Breaking barriers: Tackling gender imbalance in manufacturing

The manufacturing sector has long been male-dominated, but recent efforts to increase gender diversity are paving the way for a more inclusive industry. To understand the challenges and solutions in this area, we spoke with Hannah Campbell, Procurement Manager at Incitec Pivot, and Adam Carpenter, Manufacturing Mill Manager at Kimberly-Clark. They shared their insights on the obstacles women face, the importance of gender diversity, and practical steps allies can take to support women in manufacturing.

What’s something that can slow women's career progression in manufacturing and how can we overcome those challenges?

Hannah Campbell identified a critical factor that can impede women's career progression in manufacturing: the lack of adaptive leadership styles that recognise and nurture diverse talents, which she described as "An inability as leaders to understand that we need to adapt our style to unlock potential in different people." To overcome this challenge, Campbell suggests that leaders need to tailor their approaches based on individual needs. For example, instead of seeking a general expression of interest for an internal opportunity, it can be more effective to directly and privately ask a candidate while affirming why they would be suitable.

Adam Carpenter pointed out that biases, lack of mentorship, and the nature of production roles can hinder women's career progression. "Women in male-dominated industries such as manufacturing can experience systemic biases and stereotypes," he says. To combat this, Carpenter emphasises the importance of unconscious bias training. Additionally, he highlights the need for mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, noting that lack of access to mentors can significantly hinder career progression. Carpenter also noted the importance of providing flexible work options to accommodate work-life balance, which can benefit all employees, including women.

What’s one lesson or insight from your personal journey that highlights the importance or benefits of gender diversity?

Reflecting on her personal journey, Campbell emphasises the tangible benefits of gender diversity in the workplace. "I have lost track of the amount of times that having a diverse group of people in the room has led to a better business outcome," she notes. As Campbell explains, the key advantage of gender diversity lies in its ability to foster diversity of thought, which drives innovation and improved decision-making. However, Campbell also highlights that diversity alone is insufficient without an inclusive environment where all voices are heard and valued.

Carpenter shares a similar sentiment, noting that diverse teams lead to better decision-making. "When teams are similar, particularly male-dominated, there is a tendency to gravitate towards the loudest voice," he says. Carpenter explains that diverse teams, on the other hand, are more likely to consider different perspectives, resulting in better decisions.

Can you share a success story or an initiative you’ve seen work to effectively promote gender diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Campbell's insights underscore the importance of tailored leadership and inclusive environments as key components of successful gender diversity initiatives. By fostering these elements, organisations can create more equitable and supportive workplaces for women.  

Carpenter shares a success story from Kimberly-Clark, where reducing the list of skill requirements in job advertisements and focusing more on behaviors led to an increase in female applicants. "In 2019, we had zero female applicants for production roles, but since implementing these changes, we've seen about 40% new female employees join our production teams year on year," he explains. This initiative, along with strategic advertising and referral programs, has helped break down stereotypes and unconscious biases, promoting gender diversity in the workforce.

What’s a practical step men or other allies can take to support and advocate for women in the industry?

Both Campbell and Carpenter emphasise the importance of allies in supporting women in manufacturing. Campbell suggests that allies can help shift the perspective around gender quotas by clearly articulating the unique skillsets and contributions women bring to their roles. This helps validate women's achievements and reinforces their merit-based appointments. “While change is occurring, there is still a lot of stigma around gender quotas and whether this was a factor when women are appointed into roles, particularly those historically filled by men. As a woman, it can be hard to advocate for the fact that you were appointed on merit, particularly if there is some internal self-doubt around whether that is true. Allies can help shift this perspective by clearly articulating the particular skillset, attitudes or style that the candidate brings to the role, and how that will contribute towards delivering business outcomes (other than gender targets!).” – Hannah Campbell

Carpenter adds that allies should speak up against behaviors that undermine respect in the workplace and actively include female team members in discussions and decision-making processes. "This can be as simple as asking female team members their opinion and listening to their contribution," he says. Ensuring that women are credited for their ideas also helps create a more inclusive and supportive work environment.

The key to driving diversity, equity and inclusion in manufacturing

Addressing the gender imbalance in manufacturing requires adaptive leadership, inclusive environments, and proactive allyship. By recognising and nurturing diverse talents, fostering inclusive cultures, and validating women's achievements, the industry can move towards greater gender equity and unlock the full potential of its workforce.

To hear more from Hannah Campbell and Adam Carpenter, don’t miss out on the upcoming Women in Manufacturing Summit 2024 from 21-22 August featuring keynote presentations, panel sessions and in-depth discussions with thought leaders on how to drive real change in diversity, equity & inclusion in manufacturing. Learn more.

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.