empty side would say, OK, but that also means that 49 percent have not seen anything they'd call progress.
So what to do about it?
The report highlighted a number of best practices.
It starts at the top, with a commitment in the C-suite, McNelly said. It also requires confronting biases head-on. Mentor and sponsorship programs are very important, the report said.
As well, the institute said flexible work policies are needed. That's a family issue, not just a women's issue, she said, but it was ranked by the women in the study as the potentially most impactful program.
The institute has been conducting its gender gap research since 2012, and next year plans to do an impact study of the hundreds of women recognized in its STEP Ahead mentoring program, which McNelly said, specifically includes factory floor and production workers.
While McNelly is diplomatic — “I appreciate that people think something that's been a decades old problem is something we can solve in five years” — she clearly believes progress on gender equity needs to happen faster.
She mentioned she attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last year, and “one of the things that struck me coming out of there was this theme of 80 years to equity.”
“If in fact we are to follow the patterns that we as a globe have for gender equity, it's going to take 80 years to get to equity as the world,” she said. “That's just too long to wait.”
Toloken is Plastics News news editor-international. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.