It's been more than 15 years since I was a second shift maintenance supervisor for General Motors; I can still hear the noises and smell the scent of argon mixed with burnt metal, a strange yet enjoyable odor, like fresh cut grass but much more profitable. I can still feel the heartbeat of that production line where my team manufactured trucks.
But manufacturing today entails far more than weld sparks and assembly lines; it's not the dirty place where your grandfather used to work. Do those places exist? Sure. I worked inside them too, survived and thrived.
As the only female maintenance supervisor at the GM plant at that time, I faced many obstacles. After leaving that supervisory role, I often wondered what I did right and what I needed to do differently. My perceived lack of skills because of my gender kept coming up — not by me — which I just accepted as the norm. It wasn't until recently that I began seeking perspectives from others. Were the obstacles I faced then shared by other women in manufacturing roles? Why are there not more women in manufacturing roles? Is there an opportunity to tackle the obstacles I faced to help others?
In talking with several women and men who work in a variety of manufacturing roles in Chattanooga, I heard similar themes about the gender gap and fitting in. Some women felt frustrated in their roles because they were told to stop being too nice or caring for the workforce. Some women felt they were just as competent as their male counterparts, which became a motivator to gain more skills to be considered for promotion. Some women felt there was a glass ceiling that won't break, but others disagreed. They maintained that the ceiling will never break until women show up to the table. Many felt that women don't do well in dirty and loud places. One disheartening insight was that almost all industries represented in these conversations were trying to attract and hire more women, but the response wasn't there.
A recent Deloitte study on the gender gap in manufacturing roles shows improvement is on the horizon. In 2017, 29 percent of women in manufacturing (compared to 12 percent in 2015) think school systems actively/somewhat encourage female students to pursue a career in the manufacturing industry. The survey also found that 42 percent of women in 2017 (compared to 24 percent in 2015) are now ready to encourage their daughter or female family member to pursue a career in their industry, and more than half of women (58 percent) have observed marked or some positive changes in their industry's attitude towards female professional employees over the last five years. This is good news, but we have more work to do.
If you're interested in a manufacturing role, some questions to ask yourself are:
' Do I enjoy solving problems?
' Do I enjoy designing products, fixing issues, breaking barriers, trying innovative ideas, implementing processes, working with a team?
' Do I want to have pride in my work?
' Do I want to see the very thing I helped manufacture being used out in the world?
So much of Tennessee's continued well-being depends upon our young people viewing these manufacturing jobs as a solid career choice and opportunity versus a last-ditch option. Explaining the positive impact that manufacturing has on a community can engage young leaders. Encouraging young women to believe their skills are applicable and relevant to manufacturing is even more critical.
Our words are powerful, especially words of encouragement. Were there experiences with harassment, hostility and exclusion when I was in those roles? Yes. But it didn't matter that I was working in manufacturing, because that behavior can happen anywhere. While those experiences are real problems, that may not be the real reason for the gender gap in manufacturing. Ironically, it was my mother, (not my father, who was a mechanic I watched with intention), who encouraged me to pursue a career of my choosing regardless of stereotype. My father discouraged me often from pursuing a career path like his. I've since learned that it's because he didn't know how to encourage me.
The question about engaging more women has left men in a defensive position. This need not be a blame game. My former maintenance boss once shared with me some sound advice — please have empathy for all of the men you work with going forward; we aren't used to working with women; we aren't sure what to do or say.
His courage and honesty are a call to action that applies to men and women not only inside plants but also on the home front. It's time we start helping each other about organizational health and working relationships. A course on harassment doesn't address what my former boss was referencing, either. Men and women aren't wired the same, and because women aren't traditionally represented in manufacturing, he made an insightful request regarding the how-to's of behavior.
What if both genders agreed that both need help on understanding how to behave in a way that's productive, respectful, inclusive and consistent?
Sabrina L. Butcher is the chief executive officer and founder of Chattanooga-based LUCY, which develops executives/leaders on the human element of change management. Email her at Sabrina@lucydoes.com.