Where are all the women?

10 min read

It’s a shocking statistic that fewer than 10% of the manufacturing workforce are female. What’s putting them off considering a career in the industry, and what can be done to help bring the numbers up?

This year marks a century since some women were given the right to vote. Even 100 years ago, it would have been unforeseeable that the UK would have had two female Prime Ministers, more than 60 women would have been into space, and over half of all GPs would be female.

In the manufacturing industry, however, the statistics are damning: in 2016, just 8% of the country’s manufacturing workforce was female (http://bit.ly/2vOQUdT), and the number of young women graduating with a degree in engineering was just 4,700 in 2017 – only 14% of all total graduates in that subject (http://bit.ly/2GOJzAi).

It’s unsurprising, then, that government, employers and industry bodies are looking to encourage more women into industry through schemes like the Year of Engineering and the WISE campaign for gender balance in STEM subjects (http://bit.ly/1I1zprZ).
The issue is more than just one of equality, though. Manufacturing is facing an unparalleled skills shortage, and by putting females off a career in the sector, the pool of potential people able to bridge that gap is halved.

“In many ways, it’s a bit of a ticking time bomb,” says Susan Scurlock, chief and founder of Primary Engineer. “We often talk about raising the number of women in engineering just as a numbers exercise. It’s not only important in terms of the skills shortage, but also means companies are missing out on the qualities that females can bring to the industry: the diversity of thought, the way they approach problems and the different dynamic they can bring to a team.”

A problem that starts at school
Most young people, whatever the gender, have very little idea of their desired career throughout most of their school lives. As a result, their choices are largely based on their educational experiences – something that has a detrimental effect on the manufacturing industry. “There’s definitely an image problem with careers in manufacturing and engineering, and that starts at school,” says Rachel Wiffen, a process engineer at Bridgnorth Aluminium and winner of Made in the Midlands’ Women in Engineering award. “When you go into schools and talk about STEM subjects, kids seem to have more of a grasp of the S, T and M parts, because they are actively taught at school. Engineering (the E) is much less tangible – children only have a basic grasp of what it means to be an engineer.”

Scurlock explains that, for girls in particular, career choices are often very carefully thought through. “Girls won’t enter into a career on a whim,” she says. “They want it to work for them, and if they’ve not had the opportunity to engage with someone from that career, or it’s not talked about at school, they won’t even consider it – and why should they? We’re not building those relationships and connections, and that’s a large part of what’s putting girls off.”

Added to that, continues Scurlock, is a university system that is overly restrictive in its entry requirements. “If you want to use university as a route into industry, you will more likely than not need a physics A-Level; you can’t get one of them without a physics GCSE, so a decision a girl makes in year nine, at the age of 14, will strongly influence their future education and employment paths.”

Again, the statistics around physics uptake are eye-opening. According to 2011 figures from the Institute of Physics (http://bit.ly/2EZkjXQ), 49% of co-educational state schools sent no female physics students into A-Level; and of those who are studying physics in post-16 education, only a fifth are female.

This transition between school, university and employment is vital, and creating awareness at an early age is vital in ensuring the gender gap in industry begins to change. So what can manufacturers themselves be doing to attract more female applicants?

An image problem?
It’s no secret that manufacturing has something of an image problem. In particular, the industry is often – rightly or wrongly – seen as a male-dominated one, which can seem hostile to any budding female manufacturers. Of course, this is changing, but the damage has been done, argues Sam Caine, client services director at training and development firm, Business Linked Teams.

“Manufacturing isn’t promoted in schools as a desirable sector to work in, and especially not for women,” she says. “If you have a very male-dominated industry then the approach taken by them is, by definition, going to be more male-focused. Areas where women are strongest won’t necessarily be focused on in the same way. For instance, the functions which, traditionally, may have been seen as an ideal way for a woman to come into a manufacturing firm and use it as a springboard to other, more technical roles have been outsourced. We are increasingly seeing things like marketing or HR, which are typically very female-heavy, outsourced to third-parties, adding to the problem of having a relative lack of females working anywhere in the company.

“When we change the way we communicate to potential applicants by adding a bit of ‘glamour’ to the marketing mix, it can have a big impact. If people have an image of a dirty, dangerous industry, show them the reality: a high-tech, cutting-edge one. That will go a long way to changing their minds.”

