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Challenges and Triumphs of Women in STEM Fields

By Liz Froment, Contributor | March 06, 2020

Women today serve on the front lines of combat in the military, as chief executives and financial officers of Fortune 500 companies. They are a growing force as entrepreneurs and small business owners across the country.

Many of these roles might have been unthinkable just 50 or 60 years ago. Yet, even now, with decades of progress, women represent only a small percent of managers and executives—certainly not an equal share. In traditionally male-dominated industries like manufacturing and distribution, there are far fewer.

“I always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.”

For so many women, seeing others represented in important roles matters. Having other women serving as mentors and role models leaves an important imprint, especially in male-dominated industries. Gloria Vanderbilt, who was an author and entrepreneur, perhaps illustrated this point best when she said, “I always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.”

Another example of a high-profile woman who’s a role model for millions is Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is just the second woman in history appointed to the highest court in the U.S.

Being one of the only women in the room was often the reality in Ginsburg’s realm as her career grew in the legal world. When she graduated from Harvard Law School, Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a class of 500.

An ardent supporter of women’s rights and equality, Ginsburg never stopped making her voice heard on the topic. When asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough, her reply was characteristically straightforward, "When there are nine." After all, she reasoned, "there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."

But the Supreme Court certainly isn’t the only space lacking gender diversity. Other sparsely populated fields include the historically male-dominated worlds of manufacturing and distribution. In fact, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries have just 28% of women workers versus 50% for the entire labor market, according to Built By Me, STEM Learning, an organization dedicated to helping youth build skills and interest in STEM careers.  

Progress is a Rocky Road

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that women make up nearly half of all workers. Yet, in manufacturing, they represent only about 30% of the workforce. Additionally, that smaller ratio of women has remained relatively constant for the last 40 years, with very little in the way of increases over previous decades.

As you move up the ladder to executive levels in these industries, the number of women is even smaller.

De Anna Mirzadegan, president of McNeal Enterprises, Inc., a leading manufacturer of custom machined, fabricated, and thermoformed plastic components based in San Jose, California, understands the challenges many women in manufacturing face. For Mirzadegan, some of the biggest challenges as a woman moving up the executive ladder was gaining the respect of her male colleagues and having an equal playing field.

Data from the PEW Research Center finds that when comparing women who work in female-dominated workplaces versus male-dominated workplaces,  they are less likely to feel they need to prove themselves to be respected by their coworkers. "It's better than it was 10 years ago, but improvement is still needed," Mirzadegan explains.

"We have a significant number of women working in the manufacturing department here; opportunities are available for everyone."

Having other women serve as mentors is another challenge. As women move up the ranks and into leadership roles, there are often few, if any, other women at the table. That often puts additional strain on the women who are represented there. Mirzadegan understands this firsthand. "I would have loved to have other women mentors. It's very rare to see a woman running a manufacturing company."

Now that she leads McNeal Enterprises, Mirzadegan makes it a point to attract and encourage more women to seek careers in the industry. "We have a significant number of women working in the manufacturing department here; opportunities are available for everyone."

Women, especially women in STEM, find gender diversity as an important part of the workplace, research suggests. It matters that women already in leadership roles open the door to more women.

As Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook says, "We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women's voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored."

Changing Perceptions Present Opportunities

Many companies are actively looking to change perceptions and bring more women into traditionally male-dominated industries with programs created to develop talent.

Toyota is one company that is increasingly focusing on outreach programs dedicated to women and girls.

One program, "Girls Learning About Manufacturing" (GLAM), invites high school age girls to spend a day touring local Toyota plants to show them potential career opportunities in manufacturing. Through the program, the company is looking to drive interest, which they hope will translate into a more diverse and skilled workforce.

Toyota’s manufacturing plants in West Virginia are run by Millie Marshall. She’s the president of Toyota Manufacturing and was the first woman president of the division globally.

"Part of what I’m trying to help do, in general, is change the image of manufacturing and what we actually do.”

Marshall is dedicated to helping add more women to STEM careers, especially in manufacturing. The plants in her region host a number of events aimed at young girls and women including a Manufacturing Day STEM event for local Girl Scout troops. Her hope is that by sparking interest in manufacturing for girls as young as elementary school, they’ll see it as an exciting career from the start.

