Today, about 30 percent of manufacturing employees are women. While you might think that this is a substantial representation, it’s actually a number that has stayed pretty consistent since the 1970s. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, though women make up nearly half of the overall workforce, they remain underrepresented in the manufacturing industry. 

What’s the Story?

Consider the following: 

  • At an industry meeting with 30 attendees this fall, there were four women, and only one actually works for a manufacturer in packaging. The others are outside marketers and industry consultants (including me). 
  • I received nearly 400 views on a recent LinkedIn post where I asked for feedback on how to include more women in manufacturing, yet it only received two “likes” and no comments.
  • When 10 women in manufacturing were directly asked for their views, there were just two responses, and both requested that they did not want to use their name. In one case, over a lunch, a friend spent most of an hour citing the hurdles she faced, from uncaring bosses to condescending attitudes.
  • Now more than ever, there’s a greater appreciation for diversity in the workplace and how it can help lead to a more successful business. 

Where Are Women in the Industry?

Until recently, women in manufacturing were seen mostly in human resources, purchasing, advertising, customer service and accounting. Often, they were in these fields and did not expect that they would pursue those paths within manufacturing. Like me, they stumbled into manufacturing. 

Now, it’s more evident that women are seeking out manufacturing careers. For example, they are in quality control, engineering, product development, manufacturing sales and other areas where it’s more obvious they are targeting a career in manufacturing. They join companies that produce goods, convert materials and package. States like Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois offer higher-paying jobs that set them apart from retail services and many other sectors. 

Female professionals in converting, printing, packaging and other manufacturing niches support their contracted partners, whether they are Procter & Gamble, 3M, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal or other leaders. Simply put, they often better understand customers’ brands.

According to a study by Deloitte, women constitute one of U.S. manufacturing’s largest pools of untapped talent. It further states that a higher percentage of women working in manufacturing had a bachelor’s degree or higher (28.1 percent compared to 26.5 percent for men). It also says median earnings for females in manufacturing were higher than that of women in all industries, yet lower than that for males.

Charting a Path to More Progress

Manufacturing companies need a different approach to recruiting, retaining and advancing women in the workplace. The Deloitte study states: “The women we surveyed and interviewed had a lot to say on the topic, not just about jobs they’ve had (or aspire to have), but about manufacturing and changes they would like to see in the industry’s culture.”

One of the hurdles, where women are often reminded, is the need to pursue STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Ironically, it’s common for manufacturers working to advance careers to send candidates to “executive” courses, quality, sustainability and other sessions to foster futures. 

Pushing back can be helpful when the environment is open to assisting women by improving cultural circumstances. Most women in manufacturing for many years have believed in “evolution, not revolution” which is how they survived and eventually flourished. So, they chose their times to speak out. (A reminder that it’s illegal to discriminate in hiring practices, pay, benefits, promotions, layoffs and firing, and harassment.)

Individuals can participate in these obvious-but-often-neglected ways to take advancement in hand:

  • Networking within the company, or associations, trade shows and other groups: Sometimes supervisors neglect subordinates’ growth. When one woman I know left for a new opportunity, she told her boss that she was never informed about jobs in other divisions – she had to see it in media ads.
  • Mentors can help and advise: When mentors notice superior job skills, they move careers forward. For women, this is generally different than, for example, the guys who go to the gym together and support each other’s upward movement as they did for decades in one large papermaking operation I’m familiar with.
  • Networking is always helpful: It keeps an ear to the ground, with beneficial or difficult circumstances coming, such as a reorganization laden with opportunity or layoffs.
  • Getting involved by volunteering for manufacturing teams, from new product development to human resources, and diversity raises profiles: In one case, volunteering for a quality improvement team led to special training and chairmanship of the division-wide program for a female market manager.

A friend and I currently work as contracted manufacturing consultants. After our decades in manufacturing, we are our own bosses and enjoy the freedom of flexible scheduling and selected projects. Because we wore all the hats from purchasing to sales to marketing and product development, our experience has made it possible. It was made possible through experience in manufacturing, which today offers women standout opportunities. But it’s up to both companies and the individual to incorporate more of this key demographic into these workspaces.