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For Women, Manufacturing Industry Remains in the 'Mad Men' Era

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"I've been in the engineering industry for 30 years, and we were talking about these same issues 30 years ago," said the National Science Foundation's Theresa A. Maldonado at a recent Aspen Institute Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century event, Filling the Skills Gap in Manufacturing: The Untapped Resource. Panelists discussed the lack of female-friendly work policies plaguing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. And yet, the stakes for integrating women into the industry have never been higher.

Women, an Untapped Resource

In advance of the event, Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century Executive Director Tom Duesterberg explained in a recent blog post why attracting more women into the field is important for the future of the industry.

As U.S. manufacturing becomes increasingly sophisticated and demands higher levels of education and basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, the performance of our education system in responding to existing and projected future shortages remains weak by most measures. Yet one untapped resource to address the problem remains in plain view: women are increasingly outperforming men in acquiring advanced skills, but are under-represented in both the manufacturing workforce and in the specialized STEM fields most in demand in today's industrial economy.

The Old Boys Club of Manufacturing

At the event, Janet Kosters, executive director and CEO of the Association for Women in Science acknowledged, "the STEM workplace hasn't really changed since the 1950s, it's still very 'Mad Men'-esque."

"[Women] are getting in there and they're finding that either the workplace is not flexible, there aren't family leave policies, there are oftentimes implicit, unintended biases," she said.

Karen A. Fletcher, vice president and chief engineer of DuPont Engineering, laid out three challenges across the industry:

  • Not starting early enough: There's a need to build a pipeline of women interested in STEM careers from childhood onward.
  • A need to go beyond tech: Training STEM students to have technical skills is important, but it's necessary to be able to work across disciplines and communicate their ideas well.
  • STEM's branding issue: The industry must change the perception of what an engineer looks like, putting new faces to this profession so that it seems like an attainable career for people of either gender and across ethnicities.

Fletcher expounds on barriers to recruiting and keeping women in the field.

How to Get More Women into STEM Careers

Using their own experiences in the field and research on the issue, the panelists offered ways to get more women working in STEM careers and manufacturing, including:

  • Exposure to the field: Children across socioeconomic backgrounds should be provided with the opportunities early on to see the manufacturing world up close, to be exposed to STEM subjects in engaging ways and to see higher education as a realistic possibility for them.
  • Mentorships and Networks: Women must be connected with mentors in the field, who can share experiences and lessons learned, using tools such as Million Women Mentors, which provides mentors for women in STEM professions.
  • Cultural Competence: The industry should recognize that not all women have the same experiences in the workplace. Issues and solutions may vary based on culture and ethnicity, as Antoinette (Tonie) Leatherberry, principal at Deloitte Consulting explains in this video clip.