Manufacturers to women: 'Daughters of Rosie, we need you!'

October 27, 2017 - 10:00am

On Oct. 14, 3,755 women and girls gathered in Ypsilanti, Mich., just a couple of miles from the historic Willow Run B-24 bomber plant, to set a world record of people dressed as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie, with her iconic blue work clothes, polka-dotted head scarf and exhortation of “we can do it!” inspired women on the home front to help build the “Arsenal of Democracy” during the second world war. The character was inspired by a real woman, Rose Will Monroe, who helped build B-24s at Willow Run.

Since the war, the character of Rosie has inspired succeeding generations of women to believe in their ability to join and thrive in what used to be largely an all-male workforce. Women are now fully entrenched throughout American commerce and industry—but the one workplace where they are still, worryingly, relatively rare is Rosie’s own: the manufacturing industry. Numerous organizations are trying to change that.

Cheryl Thompson, who spent 30 years employed at Ford Motor Co., was part of a panel on women in manufacturing held at SOUTH-TEC in Greenville, S.C., this week. Now the CEO of Lead One Lead All, an organization with a mission of bridging the gender gap in manufacturing, Thompson believes that men in 2017 “want women and other minorities to be engaged members of their leadership teams.” A report on the SOUTH-TEC panel in Business Magazine Greenville quotes her as saying, “Men want us at the table. We need to take up space and invite ourselves in.”

The challenge for manufacturers is showing women not only that they are welcome but that the work itself is rewarding. “Manufacturers across the country are struggling to fill open positions. And one critical barrier to filling these jobs is that too often women aren’t seeing that there’s a place for them in today’s manufacturing,” writes Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, the nonprofit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in an Oct. 24 NAM blog post:

“Research shows women are more likely to look for careers that offer personal and intellectual growth. In fact, women ranked opportunities for challenging and interesting assignments as a top priority when considering their career. Modern manufacturing provides women with opportunity for advancement and long-lasting careers in a range of sectors.”

To help reach women, the Manufacturing Institute has created the STEP Forward initiative to empower women in manufacturing and inspire the next generation of female talent to pursue careers in the industry.

North of the U.S. border in Canada this issue is being addressed as well. On Oct. 25, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) released its action plan to promote and inspire women to pursue careers in manufacturing. “Untapped Potential: Attracting and engaging women in Canadian Manufacturing” aims at identifying solutions to showcase the vast and untapped opportunities the sector offers for women to build fulfilling careers and narrow the gender gap in the workforce.

The action plan highlights five areas where action is needed to improve female representation in manufacturing:

  • More high-profile female role models are needed to inspire and encourage young women to pursue a career in manufacturing.
  • Young women need more exposure to modern manufacturing facilities to gain a more accurate perspective on the career opportunities available to them. Those efforts need to focus on occupations within manufacturing rather than on the sector itself.
  • Efforts to encourage young girls to pursue an education in STEM fields and/or the skilled trades need to be improved.
  • Businesses need to listen to the concerns of women and take steps to make their workplace culture more inclusive.
  • Businesses must find creative ways to improve work-life balance for their employees and to accommodate both women and men who have unavoidable family obligations.

“Our hope is that in a few years, the participation of women in manufacturing will not be a challenge, but rather a strength that powers the competitiveness and growth of Canadian manufacturers internationally,” stated Lesley Lawrence, senior vice president, Ontario at BDC and member of CME's national Women in Manufacturing working group.

The parallels with the original Rosie the Riveter campaign are obvious: Rosie was put on posters not by women seeking work but by manufacturers wanting women to know they were welcome and needed—at least until “the boys come home.” In 2017, organizations such as NAM, CME and numerous individual manufacturers are reaching out to women who are unaware of the possibilities now—and permanently—available in manufacturing.


Former Senior Editor

Michael Anderson, former senior editor at Cutting Tool Engineering magazine, holds a master's degree in written communication from Eastern Michigan University. He has been professionally writing about manufacturing technology since 1998, including more than 10 years at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.


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