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10 ways to attract women to manufacturing

Posted by Bert Maes on March 25, 2010

After publishing the popular blog post “ways to enhance teens’ interest in manufacturing” a reader pointed me to a specific key problem we are facing today: attracting women to manufacturing. That is indeed a great topic to write about.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are widely regarded as critical to be competitive in the global economy. Just over 4% of the workforce is employed directly in science, engineering, and technology. This relatively small group of workers is considered to be critical to economic innovation and productivity.

So, expanding and developing the STEM workforce is a critical issue for government, industry leaders, and educators. A key challenge is attracting women to manufacturing. Men continue to outnumber women. The difference is dramatic, with women earning only 6,7% of bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering. In a 2009 survey only 5% of the girls said they were interested in an engineering career. But…attracting and retaining more women in the manufacturing workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness.

The report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” (by the American Association of University Women), bringing together eight recent research conclusions, addresses why there are still so few women in manufacturing, despite the fact that women in engineering tend to earn more than women in other sectors; despite the fact that many STEM careers can provide women increased earning potential and greater economic security.


It is a psychological belief in our culture that … women lack the aptitude to succeed in STEM fields.

Hearing or sensing such thoughts and misconceptions in the immediate environment is affecting individual career choices! It is simply breaking down girls’ self-confidence in their math and science ability.

Many girls believe that they are “not good” in math and engineering, because they just notice in our culture that women in manufacturing careers are inappropriate. It is a societal expectation for girls to consider future education and careers in the humanities, life and health sciences or social sciences rather than engineering fields. A survey with more than a half million people from around the world has shown that more than 70 percent of the test takers associated “male” with science and “female” with arts. The idea that girls aren’t good at science is simply floating in the air we breathe. This is how we prevent girls and women from pursuing engineering. Such implicit beliefs directly influence parents’ decisions to encourage or discourage their daughters from pursuing science and engineering careers.


First, girls today are even earning slightly higher grades in math and science! However, the false belief that girls are not as capable in math and science as boys actually lowers girls’ test performance. To avoid failure, girls simply avoid math and science altogether. If girls do not believe they have the ability to become an engineer, they will disengage from STEM as a potential career and choose to be something else.

  1. When schools, workplaces, the home environment and individuals send the message that girls and boys are equally capable of achieving in math and science, girls are more likely to assess their abilities more accurately, are more likely to succeed and are more likely to see manufacturing as a viable career choice.
  2. Teachers have to learn the girls in their classrooms that intelligence is changeable, developed through effort, dedication, persistence and challenges. The more teachers and parents can show self-improvement (and not inherent ability) as the road to genius, and the more they can help girls to enjoy that effort, the more confident, the more interested and the more excited they will be.
  3. Manufacturing skills are perfectly acquirable for girls. Math skills, but especially “spatial skills” (such as mental rotation of objects, mechanical drawing, sketching multi-view drawings of simple objects) is seen as essential to success in engineering, because these skills are needed to interpret diagrams and drawings. It is a fact that in “spatial thinking” men consistently outperform women. Many girls leave their engineering education, frustrated because they can’t cope with this aspect. However, a practical training course in “spatial skills” improves the average scores in such tests from an average score of 52% before taking the class to 82% after taking it. Offering this kind of training in middle school or earlier will make a big difference in girls’ choices. They will be more likely to develop their confidence and consider a future in a STEM field.
  4. Those spatial skills are also developed by encouraging children to play with construction toys such as Legos, take things apart and put them back together again, play games that involve fitting objects into different places, draw, and work with their hands. This actually gives an immediate, strong engagement and intense connection with engineering from an early age. In fact, according to Bayer, interest in engineering begins early childhood, i.e. by age 11!!

Second, many girls are not interested in manufacturing, as too often the training programs are focused on the machines, the technical aspects of programming, and not on the broader applications. As a result many girls leave their STEM education early in their school careers. 60% of a Bayer survey of 1226 women cited that the school is the leading place where discouragement from pursuing a STEM career happens. According to 70% elementary school teachers play a bigger role than parents in stimulating and sustaining interest in engineering.