As Caine points out, there is a lot more to a manufacturing company than just the shopfloor staff. “There’s a stat that says that for every shopfloor employee, there are as many as 20 others keeping them in a job,” says Scurlock. “The shopfloor is important, of course, but it’s nothing without the marketing team, or the sales team, or the maintenance team around them.”

The easiest way to open girls’ eyes to the potential a career in manufacturing can have is to engage directly with them. “A company we work with had realised that there was a major engineering skills gap in their local area, and that they were struggling in particular to attract any female applicants,” says Louise McReynolds, associate director at recruitment agency, Michael Page. “To try and combat this, they hosted open days at local colleges and universities. Because the company suddenly had so much more visibility, female applications at the firm hit their highest-ever level.”

Employers may also have to pay more consideration to what female applicants are looking for, says Scurlock. “They often want flexibility – can you offer them the chance of having a family alongside their career? Industry often has a tendency to sit back and tut about skills shortages or a lack of female applicants without doing anything about it. The most successful ones, in terms of diversity and female uptake, are those who are being the most proactive – sending engineers into schools or opening their gates to show kids what goes on inside their walls.”

Are things improving?
With the Gender Pay Gap regulations coming into force in early April (see box, right), and the government’s Year of Engineering campaign, the lack of females in manufacturing is clearly being taken seriously. However, says McReynolds, it’s hard to say whether the number of girls looking to enter the industry has risen. “Businesses are certainly doing a lot more, and there’s a demand out there from companies looking to engage with females,” she says. “It’s certainly high on the agendas of many manufacturers, but whether that’s translated into an increase in entry-level volume and interest, we can’t be sure as yet.”

Whether you feel you need to be doing more to attract females into your factory, or whether you feel comfortable with the gender balance in your firm, it is important that the push for more equality goes on. Manufacturing can shake the stigma surrounding it as a male-dominated, unglamorous industry, but only through a sustained push from all sides. To quote Confucius, ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is today.’ A concerted effort between schools, universities and industry now, will sow the seeds for a more equal and diverse workforce in the years to come.

As you have just seen, manufacturing is facing a chronic shortage of female workers. However, there are still a great deal of women in the industry who make a significant contribution to enhancing the UK’s reputation as a world-class industrial nation. Here, MM interviews four female manufacturers about their experiences of being women in industry

Alica Prior, manufacturing engineer, Unipart Powertrain Applications:

How did you get into the industry?
I studied maths, design & technology and physics at A-Level so it seemed a natural progression to get into engineering.
My big break came when I got selected to be one of the first students to attend the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing to help create more industry-ready graduates. This has given me an unbelievable amount of shopfloor experience and the chance to apply classroom theory on live manufacturing projects. I graduated last year with a first class degree in manufacturing engineering and was immediately offered the position of manufacturing engineer at Unipart Powertrain Applications.

Did you experience any barriers or challenges around getting where you are today?
I didn’t achieve the A-Level results I wanted, but have turned things around at AME. So far everyone on the course and in the workplace has been really supportive. They’re more bothered if you can do the job than whether you are a man or a woman.

What do you enjoy about working in manufacturing?
Every day is different. On Monday we could be going through a project introduction, on Tuesday it could be revisiting some process improvements and then, near the end of the week, we could be analysing quality data. I would say that problem-solving is probably my greatest skill and I love putting that to the test on a daily basis.

What advice would you have for females looking to get into manufacturing?
There is no reason why being a female should stop you from being involved in industry. Although I am the only women who does engineering in my team, it has had no effect either socially or professionally – I am treated exactly the same. All you need to do is work hard and you’ll be accepted.

Emma Cornwall, head of manufacturing capability, BAE Systems:

How did you get into the industry?
I joined BAE Systems in 2006 having worked in both the private and public sectors, including the NHS, Inland Revenue as well as communications businesses and recruitment consultancies. My first role involved working on a recruitment campaign for procurement professionals and executives. This progressed to running development centres where I discovered a passion for developing the skills of others. Subsequent roles have always involved people development activities, ranging from early careers to leadership programmes, which I currently undertake for the manufacturing function in the Air Sector of BAE Systems. This includes people capability development for both our UK and overseas customers.

Did you experience any barriers or challenges around getting where you are today?
I don’t think I have experienced any barriers, or if I have, I’ve probably perceived it as an opportunity – a positive mentality can be a very powerful asset. I always consider what is possible and try not be constrained by how something is usually done.

