In the build up to International Women’s Day, Georgina Goff, who leads marketing, communications and sustainability in EMEA for Flex, a $26 billion global design, manufacturing and supply chain company, takes a look at the past and the future of women in manufacturing.
What drew you to the manufacturing industry?
I worked in the technology sector for most of my career, so when I started at Flex over seven years ago, the world of manufacturing was very new to me.
At first, I was intrigued by Flex as a company, and how it had grown from a small family business in Silicon Valley supporting an emerging technology sector, to become a global powerhouse in product design and manufacturing.
Coming from the tech sector where I had marketed products to different industry sectors, into a company that provided fundamental services like product design, technological innovation, supply chain and manufacturing, to enable those industry sectors to function, was really inspiring.
There was a headline in Forbes that invited readers to ‘meet Flex – one of the most crucial companies you may not be familiar with’. That struck me as an insightful way to sum up the company.
I also felt that there was a good cultural fit for me, and despite the stereotypes of the industry, there is a clear focus on diversity to create a respectful, inclusive, and collaborative culture. On a personal level, this is how I have experienced the industry, which has made working within it so rewarding.
What misconceptions do women have about working in – what some see as – a male-dominated sector?
A simple internet search on gender balance in manufacturing will surface many articles that point to male dominance in this sector. This narrative is supported by the European Jobs Monitor, a joint report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Eurofound, that shows women averaging about 30% of the manufacturing workforce across the EU.
While two out of every three net new jobs created over the last two decades in the EU were taken by women, it’s clear that the manufacturing sector as a whole must do more. This includes the perception of what are male skills, a key obstacle to achieving gender balance. There are still questions, perhaps subconsciously, about a woman’s ability to do a traditionally male role.
A personal example of that was on a visit to one of our larger sites in Poland. I was in awe of a female colleague driving a forklift in our logistics centre. I questioned why I perceived that to be something special. Clearly an unconscious bias on my part, which can exist regardless of gender. Thankfully, as more women enter the manufacturing workforce our bias will wane and that ‘special’ will become normal.
As manufacturing embraces new advanced technologies in what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution, new gender-neutral roles are being created. These offer new and exciting career options in automation, digitalisation, and advanced data-driven analytics regardless of gender.
There has never been a better time to enter the industry.
What are some of the main challenges for women working in manufacturing today?
The manufacturing sector still suffers from gender stereotyping and preconceptions.
The production floor was traditionally viewed as an outdated environment where work could involve dirty, dangerous, or monotonous assembly line tasks that may be better suited to men. However, this bears little resemblance to reality. In today’s smart factory, you’re likely to be part of a multidisciplinary team that collaborates to solve problems in an advanced high-tech and clean environment, albeit one that requires adequate representation.
These older ways of thinking provide a stereotypical view of a woman’s role in society before new ideas and expectations became essential. For example, a clear inhibitor to career progression was the view that, as the primary caregiver, women had to strike a balance between work and home life.
Such a sentiment is backed by numerous studies which present the socially constructed difference between the sexes and how they approach careers, where men were free to focus on their careers while women ought to prioritise their family. To overcome this, the challenges for equality and equity within a workplace are ongoing, regardless of the industry.
This, together with “maternal wall” biases has led to an erosion of confidence in women who might otherwise aspire to hold a leadership position. It remains a factor that gives rise to the imbalance in gender seen today.
Without the assurance of being treated fairly and valued by their employers, the industry will continue to face a major skills gap. This is becoming a big problem, and according to a recent study there could be 2.1 million unfilled jobs in the US by 2030. Echoes in Europe of a skills shortage are also common.
Given that women are significantly under-represented in manufacturing at a mere 30%, and with a continued focus on dispelling preconceptions and stereotyping, there is both scope and opportunity for women to move to manufacturing.
What initiatives are in place to overcome or address these issues?
Gender balance in the workplace is recognised as important, and many organisations and governments are taking immediate action to tip the scales.
A report by the European Commission (EC) suggests that, on average, a woman earns 13% less than her male counterpart, and differences can be even wider in some European countries.
To tackle this, the Commission has introduced a draft directive requiring companies to provide gender pay reporting. While already in place in some countries, this is widely expected to be part of European legislation as early as 2024. Once implemented, this move alone could significantly address one of the outcomes of gender-based discrimination.
In parallel, many organisations are initiating internal programmes to address gender balance challenges. At Flex, our SheLeads programme focuses on the development and fortification of talent pipelines of women leaders.
It is widely recognised that gender disparity begins to widen earlier in a woman’s career, often at the stage approaching first-time management progression. Consequently, the initiation of a separate programme to support women at the start or in mid-career is necessary.
The Flex programme aims to build women’s self-awareness and confidence by discussing critical personal competencies. The goal is to build mental strength and resiliency, often considered a critical element to bridge the gender balance divide.
However, programmes cannot be successful in isolation, and to be fully effective they require ongoing sponsorship and accountability from company leaders. These leadership teams ultimately set the tone for an organisation’s business success and drive a strong cultural ethos that includes diversity and inclusion.
It is of critical importance that today’s work culture fully embraces equity to achieve sustainable success. For me, this mantra is everyone’s responsibility.