Workforce Development / Changing Workforce / Workforce Diversity / Women in Manufacturing / Influential Women in Manufacturing

Gender diversity is good for business

Women are a vital part of solving U.S. manufacturing’s skills and leadership gaps.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

When Putman Media launched the Influential Women in Manufacturing recognition program last year, we editors were all keenly aware of much-talked-about statistics about the U.S. manufacturing industry’s projected workforce shortage. According to Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute’s 2018 Manufacturing Skills Gap study, U.S. manufacturers could face a shortfall of 2.4 million workers by 2028.

It’s not news that manufacturers are contending with waves of retirements and are struggling to convince young people that traditional perceptions of manufacturing are just that: traditional, outdated, and not at all in line with today’s sleek, clean manufacturing facilities and the efficient, high-tech reality of much of today’s manufacturing work.

It’s also not news that women can play a key role in addressing manufacturing’s labor crunch. While women made up 47% of the overall U.S. labor force in 2016, they represented only 29% of the manufacturing workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We know that manufacturing offers high-quality jobs with incredible opportunities for advancement. These are family-sustaining and personally rewarding jobs for individuals across a wide range of educational backgrounds and professional interests.

The work that IWIM honorees are doing in reaching out to young people and engaging them about where a manufacturing career can take them is vital. Their mentorship of women who have been in the industry for several years and are contemplating their next moves is vital, too. Lisa Caton LaBean, who’s now the business manufacturing and technology center director at Dow Chemical, was an engineer at a small manufacturing site and figured that having small children at home would be incompatible with holding a leadership role at the plant, so she had planned to leave when her children were born. A chance meeting with a plant production leader – a woman who had a young family of her own and who assured Caton LaBean that it was indeed doable to ascend into a leadership position while having a family – persuaded Caton LaBean to continue pursuing her manufacturing career ambitions. Caton LaBean wound up starting her own local women’s network, and 20 years later, she crossed paths again with the woman who had changed her life, when they both spoke on a leadership panel in front of 300 young engineers.

Another IWIM honoree, Carol Ptak, in 2000 became the first and so far only woman to serve as president and CEO of supply-chain society APICS. Ptak started her manufacturing career on the shop floor earning minimum wage. IWIM honoree Kelly Finch, director of technology at O-AT-KA Milk Products, started in an administrative role before moving to a newly formed IT department.

These stories serve to inspire both within and outside honorees’ organizations. We were honored to help shed further light on them – and on IWIM honorees’ work to elevate women within the field – in part because we recognize how important visibility is.

To that point: More than 70% of women who participated in a Women in Manufacturing survey from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute in 2017 said they believe women are underrepresented in their company’s leadership team. Seven in 10 feel they don’t see adequate representation of women in key decision-making roles. Manufacturers and other industrial companies have made strides of late. For example, last September, Dhivya Suryadevara became GM’s new CFO; that move makes GM one of only 2 companies in the Fortune 500 (the other is Hershey) to have women in both the CEO and CFO roles. Also in September, Maggie Timoney assumed the CEO role at Heineken USA, becoming the first female chief executive of a major U.S. beer company.

These prominent, publicly visible appointments are good news. But there’s more to do. I was struck last summer by a comment that Jennifer Scanlon, the CEO of USG Corp., made at a Women in Industry event in Chicago. She noted that while it’s great to see more women in the C-suite in industry, it’s important to ask whether organizations also are working to ensure that the leadership pipeline remains robust – that there’s a strong pool of candidates one rung below the C-suite.

We know that policies that support equal access to career development opportunities can support that kind of talent cultivation. Where do manufacturing’s next leaders, next executives, want to work – at an organization that approaches ever-more-widely available benefits such as paid family leave or flex-time as a hassle, or one that views these offerings as an investment in their future leaders and their company’s reputation?

Diversity of leadership requires intention. It demands intentional commitment – to, for one thing, being intentional with each hiring about ensuring that a diverse group of capable candidates is considered for a given role.

Among our IWIM 2018 honorees (https://plnt.sv/IWIM-HON18), both Lisa Caton LaBean and Rebecca Holland New of Thermo Fisher Scientific have stories about identifying and helping to elevate talented individuals, men and women, into key leadership roles – helping them ascend to positions where they were truly able to shine. It’s not about promoting a woman because she’s a woman. It’s about considering, intentionally, who has the skill sets that this team needs, and will need, and has that person applied or been formally considered yet?  This responsibility isn’t all on women, of course: Support for elevating underrepresented groups should be clear from the top, from whoever holds the highest roles, whatever those individuals’ gender, race, or age.

The Chicago Cubs had a slogan for the 2018 season to inspire fan support: #EverybodyIn. And that’s what it takes: Everybody in.

It’s vital to note, too, that working toward greater representation of women at all levels of an organization isn’t just about leading by example (though that’s certainly valuable), and it’s not just about good optics. It can absolutely benefit the bottom line. A 2018 study from not-for-profit research organization Catalyst, for example, found that when it came to return on sales, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the lowest by, on average, 42%. In looking at return on invested capital, companies with the highest shares of women board directors outperformed those with the lowest by an average of 66%. A separate study in 2018 from financial planning firm MSCI also found that companies that had three or more women on their board of directors did better financially than those that didn’t.

There is value, any way it’s defined, in working toward greater representation of women in industry, especially in key decision-making roles. The work doesn’t end with hiring, though. Past that stage, it’s imperative to consider: What structures are in place to help underrepresented groups get engaged within an organization and seize opportunities for further career development?

At Putman Media’s Smart Industry conference outside Chicago last September, presenter Suzanne Burns of leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart noted that one area traditional industrial companies often struggle with in their digital journey is hiring people who aren’t like the people who have worked for the company for 30 or 40 years. If a company is bringing on a wider range of people and/or people who have a wider range of skill sets, what’s being done to ensure that they can make the contribution they were hired to make? It’s an idea that IWIM 2018 honoree Marie Getsug pointed out at the conference, too: respect for the different perspectives that each individual brings to the table.

Outreach and inclusion: That’s a crucial dimension of the work that Influential Women in Manufacturing are doing. Rockwell Automation business development manager Linda Freeman, for example, is a life member and volunteer with the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE. She was also a key developer of Rockwell Automation’s SWE resource group, which helps women attain technical and leadership skills to help prepare them for promotions and other opportunities. And that group, beyond its internal work, reaches out at the precollege level to educate students about opportunities available in manufacturing.

It takes deliberate effort, plus personal and organizational commitment, to address industry’s immediate and looming workforce challenges. Seventy-five years after Rosie the Riveter, women more than ever are a vital part of the talent solution for manufacturing, at all levels of industry. The 22 women in Putman Media’s inaugural class of Influential Women in Manufacturing are excelling in critical initiatives to drive industry forward, achieving huge wins for their organizations, and helping to truly advance the U.S. manufacturing industry.

Now, we can’t wait to meet – and introduce you to – the Influential Women in Manufacturing class of 2019. Through March 31, nominate a game-changer in your organization.