“Manufacturing in general still has the stigma of the 1960s, where maybe your grandfather worked in it,” Marshall told Chief Executive Magazine. “So, part of what I’m trying to help do, in general, is change the image of manufacturing and what we actually do.”

For many manufacturing companies, encouraging more women in the workforce makes strategic sense.

As the baby boomer generation continues to retire from manufacturing and distribution jobs, a skills gap in the workforce is approaching. Estimates from Deloitte cite upwards of 2.4 million jobs will need to be filled by skilled workers over the next decade.

One of the biggest challenges for the manufacturing industry as a whole is filling that gap. It presents a perfect opportunity to turn to women to help fill those needs.

And many are doing that by tapping into their networks.

Allison Grealis is the founder of Women in Manufacturing (WiM), a national trade organization that provides support and an opportunity for networking, mentorship, and training.

A decade ago, Grealis saw an opportunity to form a small network with other women in the industry. She met with a handful of other women to form an executive networking group called “Women in Metalforming” (WiM). It was through pursuing networking and support opportunities with these women that it became clear there’s a massive need across the entire industry for groups that exclusively support and encourage women.  

“It’s important to note that not only is manufacturing good for women, but women are also good for manufacturing"

WiM evolved to today’s Women in Manufacturing and membership exceeds 3,000 representing 1,000 manufacturing companies across aerospace, automotive, and construction sectors, among others. With such a large group that reaches across the country, WiM members have access to a network of women their industry who can provide mentorship and help others find jobs. Plus, WiM hosts professional programming and educational events that offers training to members.

For Grealis, having more women in leadership roles is important. She recently told Temboo:

“It’s important to note that not only is manufacturing good for women, but women are also good for manufacturing … as we all know, manufacturing has a significant skills gap. To fill it, we need to look at more than 50% of the population. Women must be recruited in every role to address our industry’s need.” She also believes the whole industry will thrive as women take on leadership roles.

And the research backs this up.

study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found manufacturing companies that welcomed and encouraged gender diversity saw benefits that included:

  • Better ability to innovate
  • Increased profitability
  • Higher returns on equity
  • Improved overall financial performance

Companies need to attract, train, and retain the best talent they can find to fill critical roles and help shape the future of manufacturing.

International Women's Day Shines a Spotlight

One of the most significant challenges for increasing the number of women in STEM is the talent pipeline.

Women now make up the majority of college students, earning about 57% of all college degrees. According to recent findings from PEW Research Center, half the college-educated labor force in America are now women—for the first time.

Yet, the number of women who graduate with STEM degrees in engineering and computer science, for example, are far outpaced by other majors.

Helping to close this gap is one of the many goals of  events like International Women's Day (IWD), this year on March 8. It's a global event created to celebrate the achievements of women across the spectrum of culture, politics, education, and industry to help accelerate gender equality.

In 2020, one of the key missions IWD hopes to publicize is celebrating digital advancement and championing women who forge innovation through technology.

Both technology and innovation are critical areas in manufacturing and distribution. Looking beyond traditional gender roles to develop new strategies and ideas can improve the bottom line.

As advancements continue to change production methods, women are on the front line of developing robotics and artificial intelligence that will help support and improve processes.

Focusing on ways to bring women to the table in leadership roles in these areas can be a game-changer for so many companies across the industry. It underscores IWD’s push for progress with actions that demonstrate, “An equal world is an enabled world.”

Looking to the Future

Millions of women are trailblazers, laying the groundwork for new generations to enter manufacturing and STEM fields. There are vast opportunities for companies to embrace equality as a business issue, not a women’s issue.

There’s work to be done. Companies that actively work to break barriers and create organizational cultures that respect, challenge, and advance women help to lead the charge. IWD defines it as “collective individualism,” “Our individual actions, conversations, behaviors and mindsets can have an impact on our larger society … Collectively, we can each help to create a gender equal world.”

In industries that are traditionally male, it’s important to inspire and attract new generations of women workers. It’s critical for both the coming skills gap and for new ideas and innovations to fuel the workplace. Celebrating all facets of diversity can bring broader perspectives and power successes for organizations for generations to come.

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