Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Workforce Diversity Creates Competitive Advantage

Posted by Jeff Moad on Feb 12, 2013 7:44:50 AM

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 nicely.

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 the enterprise.

“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 report says.

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.

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