Industry Market Trends

Why More Women Aren't in Manufacturing

Sep 05, 2012

Although manufacturing and STEM-related fields have experienced steady growth in recent years, the number of women in these sectors has been on the decline. What can be done to bring more female employees into the manufacturing industries?

There are several bright spots in the United States economy. One is high technology, also known as the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. These industries are some of the fastest-growing in the U.S., with employment expected to double by 2018. Another bright spot is manufacturing, with economic activity in that sector seeing growth every month for more than two years.

Between 2010 and 2011, U.S. manufacturing added nearly a quarter million jobs, with many more to fill. A recent study from the Manufacturing Institute found that nearly 80 percent of American manufacturers report difficulty in filling open positions.

Despite these factors, the presence of women in STEM and manufacturing jobs seems to be on the decline. Correspondingly, the number of women in technology education programs is also heading down: between 2008 and 2009, women earning associate's degrees in STEM fields dropped by an astonishing 25 percent.

A 2011 study last year by the National Women's Law Center found that while men gained 230,000 jobs in manufacturing between 2010 and 2011, women lost 25,000 jobs. Today, only 30 percent of the estimated 14 million Americans who work in manufacturing are women. In higher education for manufacturing, the numbers are even grimmer: only about 15 percent of students in manufacturing degree programs are women.

Analysts and policymakers have been struggling to find the reasons behind the declining number of women in STEM fields. In response to findings from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Roberto Rodriguez, a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that women and girls drop out or avoid STEM education because of a "lack of role models, gender stereotyping and less family-friendly flexibility that exists in STEM fields."

Similar factors are cited for the gender gap in manufacturing education programs. A study conducted by Bayer found that some of the reasons women shun manufacturing careers include a lack of quality science and math education programs, plus lingering, outdated stereotypes regarding manufacturing and STEM careers as "unsuitable" for women. These stereotypes persist despite the fact that girls perform better in math and science than boys do in the lower grades, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In short, there is ample opportunity and need for workers in manufacturing and STEM fields, yet declining participation from women. It would seem that technology and manufacturing industry associations and employers need to begin actively seeking ways to bring more female workers into these fields.

Manufacturing jobs are sometimes misrepresented as being repetitive, low-skilled and dull, not to mention requiring a lot of physical strength. But this is rarely the case, as computers, automation and the vastly increased complexity of modern production process require very highly skilled workers. As women graduate both high school and college in greater numbers than men, this may present unique opportunities for women in American manufacturing. Analysts say that young people need to be made aware that a manufacturing position today represents a profession and not simply a job.

Of course, the message that women may not be as welcome in manufacturing isn't only about perception. A recent report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) found that globally, women are paid about 18 percent less than men doing the same manufacturing work on average. This is the fourth largest gender pay gap of any industry, according to the study.

The research, which was released on International Women's Day, examined women's wages in manufacturing in 43 countries, and while the gap was not as large in the U.S. as in some other nations, it was still significant.

Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center, told The Nation that some of the reasons women remain underrepresented in manufacturing include employer discrimination, harassment from coworkers or even the perception of potential harassment.

But with hundreds of thousands of open jobs to fill, manufacturing companies may find it necessary to not only improve their public relations but change their ways. Community outreach programs to schools and colleges could help to change girls' perceptions of manufacturing careers, as well as the implementation of zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment. Another way to attract more women is to build more workplace flexibility into manufacturing jobs.

For example, Indiana-based manufacturing Cummins, Inc. actively sends employees to serve as recruiters on college campuses, with a specific goal of reaching out to female graduates and women's organizations. The company also offers a number of programs and initiatives to support its female workers, including mentoring from company leaders.

"There are certainly challenges in the manufacturing sector to both attract and retain women employees, including developing an approach to flexibility that will work in manufacturing. Without formal workplace flexibility policies adapted to fit the various manufacturing workplaces, women and men alike will continue to struggle with balancing work and family," the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes.

Whatever the right combination of solutions may be, one thing is clear: U.S. manufacturing and technology companies cannot afford to ignore or marginalize female workers if they hope to grow along with their sectors' potential.