According to The Manufacturing Institute, a US think tank on manufacturing industry modernization, women make up half of the world's total workforce, but account for fewer than one in three workers in manufacturing. Why? Because manufacturing industry has a bad image. And that’s true right around the world. “I come up against the same cultural bias in Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” explains Silham El Kasmi, EMEA Director of Operations at Saint-Gobain Abrasives. “I also hear the same type of comments in every country: ‘it's not women’s work’, ‘it's too restrictive’ or ‘it's dirty work’.”
Greater gender diversity means greater efficiency
But the truth is that “women can have a huge impact on every aspect and area of production,” continues Silham El Kasmi. It's also important to remember that in production environments, women have successfully contributed to the development of technologies that have reduced costs, paved the way for adoption of Industry 4.0, enabled mentoring for talented young people, or helped to implement diversity, equality, parity and inclusion policies.
Let's take an example from a Saint-Gobain production plant. When a piece of production machinery had technical problems, the management team set up a mixed-gender improvement working group of male and female technicians, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute their vision of the task. Why a mixed-gender group? “Because we understood that having a diversity of perspectives and experiences gave the group greater patience and resilience,” recalls Silham El Kasmi. These ‘soft skills’ are particularly useful for solving difficult problems, as proved to be case in this example. So what did the working group come up with? Outcomes included a significant improvement in terms of ergonomics and automation as a direct result of defining a more comprehensive set of specifications. That in turn has resulted in a very tangible productivity increase of 7%.
Diverse perspectives drive greater creativity
So can gender diversity boost efficiency in production environments? These outcomes are corroborated by the results of a survey conducted by consultants Deloitte involving 600 women and 20 managers in the manufacturing industry.
One woman executive interviewed explains why gender diversity accelerates efficiency: “When women are involved in production plant management, new ways of thinking about strategy emerge, and having different viewpoints involved helps to pinpoint problems quicker and respond with innovative solutions. More specifically, a gender-diverse workforce facilitates more dynamic interaction, and reduces cognitive biases.”
“Actually, when people with different backgrounds work together in production environments, what we see is a real and valuable diversity of views and attitudes,” adds Silham El Kasmi. Everyone challenges each other. I see it clearly in working groups, where more ideas are contributed, with different angles, and everyone benefits from greater creativity. In an article on ‘Women in Industrial Maintenance’ published by mobility-work.com, an employee of the Swedish engineering group Sandvik says: “It facilitates interaction around complementary ways of thinking, creating and doing.”
TO READ: "INNOVATION, IT TAKES A VILLAGE"
Expertise and better working relationships
Although financial results and the ability to drive innovation remain crucial, gender diversity in production environments also improves workplace quality of life, encourages a re-examination of accepted thinking, and takes interaction to a higher and richer level. And that’s true for everyone, regardless of gender. In 2016, the French non-profit organization Elles bougent revealed the findings of the ‘Women, Industry, Technology & Innovation’ survey** conducted in conjunction with research company CSA. The results showed that 91% of respondents felt that gender diversity has a positive effect, not only on the working environment, but also on the image and attractiveness of the company (89%) and on management methods (87%).
These findings are very much in line with Silham El Kasmi’s hands-on experience. “Everyone is obliged to pay greater attention to others in the group, and behave more respectfully,” she confirms. “The resulting impact on the working environment is therefore inevitably positive.” Silham then went on to reference a production facility with a worrying rate of absenteeism driven particularly by tensions within a team that had been working together for a considerable period. To resolve the situation, the management team set up a mixed-gender improvement unit to gain an understanding of the issues involved and improve working conditions. One very practical outcome of these discussions was a harsh working conditions analysis that led to the installation of a cobot (collaborative robot) to reduce the amount of manual work required of operators. Since then, the absenteeism rate has fallen from 10% to 4%.
Gender-diverse companies are more competitive
In addition to a calmer working environment, greater creativity, more innovation and redesigned processes, Amanda Weinstein, a contributor to the Harvard Business Review and Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at the College of Business Administration in the University of Akron (Ohio, USA), has demonstrated through her research that for every 10% increase in the number of women in manufacturing, the overall economic impact rises by at least 5%. This finding is corroborated by the Manufacturing Institute, which notes very clearly that: “Gender-diverse companies are more competitive than those which are not. Consultants Deloitte, on the other hand, refer to “improved return on equity and increased profitability as a result of gender diversity in manufacturing environments.” Pretty conclusive, then...
Demystifying the image of manufacturing industry
But how do you actually achieve gender diversity in production environments? Silham El Kasmi believes it requires the image of manufacturing industry to be demystified. “Whenever I can, I spend time in engineering graduate schools and high schools. The girls I speak to simply not aware of all the career opportunities available. We really need to make this sector of industry more accessible to women all around the world,” she continues. It may be true that some jobs are still difficult for women to take on for physical reasons, but today’s technology is reducing harsh physical working conditions in production environments, in terms both of repetitive work and heavy loads. There is also an increasing trend in production environments towards operators supervising multiple machines simultaneously, rather than the traditional model of one person, one machine.
TO READ: "INCREASING THE NUMBER OF WOMEN IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY"
So, it is to be hoped that the inclusivity policies now being implemented in production environments around the world will lead to 100% gender diversity (or nearly) in production plants. That should then facilitate preparation of working conditions for future generations, regardless of gender... New generations that, thanks in the major benefits of greater gender diversity, will be working on more innovative, more human, production lines, where the work involved will be increasingly less arduous... Basically a win-win situation of continuous improvement for everyone. It is also a genuinely virtuous loop that should be closed, and become operational now. Manufacturing industry is expected to create 3.5 million new jobs by 2025*, of which 2 million may not be filled as a result of too few applicants.
This is yet another sign that it is high time to accelerate gender diversity in production environments.
* According to Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute
** Survey of 1,000 women engineers, 500 science and technology students and 500 high school students in France
Crédits photos : Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock and Party people studio/Shutterstock