How Women Are Moving Manufacturing Forward
Career Development There is an untenable lack of skilled workers throughout the manufacturing sector. Today, employers are counting on women to spark the next generation of technological innovation.
I marvel at the path between an idea in someone’s mind and a manufactured product rolling off an assembly line. Given my passion, I am fortunate that my day job is to spend most of my time in design studios and factories. In this work, sometimes weeks go by and I don’t encounter another woman but what can I say? This is where I’m happiest. If there were a perfume made up of loud, industrial suds and turpentine, it would probably be my favorite.
I am reminded of other women in manufacturing constantly: In a cab, I notice seats sewn by successors of the Ford upholstery workers who, in the late ’60s, demanded a fair wage and helped usher in the Equal Pay Act in the United Kingdom. On the Brooklyn Bridge, I wish I could high-five the ghost of Emily Warren Roebling, who took over as chief engineer of the bridge after her husband fell ill. And on an airplane, I thank Elsie MacGill for her leadership in helping to make aerospace assembly lines some of the most safe and efficient across any manufacturing segment.
Although I don’t encounter as many women in manufacturing as I’d like, I’ve come to believe that I’ll see a much larger percentage of female faces soon.
That’s because the way we work is changing dramatically. Gone are the days of co-located teams that work for only a few hours each day. Soon, the norm will be distributed teams that share digital product models in the cloud and pass tasks around the globe in shifts.
"It’s well documented that girls often approach situations with higher levels of empathy, allowing them to see subtleties and frame things in more appealing ways."
For example: A product-design team based in Chicago might start its day in a web conference with a specialist in India. The team might then send some tasks to Malaysia, where a simulation expert will test the durability of selected materials. For these teams to be successful, the members must be strong communicators so that a single design intent stays intact as it circles the globe.
Women naturally excel in those situations. It’s well documented that girls develop strong communication skills years before boys and often approach situations with higher levels of empathy, allowing them to see subtleties and frame things in more appealing ways.
Beyond that, girls have the arithmetic and verbal skills needed to define, create and perfect complex manufacturing systems. In countries such as Iran, Malaysia and Uzbekistan, the majority of graduates from math and science programs are women. Last year, Harvey Mudd College graduated an engineering class of 56 percent women. I believe that the new education reforms in STEM will do much to attract more girls to math and sciences in the United States.
And as more girls enter the field, they’ll bring others along with them. I recently spent some time with students from The Bronx High School of Science’s all-female FIRST Robotics Competition team. I asked them what they thought was unique about their team. They said it was a focus on collaborating well, teaching each other and being honest about what they know and don’t know. They also paid considerable attention to being role models to girls in younger grades. They wanted to show them that engineering can be feminine, fun and exciting.
For these reasons, I feel that the manufacturing industry is poised to enjoy a new era with a more inclusive culture. Established women in the field will be visible mentors to the young women entering manufacturing, providing a safe and supportive space to dream, wonder, experiment and ask questions. The result will be a strong community of practice for manufacturing as a whole.