In the early 1970s, my mother decided to go back to work. Following a new
marriage a few years earlier, she had tried to play the role of stay-at-home
mom, but it didn’t suit her.
Without a college degree or much recent experience, she took a job as a
receptionist at the home office of a local company that ran a chain of
hospitals. The plan was just to get out of the house and restart her grey cells.
And restart they did. She eventually migrated to a position in the company’s
human resources department where, it turned out, she had a knack for listening
to people and making them feel heard. Soon she took on the role of liaison to
the company’s many sites, driving from hospital to hospital to listen to and
address the suggestions and complaints of administrators and nursing heads, many
of whom were also women. She brought what she learned back to the home office,
where she helped craft new policies that reflected the ideas and concerns of the
often-ignored field employees.
Gradually, the company gained a reputation in its market as a good place to
work. The company attracted more than its share of top performers, both in the
home office and in the hospital network. Eventually, its workplace reputation
expanded into a reputation as a good place for patients. The company grew
In an industry in which men dominated upper management and women were usually
relegated to nursing or mid-level management roles, my Mom eventually took a
place on the company’s senior management team and became a member of its board
of directors, a position she holds today.
I always felt that her company’s CEO deserved a good deal of credit for
recognizing and rewarding good ideas and outstanding achievements, even if they
came from a former receptionist. He and his company certainly realized the
benefits of this practice. Even back in the 1970s, I sensed that a lot of
companies were squandering a major opportunity by not leveraging the unique
skills and perspectives of all their employees, male and female, and that there
were probably a lot more women who could have made similar important
contributions and forged more rewarding careers for themselves if they’d been
given greater opportunities.
Unfortunately, that oversight didn’t end in the 1970s, and it isn’t limited
to the healthcare industry. Despite a looming skills shortage, the manufacturing
industry still demonstrates little inclination to step up its recruitment,
cultivation, and advancement of women workers. That’s the conclusion reached by
a recently released survey
of 621 women in manufacturing by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.
While the women surveyed said they value manufacturing careers—especially the
compensation levels and challenging opportunities they enjoy—the vast majority,
80%, said the manufacturing industry does not do a good job of promoting itself
to potential female candidates.
That opinion was expressed particularly strongly by more highly educated
women, those who would likely be candidates for leadership roles in
manufacturing. Nearly 88% of women with a master’s degree said manufacturing
does not do a good job of promoting itself to potential female candidates.
Asked why women are underrepresented in manufacturing, over half of the
respondents blamed the perception that industry culture is biased toward men.
Even if this bias is only a perception, it prevents many women from choosing
manufacturing as a career. In fact, in order to choose manufacturing as a
career, women must first overcome two pernicious perceptions: first, that
manufacturing is dirty and undesirable, and second, that it is an industry with
a strong bias in favor of men.
As a result, even women in manufacturing said they would be less likely to
recommend a manufacturing career to a daughter than to a son. It may not be
surprising, then, that women represent a much smaller share of the manufacturing
workforce than they do of the overall workforce. While 46.6% of the total U.S.
workforce is female, only 24.8% of the durable goods manufacturing workforce is,
according to the study.
“The proportion of women in leadership roles in manufacturing companies also
lags behind other U.S. industries,” the study states.
The harmful impact of this situation, if uncorrected, will be significant,
the study authors warn. At a time when many manufacturers are concerned about a
growing skills shortage, their failure to attract female candidates and
encourage female leaders represents a wasted opportunity. At the same time, the
study says, many manufacturers are missing out on the opportunity for their
organizations to better mirror what is becoming a more diverse marketplace.
So what can manufacturers do to encourage and support women? Women who
responded to the survey said a policy of flexible work practices is the most
important thing they look for when considering a new job. Women also said they
value customized learning and development programs, as well as formal programs
that promote career mentors and role models.
At a strategic level, the report says, manufacturers need to identify
workforce diversity as an issue that is important at the very highest levels of
“For diversity and inclusion initiatives and programs to gain traction
throughout an organization, senior leaders must be aligned on D&I [diversity
& inclusion] as a business priority and must visibly lead by example,” the
My take is that this is something manufacturers need to focus on not just as
a matter of social equality. It can also be a power source of competitive
advantage. Just ask the other leaders at my Mom’s company.