  1. Teachers (and parents) forget to project manufacturing specialists as people making a social contribution, as people beneficial for society, as problem solvers of some of the most vexing challenges of our time— tackling global warming, providing people with clean drinking water, developing renewable energy sources, designing many of the things we use daily—buildings, bridges, computers, cars, wheelchairs, and X-ray machines. That expansion of the field makes manufacturing more meaningful. Curricula have to be redesigned with adding introductory courses that show the wide variety of manufacturing applications and career opportunities.

Bayer concludes that the top three causes/contributors to underrepresentation in STEM include

  • Lack of quality science and math education programs  (75%),
  • Persistent stereotypes that say STEM isn’t for girls or minorities (66%)
  • Financial issues related to the cost of education (53%)

Dr. Julie Martin Trenor concludes there are still many barriers for women:

  • Confidence in math/science abilities
  • Poor math preparation
  • Lack of K-12 engineering courses
  • Lack of female engineering role models (90% know an engineer) or few role models available in the public eye. Engineers are rarely portrayed in prime time television, unlike lawyers (in Law & Order) and Doctors (in Grey’s Anatomy, E.R., House)
  • Parental encouragement
  • Peer pressure to go into “popular” programs
  • Negative messages, gender-biased attitudes exist everywhere


Job satisfaction is a key to retention of women in manufacturing. Female STEM specialists express lower job satisfaction than do their male peers. This lower satisfaction leads to a loss of talent in manufacturing. In high-tech companies, more than 41% of their female employees quit their jobs (compared with only 17% of their male employees) by midcareer – about 10 years into their careers.

  1. Isolation and lack of mentoring are particularly acute source of dissatisfaction. For women in STEM good professional and personal interactions with colleagues, management interest in their professional development are critically important for women.
  2. The ability to balance work and family responsibilities also contributes to overall satisfaction. For many women in manufacturing it is difficult to just pack up and go home, as they see that as deadly for their careers. Many women have the impression that to be successful, they have to achieve exceptionally high levels to be noticed among all those men. It is important to create reasonable work schedules and to not penalize women for reduced productivity while having young children.
  3. Child care is a huge issue in this. Establishing universal, high-quality child supports work-life balance and is critical to female job satisfaction.
  4. When a woman in manufacturing is being successful, she is immediately judged as cold, pushy, too macho and not charming enough. When a woman is clearly competent in a “masculine” manufacturing job, she is considered to be less likable. The big problem is that being disliked appears to have clear consequences for evaluation and recommendations about reward allocation, including salary levels, ie. their overall career outcomes. So in the manufacturing industry, women have to do MORE than men: they have to be competent ànd tough ànd understanding ànd concerned about others ànd helpful ànd increase her employees’ sense of belonging, etcetera. There is a need for fairness of evaluation: clear criteria for success, clear rules about advancement and transparency in the evaluation process.
  5. Expose local school students to the female employees in your company, who can describe the lives of female engineers, who can talk about the people-oriented (away from the antisocial geek image) and socially beneficial aspects of engineering, who can help students see their struggles in class as a normal part of the learning process rather than as a signal of low ability… who can show girls that female engineers can be successful. You can find a few examples in our section “Women in Manufacturing

Bayer and Dr. Trenor conclude that the leading workforce barriers for female manufacturing specialists include

  • it is harder for women to succeed in their field than it is for men (70%)
  • managerial bias (40%)
  • company/organizational/institutional bias (38%)
  • lack of professional development (36%)
  • no/little access to networking opportunities (35%)
  • lack of promotional/advancement opportunities (35%)
  • Isolation
  • To attract women to manufacturing the field and profession should be socially-conscious, application-driven, and team-based.


14 Responses to “10 ways to attract women to manufacturing”

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