Minding the gender gap in manufacturing

​Women constitute manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent in the United States. So if there are plenty of qualified women, why aren’t they in manufacturing?

Manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent in the United States

Women constitute manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent in the United States. They comprise just over one-fourth (27 percent) of manufacturing employees even though women make up nearly half (47 percent) of the total US labor force,1 and hold more than half of all US managerial and professional positions.2 So if there are plenty of qualified women, why aren’t they in manufacturing?

The Manufacturing Institute, APICS Supply Chain Council, and Deloitte worked together to understand why manufacturing isn’t getting its fair share of talented women. We surveyed more than 600 women in manufacturing, across all functional roles and levels, to get their gauge of how well companies are doing at attracting, retaining and advancing women. We also held an executive roundtable in Washington, D.C., where we convened senior manufacturing leaders to bring into focus their executive view of human capital and talent concerns.

Here are four potential benefits the study found to bolster the business case for diversity in manufacturing:

  1. Improve shareholder value: Research shows a clear statistical correlation between diversity, better corporate financial performance and higher stock market valuations, and companies that have a higher representation of women frequently enjoy better financial performance.3
  2. Fuel innovation: Research by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) provides compelling data indicating diversity unlocks innovation and stimulates market growth. Employees at companies with a workforce imbued with inherent diversity (such as gender and ethnicity) and acquired diversity (such as appreciating cultural differences by working in another country), in combination, are 45 percent more likely to report their firm’s market share grew over the previous year, CTI found.4
  3. Improve engagement: Today, driven by shifts in attitudes about work, expectations of balance, and the transparency of the job market, employee retention and engagement are now the number one problem companies face, according to Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends study.
  4. Optimize team performance and collective intelligence: Researchers studying collective intelligence, a measure of the general effectiveness of a group on a wide range of tasks,5 were surprised to find the proportion of women in a group is strongly related to its measured collective intelligence. In general, they found women are more attuned than men to nonverbal cues, feelings and thoughts of others and tend to take turns and make way for others to speak up, which promotes responsiveness, collaboration and knowledge-sharing among group members.6

1 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014.

2 Ibid.

3 The CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management, Credit Suisse, September 2014.

4 Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, How Diversity Can Drive Innovation, Harvard Business Review, December 2013.

5 Exploring Collective Intelligence in Human Groups, Anita Williams Woolley, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University.

6 Ibid.

Top concerns cited by women in manufacturing

While two clear frontrunners emerged among women’s moorings to manufacturing, nearly half listed the following as top concerns that could cause them to consider leaving the industry:

  • Poor working relationships: The onus is on employers to become a “simply irresistible organization” which includes positive working relationships and can be enhanced by management working towards a positive work environment, characterized as flexible, humanistic, recognition focused, inclusive and diverse.7
  • Work-life balance: Only one in three survey respondents think their industry allows people to meet family commitments without impairing their career.
  • Low income/pay: Across all industries, women earn about 82 percent of what men do; even less during child-bearing years, according to current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Lack of promotion opportunities: Not only do the respondents in our manufacturing survey indicate lack of promotion opportunities is among the top reasons that may increase inclination to leave, they also believe the standards of performance are not the same for men and women in the industry.8
  • Lack of challenging or interesting assignments: Women who responded to the survey have mixed views of their companies’ efforts in the development of women; less than half (39 percent) rank efforts as average, and nearly one third (32 percent) describe their companies’ efforts as poor or very poor.

Respondents ranked opportunities for challenging and interesting assignments, attractive pay and work-life balance as the top three most important career priorities. Women participating in the survey also indicated “formal and informal mentorship and sponsorship” among the most impactful programs a company can have to pave the way for attracting and retaining women.

7 Becoming irresistible: A new model for employee engagement, Bersin by Deloitte, January 26, 2015.

8 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014.

Forging a path to advance talented women

Flexible work practices, formal and informal mentorship programs and improving the visibility of key leaders who serve as role models topped the respondents’ lists of most impactful programs their companies offer to attract and retain women.

“We have to get flex schedules at the shop floor level,” noted one executive participating in the women in manufacturing executive roundtable, adding “the desire for work-life balance has become a universal concern among employees, too.” Roundtable participants agreed that adopting flexible work arrangements, such as childcare, to accommodate workers with family responsibilities, is critical to developing an inclusive work environment in manufacturing.

The future is bright

Despite the challenges uncovered in this study, it is clear women in manufacturing have a positive outlook. Slightly more than half of respondents (51 percent) indicate they have observed positive change in manufacturing’s attitude toward female professional employees over the last five years. Furthermore, two-thirds of women responding to the women in manufacturing survey said they would fully endorse (24 percent) or endorse with caveats (42 percent) a career in manufacturing for their daughters or family members.

These three guidelines may help manufacturers attract and retain more women in their ranks:

  1. Start at the top: For diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and programs to gain traction throughout an organization, senior leaders must be aligned on D&I as a business priority and must visibly communicate the imperative and lead by example.
  2. Address gender bias head-on: Leading organizations, across industries, are addressing unconscious biases through training, and some companies also attempt to lessen the possibility of hiring biases by eliminating gender-related information on resumes.
  3. Create a more flexible work environment: Manufacturers should consider shifting from a “presence-driven” culture to a “results-driven” culture. Research shows when manufacturing employers offer more workplace flexibility, it can result in job satisfaction, job engagement, physical health status, mental health status, and the likelihood of remaining with one’s current employer are significantly higher.9

Finally, women can’t do this alone. Encourage the men in the organization to be equally involved, committed, and engaged with the efforts. They must be equal participants in this important, strategic talent strategy and must be involved with meaningful roles and responsibilities for making it work. Learn more about Women in manufacturing.

9 Families and Work Institute, 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, Workplace Flexibility in Manufacturing Companies, 2011.

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