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Women in plastics: Sorting fact from fiction
It seems that whenever I read something in the media about women in manufacturing, it’s always an article about how they’re getting the short shrift. A recent study performed by the Manufacturing Institute, APICS and Deloitte to understand why manufacturing isn’t attracting, retaining and advancing its share of talented women provided some insights.
May 15, 2015
4 Min Read
While women represent a “vast talent pool” and comprise nearly half (47%) of the total U.S. labor force, only 27% of them are in the manufacturing workforce. “Across nearly every manufacturing sector in the U.S., women are underrepresented,” said the report’s introduction. “The proportion of women in leadership roles in manufacturing companies also lags behind other U.S. industries, yet the pool of experienced professionals is significant.”
The report also noted that “closing the skills gap includes closing the gender gap,” adding that with women representing less than a third of the manufacturing workforce, it’s clear manufacturers are missing out on a critical talent pool, which could aid remarkably in closing the skills gap.
The study was based on the survey responses of more than 600 women professionals across the manufacturing industry, and gained their perspectives on how companies can effectively recruit, retain and advance talented women. Nearly 90% of respondents have 10+ years of experience and 47% have 25+ years of experience. Sixty-five percent are in managerial or higher roles, including 12% in C-level and 15% in director-level roles. Fifty percent work for companies with annual revenues over $1 billion.
That seems to be one of the keys to success for women in manufacturing—they work for large corporations. While many articles on women in manufacturing talk about the glass ceiling, the large corporations seem to be more open to women climbing the ladder into top positions, as the survey shows. Smaller companies—those that are privately held, family-owned operations like many in the plastics processing and mold manufacturing businesses—tend not to recognize the value of women in what they consider to be a “man’s world.”
Many years ago (and I’m talking three decades!) when I worked as a “marketing assistant” for three sales guys at a custom injection molding company, I really wanted to go into sales. I loved sales! Since I was a teenager selling Vivian Woodard cosmetics to my growing number of clients, I knew I was a born salesperson. But when I approached the sales manager to ask if I could go into outside sales, I was told rather matter-of-factly, “Women are good at selling dresses and make-up but not at selling injection molding.”
Well, not long after that I found an opportunity at another moldmaking company that wanted to get into injection molding, as well. The two guys hired me and I created my own pay structure (base plus commission), and commenced to use the experience I’d gained with the other company (thanks to one of their engineers, who taught me how to read plastic parts blueprints) to earn a good living while helping to build up the company from three small presses to nine over a three-year period. I was one of the few women I knew of at that time who sold injection molding and tooling.
The next thing that the survey noted was that women in manufacturing are well educated. Three-quarters of the respondents have a bachelor's or master’s degree and more than two-thirds studied general business, engineering or operations.
Formal education is important but so is general working knowledge. I grew up around machinery and equipment and loved knowing how things are made. Very early in my manufacturing career working for a large manufacturer of automated inventory storage and retrieval systems, I went from being an inventory control clerk to a Material Planner Level 1 in just three years. Along the way I tried to learn everything I could about manufacturing operations.
Learning more than you have to know shows ambition, and the survey also found out that these women respondents were “driven.” The majority of the respondents aspire to reach senior management or C-suite, and 82% of those respondents say they see a career path to get there. I also studied more than I needed to. While my degree path was journalism, I studied other areas along the way. I graduated with a BA in journalism, but also with a double minor in marketing management and public relations, so that I could be better at my job as marketing and sales manager for the molding and moldmaking company where I worked while going to school.
Along the way I also learned that women (probably more so than men, especially in a man’s world) often have to make their own opportunities, not just wait for them to come. And if you do see an opportunity or an opening, go ask for it. I’ve lived by my personal rule that it never hurts to ask—they might say no but they might also say yes. Even if they say no, that might drive you to look for another opportunity to get where you want to go.
There are many opportunities for women in manufacturing, especially in the huge and diverse plastics industry! Don’t always believe the fiction than women can’t make the same money men make or that there are fewer opportunities for women in manufacturing. Carve out the career that you want for yourself in manufacturing, and don’t be afraid to go for it!
About the Author(s)
Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."
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