Women wary of taking manufacturing jobs

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They make up about half of the U.S. workforce, but the number of women in manufacturing seems to be on the decline even as companies clamor for more talent in everything from the skilled trades to executive positions.

Between 2010 and 2011, a study by the National Women's Law Center found, men gained 230,000 jobs in manufacturing while women lost 25,000 jobs.

Today, only about 30 percent of Americans who work in manufacturing are women, and only about 15 percent of the students enrolled in manufacturing-degree programs are women.

Those are grim statistics that Allison Grealis, head of Ohio-based Women in Manufacturing, hopes to change.

"The fact is that women can provide a solution to the estimated 600,000 skilled manufacturing job openings in this country that currently remain unfilled. Women have the skills needed by our industry. It's up to us to show them the opportunities," Grealis said.

Charlene Yauch, head of the industrial engineering program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, understands the challenges of attracting women in manufacturing.

Only about 25 percent of MSOE's students are women, and much of that is because of the institution's nursing school, said Yauch, who previously worked as an engineer for McDonnell Douglas Corp.

"I think there's a negative perception of manufacturing among the general public and, because of that, women steer away from that area as something they want to go into," she said.

"They think of manufacturing as being dirty and noisy. They don't think of it as a nice place to work."

Workplace issues

Once women get into industrial engineering programs, they often become interested in manufacturing careers.

But there are still workplace issues, Yauch said, including women receiving less pay than men for the same work.

"A lot of the blatant forms of discrimination are less than what they used to be, because it's not publicly acceptable anymore to do those things. But I think there are more subtle forms of discrimination that still surface regularly, and they tend to be harder to prove," Yauch said.

Gaining confidence to tackle hands-on jobs in manufacturing also is an issue, she said, as many women didn't grow up taking apart machines and doing mechanical things.

Yauch didn't get over her fear of hands-on work until she was nearly 30 years old and in graduate school.

"When I was growing up, my father didn't let me mow the lawn because he thought it wasn't a girl's job. Even while I was a college student getting my bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, I would avoid taking manufacturing classes if I could."

In three of the four highest-paying manufacturing fields with potential for job growth, women's employment declined between 2010 and 2011, while men's employment increased, according to the National Women's Law Center.

In seven manufacturing sectors where employment declined, women bore a disproportionate share of the decrease, according to the law center's research.

Image problems

Over the long term, most Americans see the manufacturing sector as getting weaker or at best staying the same, according to a survey released last week by Deloitte LLP and the Manufacturing Institute.

Only 35 percent of Americans would encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing, the survey found, despite the increased opportunities and changes in the workplace that have made factory jobs more desirable.

For women, the male-dominated culture of manufacturing remains part of the problem, according to Grealis.

"I think it's still very heavily dominated by men, and unfortunately women aren't getting that sense of community because often there are so few of them at their workplace," she said.

In some cases, it's been a hostile workplace.

"I am sure there has been some mistreatment. I think there are a lot of different environments that are caustic, and there are a lot of dysfunctional companies," Grealis said.

Getting more women into manufacturing could help address the issues. Getting rid of the stereotypes that men are better suited for careers in the field also would help.

"I think women need to be encouraged to go into nontraditional roles, and manufacturing is certainly nontraditional for them," said Karen Nolan, inside sales manager in Cedarburg, Wis., for the staffing agency Addeco.

Nolan has an engineering degree and a master's degree in business administration.

"I am a proponent of engineering degrees because it opens up so many different career opportunities," Nolan said.