On 17 June 2022, a group of women who have either worked or are working in the manufacturing industry, or are interested in the topic, gathered for a practitioner engagement event entitled ‘Women in manufacturing: Challenging the stereotype’, at the University of Wolverhampton, Springfield campus. As the title implies, the panellists and participants shared their own and/or other women’s experiences of challenges arising from stereotypes used against them as workers in the manufacturing industry.
The rationale of the event was that, with women currently representing less than 30% of the manufacturing sector workforce, it is critical to explore the reasons behind the gender imbalance and examine whether it is related to the widely known stereotypes, such as it being a ‘male’ industry. Indeed, many women at the event shared their struggles with stereotypes, such as their roles in the workplace and home being viewed as interconnected (e.g. pregnancy will affect their commitment to work) and thus being considered less ready for leadership positions than their male counterparts.
These experiences of women in the industry, particularly those in the past, were sadly resonant with similar struggles of women in their careers in general as well as in many other male-dominant sectors (see also Women in Business Leadership report from the Midlands Engine). Many shared how such barriers have affected their confidence in excelling in their roles and how they sometimes felt lonely in progressing their career due to a lack of role models. They also often felt they needed to work far harder than their male counterparts.
However, there are also issues concerning the industry’s stereotype. The ‘industry image problem’, as one panellist termed it, such as the industry being perceived as dirty, heavy and male-dominated, was mentioned as one of the major potential reasons for the low participation of women in the industry. Even today, when the manufacturing industry is more automated and the working environment has become far cleaner and safer, many young women still seem to retain the image of the industry as being heavy manual labour with hostile working conditions dominated by males. This is particularly hard news for the Midlands region, in which reliance on the manufacturing industry has remained relatively high.
Despite serious discussions on various challenges women in the industry are facing, the event finished in a positive manner with food, lively chat, networking, a tour of the National Brownfield Institute and a virtual tour of the Elite Centre for Manufacturing Skills at the University of Wolverhampton.
Panellists agreed that the industry has moved forward, and things that they once thought were not as viable as they should be for women, such as types of jobs/roles and opportunities, have now become more widely available. There are still many challenges women face in the manufacturing industry, but fewer than 20 years ago. It was also largely agreed that the industry should be more proactive in tackling the barriers to attracting women to the workforce, or conditions which are making women leave the industry sooner than they want. These efforts could include developing policies on flexible working arrangements and implementing EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) mandates in organisations. The panellists and participants also believed there are opportunities available for women (as well as for men) in the industry, but women are often unaware of them. Therefore, it was stressed that STEM education to raise such awareness should start as early as the primary school level.
All those who participated in the event agreed that breaking the barriers, either structured or perceived, against women in the industry is not possible without changing its image and the culture. However, the discussion around changes in the industry could have been potentially more effective if there had been male participants. Those who work in the industry might not be aware of these challenges and stereotypes facing their female counterparts. Efforts towards change need to come from all genders equally. In this context, perhaps the role of regional and national organisations such as Midlands Engine and MakeUK can be significant in moving this discussion forward, not only to challenge the stereotypes, but also to tackle the challenges they present in the industry.
The event was partially funded by the Management Research Centre (MRC), University of Wolverhampton Business School, as a research scoping event. The researchers would also like to give special thanks to the Midlands Engine for providing reports on the region’s manufacturing industry. The event was a part of ongoing research. If you have any questions about the event and/or would like to find out more about the research, please get in touch with the researchers:
Dr Eun Sun Godwin
Dr Samia Mahmood