Language shapes our understanding of the world. Today, we associate diversity with something favourable. A diverse workforce is inclusive, varied, and unique—a place that produces optimal outcomes thanks to its balance.
But the word wasn’t always understood so positively. Our modern understanding of diversity derives from the Latin diversitatem meaning “contrariety, contradiction, or disagreement”. And, clearly, the old meaning of the word has not yet vacated the male-dominated field of manufacturing. Women make up less than a third of the workforce—and even less in the higher echelons of the industry.
But why is this still the case when we have all been working hard to dispel prejudices and promote talent rather than blindly valuing gender above all else (or colour, but that’s a separate blog)?
Gender stereotyping starts in childhood
“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” – Aristotle. While this maxim shows us where the problem lies, it also clearly demonstrates the problem itself: a man in a position of power only considering other men. However, it seems that for 2300 years, childhood has continued to be the pivotal time for shaping attitudes.
More recently, a video of schoolchildren in Kent between five and seven years old demonstrates children’s attitudes towards gender and professional careers. They were asked to draw a firefighter, surgeon, and fighter pilot. Sixty-six children, both boys and girls, drew pictures—and 61 of those pictures depicted male professionals.
This experiment demonstrates that implicit assumptions are being made by children as young as five. So it should not be a surprise to us that a 55-year-old man who has worked on a predominately male team for the past 30 years also makes implicit assumptions about a young female salesperson leading a team of men.
What can we do to break these stereotypes?
After the children had drawn their mainly male professionals, who they described as being “big and strong” called names like “Gary”, they were introduced to a real-life firefighter, surgeon, and fighter pilot—who happened to be women.
Initiatives like these, which make powerful, strong (and not just physically), professional women visible, are breaking down the barriers we have created for millennia. According to the media, the name Gary is likely to be extinct by 2050—but will society’s prejudice share the same fate?
Any ways we can find to lead children down the paths that are right for them are beneficial for us all. As a parent and manager, I feel our role is to provide and not limit opportunities in life.
If your son likes sewing and your daughter likes football, that’s called preference. There is nothing inherently feminine about sewing or masculine about football. Yet it is still a commonly held belief that manufacturing and engineering are “male” choices.
Videos like this one from The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) presenting both girls and boys as naturally inquisitive about how the world works can help to show children that they should follow their passions rather than what society thinks they should do. This type of pigeonholing only serves to hurt society—especially when roughly 85% of girls between 11 and 19 surveyed believed that engineering is suitable for both boys and girls.
The truth is that jobs in manufacturing and engineering appeal to a type of person—not to a particular sex.
The need for role models
I was lucky. My dad was a pragmatic Mancunian engineer who encouraged me to do what I loved. He was a great role model who showed me that I could achieve whatever I wanted. So it was a male-dominated field—it doesn’t matter, “prove a point”. That was the attitude I grew up with and that helped me throughout my career.
But not every child is brought up in this environment. And the lack of women in the higher ranks of the manufacturing industry means there is a dearth of prominent female role models for females entering the workforce to identify with.
This makes entry harder than it should be, and it is easy to walk away from something that is difficult. Taking the simplest—or more expected—route means an easy life but doesn’t lead to the best outcomes. Being able to see someone like you who has gone through the same process you have is one of the most important things we can do to help choose the best candidates from 100% of the population.
So, what can we do to help make the workforce more equal?
Breaking the mould
Do a quick Google search for ‘engineering and manufacturing’ and you will see an overwhelming majority of men as well as a lot of blue, a colour associated with masculinity. This doesn’t send an encouraging message that ‘everyone is welcome’ to females thinking of entering the industry. On the contrary, it tells them they will be a minority, and it’s more challenging for minorities to succeed.
It doesn’t stop at appearances either. The whole industry has been moulded for men; at construction sites and manufacturing plants, for example, personal protective equipment (PPE) is often only available in larger sizes. When you give a petite female even a small man’s jacket it infantilises them. And it’s hard to be taken seriously when you feel you are being belittled.
I even know a case first-hand of an excellent female professional who was not given a job because of her small stature. The employer, not because he was deliberately discriminating against her, but because of his genuine concern for what customers would think, did not employ her as he thought men would not think her strong enough.
So let’s break the mould.
The benefits of a more diverse workforce are obvious—for men as much as women. Let’s get the best people in the right jobs. We know that when companies are more diverse, and when there are more women in leadership roles, those companies are more profitable.
We all have a role to play. Parents can encourage their children to follow their passions. Schools are pivotal in giving children possibilities and guiding them along the right path. And the industry is responsible for creating an environment that is attractive, supportive, and positive for everyone.
In the end, it comes back to language. Let’s have constructive discussions and create a new image of engineering and manufacturing where everyone fits in regardless of whether they are a size 6 or an XXL, whether they are called Gary or Gloria, and whether they are physically strong or mentally very capable.
A diverse balance between all those qualities represents the companies of the future.
The secret to change is to place all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new – Socrates.