Being female in male-dominated manufacturing

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Organizations that do not provide equitable opportunities for both genders may not be psychologically safe for all employees and create conditions known as tokenism, says author and executive coach Kathy Miller.

By Kathy Miller, co-author of Steel Toes and Stilettos

My entire corporate career was in a male-dominated industry – manufacturing. I worked in various sectors; automotive, aerospace, and a diversified industrial. I also grew up with three brothers, a father who made sure I could throw and catch a ball with the best of them, and went to a small, private engineering college. I was comfortable in the male-dominated professional world, albeit I am sure my experiences were different than my male counterparts and maybe different than other females who chose a similar path. We are all complex human beings, bringing diverse backgrounds, talents, and complex dimensions of our identities to the workplace. I don’t like to assume that my personal experiences generalize to everyone else’s, but there are some things people in industries with an imbalance in genders might want to consider.

Organizations that do not provide equitable opportunities for both genders may not be psychologically safe for all employees and create conditions known as tokenism. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.” Just because an industry is skewed in one direction on a particular dimension of identity (such as gender) does not mean it creates this condition. However, suppose it is difficult for employees to assimilate into the organization and contribute. In that case, it could be because a member of the majority group (in this case, males) may be evaluating them or treating them with traits consistent with stereotypes.

For example, manufacturing environments are fraught with constant pressure to make production rates. Performance results are constantly measured and visible to all members of the factory. Emotions can run high in this environment. I have seen both men and women have outbursts in this setting. The same type of behavior is typically identified as “passionate” for men (positive connotation) and “emotional” for women (negative connotation, consistent with a stereotype of females). 

Tokenism is also a condition that can be fostered by constantly pointing out that aspect of their identity that makes the person a minority (a female in a male-dominated industry). Seemingly benign comments, even ones that may very well be made with good intentions, can create a situation where one feels isolated or their contributions to the team minimized. 

For example, there have been occasions when introduced in professional settings, people would respond to me with comments such as “Wow, a female Vice President of Operations.”  Assuming positive intent, I am sure such greetings were meant as a compliment; however, it felt demeaning, with my title being diminished to one aspect of my identity. Everybody wants to be recognized for their accomplishments and contributions.   One does not want to feel they were awarded their position to meet some diversity percentage target. If you are a welder, you want to be the best welder, not the best “female” welder or the best “male” welder. Such distinctions do not belong in the workplace.

Furthermore, these verbal distinctions can increase performance pressure on the person in the minority, who is already more visible in the workplace. For example, being a maintenance supervisor is a difficult job in its own right. Having your performance evaluated or judged not for your contributions but for how you perform as “the first female maintenance supervisor” in a facility is not a burden someone needs to carry for the entire population of women aspiring to go into such a position. That is not fair nor constructive in creating an organizational culture of psychological safety for all team members equitably.

In addition to avoiding gender-based comments and stereotypes that propagate extreme magnification of gender differences, men in male-dominated organizations can take some proactive measures to create and improve an inclusive culture for all team members. One very effective way is to provide developmental relationships such as mentoring or coaching, especially for new female members entering the workplace. 

Another is to confront sexist behavior when it is recognized.   Although the world is becoming much more aware of what is acceptable (or unacceptable) in the workplace, there may be inadvertent comments or practices deeply rooted in an organization’s culture that need to be confronted. Men can use their social capital and organizational power to advocate for women, who are seen, unfortunately, as self-serving, complaining, and bossy when confronting sexism, according to the research of Laurie Rudman of Rutgers University. 

There is also a body of research that points toward the benefits to organizational performance from more gender balance in the workplace. However, while male-dominated industries work toward this goal, being aware of and avoiding scenarios that propagate a condition of tokenism will amplify the contributions of all employees, leading to better business performance.

Kathy Miller is an executive coach and business transformation advisor. She is also co-author (with Shannon Karels) of Steel Toes and Stilettos: A True Story of Women Manufacturing Leaders and Lean Transformation Success.

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