HR & Management

Engineering a brighter future: Female manufacturers on life at the top and attracting young talent

11 min read

05 November 2015

While 2014 saw all of Britain’s leading manufacturers have at least one female director on board, a recent EEF study urged firms to do more to tackle the industry’s outdated “dirty and unglamorous” image. As such, we asked four female manufacturers about the gender divide in the industry – and discovered how crucial it was to nurture talent from classroom to boardroom.

The message from EEF’s report is clear – manufacturers are heading in the right direction, but firms in the industry cannot afford to let up. David Atkinson, head of manufacturing at Lloyds, said: “It is reassuring to see that manufacturers are embracing change and addressing the lack of women within UK boardrooms. However, more needs to be done so that businesses of all sizes recognise the need to develop the representation of women from the factory floor.

“The growth prospects of manufacturing businesses will depend on the ability to tackle stereotypes. By changing the perceptions of traditional industry, we can encourage a more diverse demographic to consider manufacturing-related careers. It is vital that we help improve the supply of talent to the sector to foster creativity and innovation, particularly if our nation’s ‘makers’ are to remain competitive on the global stage.”

As such, we asked four women in manufacturing what challenges they’ve had to overcome, and what the industry could do to attract more future talent.

According to COO Bridie Warner-Adsetts of construction firm Naylor Industries, the true work of attracting talent needs to start in the classroom.

Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggested that at the age of 15, boys are four times more interested than girls in pursuing careers in fields such as manufacturing. In higher education and beyond, girls are far more likely to opt out of STEM-related subjects.

Read more about attracting young people to STEM subjects:

The OECD’s triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) also suggested that females fell behind males when it came to thinking like scientists. Yet the differences are not the result of intellectual variances in the male and female brain: if they were, the outcome of the tests would be broadly the same for all countries – which they were not. Instead, girls lagged behind for cultural reasons. Girls are shown to be much more likely than boys to think they are not good at mathematics and science, and their lack of confidence can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It concerns me greatly that girls and young women are bombarded by unhealthy messages from the media about their role in society,” said Warner-Adsetts. “We have been talking about this issue for decades and yet it continues to worsen not improve. I mean, who the heck is Kim Kardashian anyway?

“Schools and parents have vital roles to play to encourage girls from a young age to resist role stereotyping and to instil confidence. In particular, I think the influence of mothers on their daughters is where the real power lies. I had few, if any, role models in engineering or manufacturing, but my mum told me, over and over, that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I believed her then and I still do!

“As for positive role models of women in senior level positions, I’m going to be controversial here – I don’t believe there is a crippling shortage at all! Angela Merkel, Christina Lagarde, Sheryl Sandberg… to name but a few. The problem is not a shortage of amazing women – it’s how they are portrayed in the media compared to the coverage that so called celebrities attract.”

Similarly, Glynnis Murray from One-LUX, which designs, assembles and suppliers emergency LED lighting solutions, is of the belief that employers, schools, parents and even young people themselves need to be careful of unconscious bias along gender lines when it comes to roles in business or industry. Brits should encourage young people to take a wider view of the workplace, and to consider manufacturing as open to talent and hard work whoever you are, she said.

Plymouth-based Alderman Tooling’s MD, Karen Friendship, suggested that more women in manufacturing needed to visit schools, as well as enable young people to visit the factories and the technology being used first-hand.

“This will excite them to consider a career in engineering and manufacturing and then we can start talking about expanding their skills and progressing their career,” she said. “If my role as a leader of a successful company within a male dominated sector inspires other women to strive to be senior figures… then all the better.”

Read on to find out how these women think other females need to become their own advocates of change.

Murray claimed that greater flexibility would go a long way in luring more women into the sector. 

“The more flexible a company is, the more adaptable it is to changing priorities of the business and its workforce then the more likely it will be to find more women in senior roles,” she said. “We should champion these kinds of companies whenever we can.”

Warner-Adsetts suggested the evidence was overwhelming that businesses with greater diversity at board level outperformed those that do not.

“You really would have to be a flat earth believer to resist the facts,” she said. “Successful teams contain members who bring different qualities, perspectives and approaches – this ensures decision-making is undertaken from a more-informed position. I’ve never worked with an all-female board and I wouldn’t wish to for similar reasons. Diversity in the boardroom brings its challenges, particularly where a longstanding business has operated historically from an exclusively male perspective.”

She suggested that when it came to all-male teams, the more energy and time is expended on playing for “top dog” position than is spent on getting the job done.

“However, as a colleague of mine once commented, ‘when you walked in, the egos walked out’,” she said. “To this day, I maintain that this was a compliment!”

Likewise, Murray is of the belief that women make great decisions every day in all areas of life, “so why not in senior roles?” She explained that confidence and credibility are persuasive assets irrespective of gender. 

“Women need to become their own advocates for change by improving their self-belief and expectation that they can and will make it in their organisation, or be prepared to change how that organisation does things, or even start their own,” she said. “Manufacturing offers opportunities for women, as I have found, but you have to be prepared to step up and stand up for your ideas.”

Sue Taylor, MD of Edmar Engineering, claimed that there is still little diversity at the top of business and the majority of engineering firms in the supply chain are led by men. 

“There is a slow natural progression as more women gradually rise up the career ladder, but more could definitely be done,” she said. “We have seen a slight increase in women in higher roles, but they are still few and far between. On a positive note, men are becoming more accepting of women in higher levels… as long as we deliver what we say our firm will deliver.”

The good news is there are opportunities for women like never before, especially with the industry crying out for engineers. “Any employer worth a fig doesn’t care what gender fills its skill shortage,” said Warner-Adsetts. 

However, Alderman Tooling’s Karen Friendship warns that we are in danger of positively discriminating in favour of women, as many companies now start to recognise the diversity they can add to the board and simply select women to meet ratios.

“This should not be the case,” she said. “Women in particular should be measured and recognised on their own achievements and not by their gender. I’m in favour of everyone, from every walk of life, be given the opportunity at senior levels.

“In fact, the more diverse your team is, at any level of from a shopfloor team to a FTSE board, the better it will be in terms of capturing new ideas, harnessing different strengths and delivering new solutions.”

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss Real Business’s First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.