What do you enjoy about working in manufacturing?
I most enjoy working with people who are passionate and take great pride in their work. It’s an exciting time with respect to manufacturing technologies and how this will impact the skillsets and training programmes of the future.

What advice would you have for females looking to get into manufacturing?
I would recommend that anyone interested in working within manufacturing researches the types of roles available within the business they are looking to work with. If possible, speak to someone already working in that environment – many companies, including BAE Systems, run events and recruitment campaigns to attract talent so take the opportunity to speak to those already doing the role. Always remember to celebrate your strengths and the value of your unique contribution.

Alex Auger, managing director, The Juice Executive:

How did you get into the industry?
It was a little bit by accident to be honest. When I was on my travels in Indonesia I tasted some great organic fruit juices
and thought we should have them in the UK. I arrived back home and converted my garage so I could produce up to 100 bottles of juice a day. I was pretty much in charge of everything, from controlling sourcing, producing, delivering and selling the juice. Now we can manufacture 300,000 litres a year at our dedicated site in Chatham, Kent, where we employ 22 people.

Did you experience any barriers or challenges around getting where you are today?
When the business was in its infancy I was very young (and female) within a largely male-dominated industry. I once went to an open day at a food manufacturing machinery company and asked for some details of a relatively expensive machine we were interested in. The sales manager gave me a card and told me to ‘give it to my boss!’ Needless to say, we didn’t buy
the machine from them! Controlling our costs whilst scaling up has been challenging. There are so many knock on effects from changing processes and procedures that, without careful planning, can have major cost impacts. This is challenging when you are growing and under pressure to adapt. We’ve learned the hard way, but it has changed the way we do things for the better.

What do you enjoy about working in manufacturing?
I love that the principles of a good manufacturing business all revolve around constant improvement, maximising efficiency and just doing things better. The improvement circuit never stops. As an entrepreneur, this is how you have to approach everything, but in a manufacturing business our team are inherently on board with this mind-set and are encouraged to adopt this approach in everything we do.

What advice would you have for females looking to get into manufacturing?
Surround yourself with people who know more about industry than you do and learn from them. You can also find help from organisations like the Manufacturing Growth Programme. By listening and working with people from an industrial background we’ve been able to build the business up from a garage to a 5,000 square-foot factory. You won’t have all the answers at the start, but with the right attitude (constant improvement!), lots of energy and tenacity, it’s 100% worth doing.

TJ Duncan-Moir, director, A1 Flue Systems:

How did you get into the industry?
My father, Colin, founded the company around the time I was born, so all I’ve known is the family business. When I left school, I told my dad that there was no way I’d work for him – I started an apprenticeship as a hairdresser. Part of my apprenticeship involved business studies and using word processors. And, by chance, my dad bought the exact same type of word processor and a fax machine that he called a ‘faxsimile’ – so on my day off each Wednesday, I started helping him because I was the only one in the office who knew how to use them. And that was it. I got sucked in and ended up serving a 25-year apprenticeship – and believe me when I say I’m time-served because I’ve done every job in the factory and can operate every piece of machinery we own! In late 2011, fellow director John Hamnett and I took over the running of the business after my dad was diagnosed with cancer, meaning he had to undergo both chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Thankfully, he has made a great recovery. Since then, A1 has experienced significant growth, expansion and diversification.

Did you experience any barriers or challenges around getting where you are today?
Being the daughter of the owner meant that I had to work twice as hard and be twice as good as I worked my way up from the bottom by doing every job in the factory. It’s this depth of knowledge of every part of the business that has enabled me to drive the business forward.

What do you enjoy about working in manufacturing?
I’m very proud of the fact that flues designed and manufactured at our factory in a quiet part of North Nottinghamshire have been installed in some of the UK’s most prestigious projects and iconic buildings – such as Battersea Power Station, The Shard and Buckingham Palace. While we’re market leaders in the UK, exporting now accounts for nearly 10% of our sales, and our flue systems are increasingly being ordered for projects in the United Arab Emirates and as far afield as the Falkland Islands.

What advice would you have for females looking to get into manufacturing?
The best advice I can give is for aspiring young women to concentrate on being the best they can be every step of the way in their careers. That way, it’s more likely that they will defined by their abilities as, for example, engineers, not their gender.