I was in a start-up session recently when something stopped me in my tracks. It was a female founder pitching her company that makes flame retardant undergarments for women. This safety apparel is readily available for men, but historically tough to find for women.
I’ve been in manufacturing a long time and I’m all too aware of our problem when it comes to gender diversity. As of 2021, women made up just 29 percent of the manufacturing workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, only one in four manufacturing leaders are women.
But this founder’s pitch still came as a gut punch. Imagine working a job where you could actually go up in flames because you can’t get the properly fitting safety apparel you need. Talk about a foundational barrier—and one whose root cause is a lack of female manufacturing employees to point out blind spots, glaring or otherwise.
Our industry is expected to be short 2.1 million workers by 2030. How in the world can we solve that problem if we ignore half the population? We can’t.
Things need to change and change quickly. As a male manufacturing leader, I feel very strongly that it’s my responsibility to help lead that change and get more women working at every level – particularly in management.
Today, I want to share the insights of two women who have a wealth of experience leading manufacturing companies. Carla Macklin has founded a pair of healthcare manufacturing firms and currently runs a health-tech company named Direct-Rec. Sara Ann MacKinlay has been the president of Exsurco Medical, a surgical device maker, since 2014.
Not only are their comments about the industry illuminating, but they have insightful, practical ideas about how to stop examining this problem and start solving it. Here’s what they had to say.
How would manufacturing benefit from more women in leadership positions?
Macklin: “Any industry benefits from diversity of thought. Just having another perspective—whether diversity of gender, race, or age—is beneficial. The more differences in background and opinion that come into the room and are part of the decision-making process, the better outcomes for all.”
MacKinlay: “I think a lot of what women bring to the table is really this understanding of the employees from a very fundamental perspective—how they succeed at work, but also how they balance all aspects of their life. And I think that is very welcome in manufacturing, frankly. That really creates a culture that invites women in. Because once they start in their roles, whether it’s manufacturing, assembly, quality or whatever, I think they begin to see the opportunities that await them.”
How do we get more women into manufacturing leadership roles?
Macklin: “From an employee perspective, having a first shift between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. allowed us to reach more female employees because it left their schedules open to attend to their children after school. Manufacturing schedules like ours can really align very well with what’s already typical in women’s lives. Also, I think there are plenty of scenarios where manufacturing is clean and safe, yet it has a stigma of being dirty and unsafe. The more we can do to get female candidates or STEM students to put their feet on a plant floor and feel the energy behind production, it’s really kind of contagious and becomes a lot less scary. More women working in production will allow the pipeline for qualified female leadership to grow.
“I’d also say that a lot of manufacturing companies are passed down through the generations from father to son, as it was in my family. Historically daughters may not have been groomed for the role because fathers might have felt they were protecting their daughters from coarse work environments or other perceived hurdles they would face being a woman in manufacturing. Luckily both the work environments and mentalities are changing, but it will still take time for these transitions to make a significant difference to the numbers of female manufacturing leaders.”
MacKinlay: “Many great women in my circles have had the benefit of really understanding the importance of the STEM curriculum. There is a real alignment between STEM and traditional engineering—and that migration into manufacturing when you’re in engineering. We’re just beginning to see the early stages of it. It would be great to have a program like STEM specifically for manufacturing. I think that would go a long way to recruit women into their field of study and think about manufacturing more, including trades. That would be one way of doing it even better.
“But for women already at manufacturing orgs, a great way to get to your next career stage is to take on a stretch assignment. Hopefully you’re working for an organization that will allow it, because I’ve seen it create enormous momentum. It might be that you’re working in one silo of the business, but you’re intrigued by the manufacturing process. That’s where you can really unleash someone to their next step.”
What advice do you have for a young woman who is considering manufacturing?
Macklin: “In general, be open to manufacturing. It’s addictive to watch products come off the line. I think many women internally rate productivity very highly, so being in that environment can be really energizing and fulfilling.
“Additionally, it is important to actively seek out additional resources. Trade organizations are a great way to find peer support and learn more about the manufacturing jobs you may be considering. And many cities have non-profit manufacturing organizations, even women-specific ones, who can provide perspectives on opportunities and connections to local manufacturers. “
MacKinlay: “Role models and mentors are so, so important. Find a mentor, find someone who’s doing the role that you want to be in. And my experience is, I find women are amazingly open to professionally share their experiences and give advice. It’s something I do all the time, and it’s probably the thing that brings me the greatest satisfaction, when someone reaches out for advice and is looking for some informal coaching and mentoring. I love to do it. I think women need to take that active role, find the mentor, find someone that you’re really going to relate to and that you can bring various work scenarios to. That can be a great way of motivating change.”
The best part about the ideas and advice shared by Macklin and MacKinlay? They’re doable. These aren’t idealistic, pie-in-the-sky objectives. They are things we can start doing today.
But let me be clear, this is not women’s problem to solve. The vast majority of manufacturing companies are run by men who need to make room at the leadership table, on the shop floor and in their workplace cultures for the voices, perspectives, experiences, and contributions of women.
We built the barriers. It’s up to us to tear them down, of course all the while being informed and inspired by the next generation of women leaders. My hope is that we can finally get this done, so that by the time my three young daughters are ready to enter the workforce, they can take their potential anywhere they want to go.
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